After 15 long and distinguished years on the road, the Nighthawks are calling it quits. The Bethesda blues quintet enjoyed the respect of fellow musicians and roots-rock fanatics, but never broke through to a larger audience the way old colleagues George Thorogood and Stevie Ray Vaughan have. As you near 40, the appeal of driving 12 hours to play a bar in North Carolina begins to wane.
The Nighthawks may get together to play special concerts and projects, but they bid farewell to the road at Carter Barron Amphitheatre Saturday night with old friends like Pinetop Perkins, Luther (Guitar Junior) Johnson and John Hammond. Ironically, the Hawks are bowing out on the heels of the best album of their career: "Hard Living" (Varrick VR-022).
Much of the credit must go to producer Steuart Smith, a local session musician who understood the Nighthawks enough to boost their strengths and cover up their weaknesses. The band's strongest asset has always been pounding, unwavering blues grooves established by its twin Gibraltars: drummer Pete Ragusa and bassist Jan Zukowski. The rest of the band hangs on to that rhythm so tightly that when guitarist Jim Thackery or harp player Mark Wenner step out to take a solo, it stands out all the more impressively.
The band's obvious weakness is its lack of an outstanding lead singer. Thackery is an okay blues singer, and Wenner and pianist Greg Wetzel do all right with rockabilly, but none of them can grab a song and make it his personal property the way Billy Price or Kim Wilson can.
Smith emphasized the Nighthawks' ensemble spirit by focusing every instrument and vocal around the beat. It also helps that all 10 songs are smart choices for this band. The old Stax soul hit, "Lots of Love," is mixed with the rhythmic riff from the Spencer Davis Group's "Gimme Some Lovin' " for an all-out ensemble onslaught. Similarly, the Everly Brothers' "Price of Love" is given a Creedence boogie rhythm and sent off in convulsions.
"Hard Living," written by Texas newcomer David Halley, is a rollicking rocker about the Saturday-night bar-band life style, lit up by impatient solos from Thackery and Wenner. "I Don't Want to Be in Love" is a funny, jaunty rockabilly tune by Dave Edmunds' pianist, Geraint Watkins, which Wetzel sends up merrily. The Drifters' classy bit of New York rhythm and blues, "If You Don't Come Back," is transmuted into a primitive Chicago blues stomp.
Catfish Hodge will join the other blues veterans paying tribute to the Nighthawks this Saturday. In the late '70s and early '80s, Hodge lived in Northern Virginia and played the same blues circuit as the Hawks. After spinning his wheels here, he moved to Los Angeles, where he cofounded two groups: the Hodge Brothers with his brother Dallas and the Bluesbusters with Paul Barrere. The Bluesbusters are the first to surface with an album, "Accept No Substitutes" (Landslide LD-1009), and they play at the Roxy on Wednesday.
Ever since Barrere's old band, Little Feat, broke up, he and Hodge and many other musicians have tried to recapture that band's magic blend of Louisiana rhythms and California songwriting. In fact, the Bluesbusters area close replica of Little Feat: They feature Barrere himself, a bearded fat man (Hodge), a jazz-rock keyboardist (the Dixie Dregs' T. Lavitz) and a funky rhythm section (Bonnie Raitt's bassist Freebo and Jackson Browne's drummer Larry Zack).
Barrere resurrects a couple of songs he wrote and sang with Little Feat, "Dixie Highway" and "Down on the Farm." Both are likable imitations but lack the crisp edge of the originals. Barrere should have worked to come up with more new songs like "Phone Don't Ring," a funny breakup song with a catchy little hook and some tricky syncopation.
Hodge resurrects "To the Left" from his best previous album, "Eyewitness Blues" (produced by Freebo), and gives his New Orleans dance workout a new horn and chorus arrangement with singing help from Bob Seger and Nicolette Larson. The album's three best songs, though, are Hodge's tributes to down-home country living. With his broad humor and booming, grainy tenor, he makes homemade cooking and afternoon fishing sound like a Shangri-La.
Evan Johns grew up in Northern Virginia and got his musical education from local rockabilly veterans Billy Hancock and Danny Gatton. Johns assembled his own band, the H-Bombs, here and after a couple years of playing a dwindling number of local bars, moved to Austin, Tex., eventually bringing the band down, too. Now Evan Johns & the H-Bombs have released their first two albums almost simultaneously, and the band appears at the East Side Thursday.
The first album, "Rollin' Through the Night" (Alternative Tentacles VIRUS 47), comes from the demo tapes Johns did in Arlington in 1983 with his then-manager Joe Lee as producer. Performing original songs from his popular club set, Johns is at his wild and woolly garage-rock best. As he beats chords out of his electric organ or scrapes tortured twangs from his guitar, Johns hollers with raw fervor about girls ("Rollin' Through the Night"), escape ("Vacation Time") and nightmares ("Take a Look in My Madhouse"). Because the songwriting is solid, if simple, the primitive arrangements telegraph the band's intensity without interference. These tapes impressed everyone from the Dead Kennedys' Jello Biafra (who runs Alternative Tentacles) to the E Street Band's Gary Tallent, who eventually rerecorded several of the songs.
The three songs that Tallent produced in New Jersey in 1983 are included on "Evan Johns & the H-Bombs" (Jungle JR-1008). Springsteen's bassist gave Johns & the H-Bombs a focused sound that channeled Johns' vitality into a much-needed clarity. It also helped that the sessions included two of Johns' best songs, the ominous "Love Is Murder" and the romantic "Day Go By," with local rock critic Joe Sasfy's lyrics giving the songs a substance Johns' raucous ranting and raving has often lacked.