Nowhere does the raw energy of Washington music burn as brightly as it does in the Nighthawks' blues. The Bethesda quartet is regarded as one of the country's best young, white blues band, with touts from Bob Dylan, Gregg Allman and Muddy Waters.
The band has matured tremendously in the two years since "Side Pocket Shot," their last album by themselves. In concert, Jimmy Thackeray's slide guitar becomes a sizzling cattle prod; Mark Wenner's harmonica becomes a miniaturized Hammond organ. Drummer Pete Ragusa and bassist Jan Zukowski anchor a rhythm unit that many observers consider the sharpest, most reliable in blues today. Where many young, white bluesmen indulge themselves in sloppy excess, the Nighthawks keep a very tight focus.
It's a supporting rhythm unit that the Nighthawks have been featured on record lately. Last year they supported four members of Muddy Waters' band on "Jacks & Kings" (Adelphi AD 4120). Though it was released as a Nighthawks album, almost all the vocals and solos were taken by the guests. The young Bethesda jacks glowed like gold rings around the jewel performances of the older Chicago Kings.
This year the Nighthawks support John Hammond on his new record, "Hot Tracks" (Vanguard VSD 79424). The Nighthawks are as good as ever, but Hammond falls flat. Hammond gives credence to the misconception that the blues are boring. Hammond does sound a good bit like Howlin' Wolf on "Howling for My Darling." Buy if you want a precise definition of the spirit of blues singing, play Hammond's version right after the Wolf's. The difference is the spirit.
Hammond seems to sing for sound rather than meaning. When he sings Bo Diddley's "Mama Keep Your Big Mouth Shut" or Little Walter's "You Better Watch Yourself," he doesn't sound as if he's been fighting with his girlfriend, but as if he's been listening to his record collection. On Chuck Berry's "Nadine" and Robert Johnson's "Sweet Home Chicago," Hammond seems to promise his women a free musicology lesson rather than any erotic delights.
The Nighthawks do shine, though, when given a chance. Wenner gets the best chances. He blows his mouth harp high and sweet on "Caress Me Baby"; strong and sruly on "Who's Been Talkin'"; and like a reincarnated Little Walter on "You Better Watch Out." Ragusa takes over "Pretty Thing" wth a hypnotic broken-up beat. Thackeray is crowded by Hammond's guitar but finally breaks loose with some singing slide work on "Sweet Home Chicago."
If the Nighthawks are tightly discplined on stage, the Catfish Hodge Band is given to the indulgent excess of hippie hedonism. Usually this annoying sloppiness is offset by enough rousing energy to make their performances worthwhile. But the weaknesses and strengths always fight it out on stage.
The Catfish Hodge Band's new album "Eyewitness Blues" (Adelphi AD 4113) is produced by Freebo, Bonnie Raitt's much-beloved Bassist. Freebo has done a masterful job of stripping away the band's weaknesses and capturing just their strengths on record.
Standing alone, these strengths are quite impressive. Catfish Hodge's broad, grainy voice is full of the sigh of satisfaction and the sputter of excitment. His rumbling humor takes the tension out of the blues and replaces it with evangelical persuasion that the low-life is best life. If Robert Johnson sings like barbed wire around a Mississippi prison farm, Catfish Hodge sings like a waterbed in a sleazy motel off Route 1.
Hodge's raucous bellow is nicely counterbalanced by the sweet harmonies of Diana Crawford and Dixie D. Ballin. The Catfish Hodge Band contains no spectacular soloists but is a very tight rhythm section, which is just what this dance music needs. As the records's liner notes accurately put it, "additional magic" is supplied by James Cotton, Jimmy Thackeray, Tony Rondolone (of the Downchild Blues Band) and D.C.'s George McWhirter Horns.
Eight of the 10 cuts are credited as Hodge compositions, though many are obvious recasts of old blues classics. "Elmo's Blues" is new lyrics to old Elmore James riffs; "Going Down Slow" owes a lot to Ray Charles. "Every Day It Grows and Grows" is credited to Holland-Dozier-Holland, but is a reworking of Smokey Robinson's "It's Growing."
This Motown tune gets tightly harmonized but vigorous vocals from Hodge, Ballin and Crawford over a much funkier rhythm than the original. The result is the obverse of the usual white cover of a black song; Hodge's version is rawer and hungrier than the Temptations' original. "To the Left" with its clipped rhythms and tightly restrained playing its blues power compressed into contagious rhythm and blues syncopation.
The year has also seen strong local records by the Seldom Scene, Tex Rubinowitz, Bill Hancock, the Razz, the Slickee Boys, Buck Hill, the Bill Blue Band and others with more promised to soon follow. All in all, it proves that the music played north of K Street has preserved the indigenous American spirit in a way that the business transacted south of K Street has not.