Since 1974, Washington's Nighthawks (who will appear with master bluesman B. B. King at Carter Barron on Saturday), have been at the center of a regional rock and blues revival that has chapters in Charlottesville (The Allstars), Delaware (George Thorogood), Texas (Fabulous Thunderbirds, Cobras, Double Troube) and Minneapolis (Lamont Cranston). Together they comprise what has been referred to as the "Blue Wave."
Having started with strong blues roots, the Nighthawks have progressed through seven small label albums (three as sidemen) to an increasingly solid rock stance without abandoning the blues base. Their first major label release "The Nighthawks" on Mercury, features a few traditional, stretched-out blues in Jimmy McCracklin's "Every Night and Every Day" and Bobby Bland's "Wouldn't Treat a Dog (The Way You Treated Me)." But for the most part, the album consists of uptempo blues and raucous rock 'n' roll. For instance, Willie Dixon's "Don't Go No Further" has the same basic urgency as the two Eddie Hinton R&B tunes ("Mainline" and "Brand New Man"). And "Little Sister," a hit for Elvis Presley in the '50s and a song that's been in the Hawks' repertoire since Day One, sustains the raw and rough rockabilly instinct of the original.
What's missing from the album and what's consistently present in the Nighthawks' live performances -- is the chance-taking, the exuberance, the blue boogie bashes of a finely tuned unit setting its feet smack-dab in the middle of the dance floor. The roughness has been supplanted by a studio toughness that's just a bit too tame, too clean. Even Mark Wenner's harp, up front in concert, suffers here, coming in a weak third to Jimmy Thackery's blistering guitar lines and Pete Ragusa's churning drumwork. The band also lacks a distinctive vocalist; it's a role they share and a weakness that's more apparent in a clean production than in an energetic live performance.
The Album's highlight, oddly enough, is a jump blues/swing shuffle titled "Pretty Girls and Cadillacs," a late '50s hit by Buddy Johnson, whose "Upside Your Head" is also on the album. Its easy stride and quite grace offer a stern contrast to the insistence of the remainder of the album. Other high points are Ragusa's pace-setting on another '50s R&B tune, "Teenage Letter," and a playful rendition of Al Green's "One Night Stand." But Mark Wenner's harp work seems consistently mixed down; maybe Mercury can't envision anything but guitars or keyboards as lead instruments in a rock 'n' roll band. And that's certainly the image the Nighhawks project on their major label debut.
"The Nighthawks" is basically a holding album. The group has apparently not yet found its ideal producer. And obviously their audience. Four albums ago, "Live at the Psyche Delly" made a stab at capturing the Hawks, but they're still free birds. They've progressed so much over the years that only an improved technology will cage their sounds accurately. Maybe the next time out.
The next time out has proved somewhat disastrous for three other rock acts with local roots. Baltimore-based Facedancer underwent a major lineup change since a Capital Centre debut that produced an exhilarating single in "Red Shoes." Vocalist Carey Kress is gone; he took a classic rock delivery with him. Dynamic tension is what's missing from "About Face" (Capitol); what's left are regurgitated strains of a half-dozen successful formula bands. A stretched-out tribute to the '60s only serves as a reminder that roots are a source of inspiration, not a replacement for it.
Walter Egan's another mystery. His debut album for years ago had 10 untapped singles, each of them better than "Magnet and Steel," which broke him into the Top 10. An alumnus of Georgetown University (along with half of the Starland Vocal Band and Urban Verbs), Egan was always fascinated with the West Coast mythology of girls, cars and whatever combining the two offered. The fascination continues on "The Last Stroll" (Columbia) but the production by Earle Mankey is a new wave away from the earlier inclinations of Buckingham-Nicks, Egan's first producers. Gone are the lush harmonies and sparkling playing; they've been replaced by a sparser, punchier esthetic. Unfortunately, while Egan still has an innate feel for hooks, the new collection of songs dealing with the old obsessions lacks even a "Magnet and Steel." Go back to the first album.
Link Wray, who could be the father of all the above, has been playing primal rock 'n' roll for a quarter of a century. Until recently, he'd never released a live album. "Live at the Paradiso" (Visa/Jem) is proof that he could have waited a little longer. Badly recorded and badly played versions of Wray classics like "Rumble" and "Rawhide" mixed with obligatory standards like "Shake, Rattle and Roll" do nothing for Wray's reputation. The Wray originals were instrumentals; when he sings, the reason is apparent. This album has the feel of a rush job. wAfter 25 years, one wonders why.