The Nighthawks: From Acoustic to Full-on Electric Onslaught

Since their start in 1972, journeyman blues outfit The Nighthawks have been faithfully doing their part to keep the blues alive. Though the lineup has changed – only founder-leader Mark Wenner remains from the original group – the Washington, D.C.-based quartet has consistently breathed fresh life into the uniquely American musical form. Joined by vocalist Billy Price, the Nighthawks played their last Pittsburgh-area show of 2017 on December 16.

While countless bands attempt to “update” the blues for modern audiences, Wenner has resisted taking the Nighthawks in that direction. “I’m very much a traditionalist in a lot of ways,” he tells me. “I’m deeply rooted in having listened to Chess, Sun and Excello Records over and over when I was young enough for them to make a really deep impression. Even working on a contemporary piece, I still have that really strong sensibility.”


The band has released nearly 30 albums since its 1974 debut. While none has sold in quantities enough to make the group a household name, the Nighthawks’ catalog is held in esteem by many blues critics. “There are one or two [albums] that I wish I could obliterate,” chuckles Wenner. “I won’t mention any names. There’s at least one album out there I would like to see disappear. But other people seem to like them.”

The Nighthawks’ most recent album isn’t one of those. Back Porch Party explores a different side of the group while maintaining a traditional approach. Recorded live in the studio with a small audience in attendance, Back Porch Party features only acoustic instruments. “We played with upright bass, acoustic guitar, [blues] harp without the amp and a single snare drum,” explains Wenner. The group sometimes does live shows in that “unplugged” configuration, but even in an acoustic setting, the Nighthawks bring energy to the music. “People dance,” says Wenner. “It’s not like we’re suddenly in a coffee house with everybody staring at their espresso.”

Wenner and his band are always ready to crank it up and rock out some electric blues, but the singer sees value in dialing it back now and then. He comments on the younger crop of blues musicians and their influences. “Their jumping-off point was Cream as opposed to Jimmy Reed and John Lee Hooker. And so their natural inclination is to ‘shred’ a little bit, to pound on it. In contrast, sometimes I like to really get down and super-quiet.”

He recalls one of his favorite examples of that approach. In 1987 the Nighthawks were in Europe for the Belgium Rhythm ‘n’ Blues Festival, also known as Blues Peer. “I watched Ronnie Earl with Roomful of Blues walk down off the stage; he brought [his guitar volume] down to the point at which he was not playing through the amplifier. On an electric guitar! He was just hitting the strings fairly hard. And that audience – that rowdy audience – hushed to the point where you could actually hear him. And it was so dramatic.” Wenner notes that what Earl did that night was “something that Buddy Guy does occasionally. Volume and dynamics: It’s part of the B.B. King legacy of getting really, really, really quiet to balance out the hard-hitting shit.”

The Nighthawks have nearly finished work on their electric follow-up to Back Porch Party, with a planned release sometime in 2017. Wenner is still tinkering with the song order, to get the right “flow.” Getting that sequencing just right is important to him, and he’s decidedly old-school about it. “A CD runs all the way through, but my brain still hears the record turning over!”

Wenner hints that the as-yet-untitled album may be the last Nighthawks recording. “I’m 68 years old,” he says, by way of explanation. “And I’m just not sure; the future’s a little uncertain. I don’t really know what’s going to happen. And I’m kind of enjoying that.” Pausing, he adds a postscript, almost contradicting himself. “There will always be a Nighthawks, somehow,” he says. “As long as I’m around.”

But in the meantime, the Nighthawks – Wenner on vocals and harmonica plus bassist Johnny Castle, Paul Bell on guitar and drummer Mark Stutsko – will continue their hard-gigging ways. Though the band doesn’t travel as far from home as they used to – “we’re not playing in Portland, Oregon or Austin, Texas,” Wenner explains, and they rarely travel overseas these days – the group still averages a couple of hundred live shows per year. “We’re playing a lot,” Wenner says. “And ‘a lot’ means sometimes driving to somewhere in central Pennsylvania and driving home the same night.”

I don’t see [acoustic shows] as the next step,” says Wenner. “I see them a back-and-forth alternative to the Nighthawks’ electric shows.” He adds that the Nighthawks will be plugged in for their December show at Moondog’s. “We’ll be rockin’,” he promises. “It’s the full-on electric onslaught.”