BLUES AND ROCKABILLY ruled the D.C. bar scene in the late '70s. The Nighthawks were the top blues band, but their singer/harmonica player, Mark Wenner, loved rockabilly and always threw a song or two into their shows. Now Wenner has teamed up with the local rockabilly band Switchblade for "Fugitive," a low-budget hybrid done on vacation.
The album's best moment by far is an arrangement that turns Merle Travis' country chestnut "16 Tons" into a Bo Diddley rocker, with the coal-miner's lonesome lament made into a rowdy complaint by the staggered big beat. Hank Williams' "So Lonesome I Could Cry" is transformed into a slow, bluesy instrumental ballad by Wenner's restrained harmonica. "Highball" is lit up by Steuart Smith's buzzing guitar solo.
Too few of the other songs receive such imaginative handling. Wenner isn't a strong enough singer to handle the challenge of Elvis Presley's "Too Much" or Little Richard's "Rip It Up." Similarly, Switchblade can't match the tight, muscular rhythm section of the Nighthawks, who did the original version of "Back to the City." Nonetheless, the track has enough moments to provide a new, fun angle on the Nighthawks' song.
MARK WENNER -- "Fugitive" (Whitewall 001), recorded with Switchblade; Wenner appears with the Nighthawks and Bob Margolin at the Bayou Sunday and New Year's Eve.