When XM/Sirius blues guru Bill Wax heard that the Nighthawks were doing some acoustic shows, he suggested the band come in and cut some live tracks. The last time the Hawks had done a Bluesville Live Homemade Jam Session, Pete Kanaras and Jan Zukowski were still in the band, and Hawks’ hero and occasional partner in crime Hubert Sumlin was included. So early one weekday morning, the band showed up at the incredible Sirius/XM facilities in downtown D.C. After a short sound check with engineer Michael Taylor and a lot of coffee and bagels, Michael hit the record button and in a couple of hours, the Nighthawks proceeded to knock out all the songs on what became Last Train to Bluesville. A few days later Bill handed the boys a beautifully mixed disk with permission for its release. The only addition was Bill Wolf’s mastering magic.
The opening track, Big Joe Turner’s classic “Chicken and the Hawk,” has been a Nighthawks fan favorite since its first appearance on 1990’s Trouble. Bass player Johnny Castle and drummer Pete Ragusa deliver an incredible swinging groove with the upright bass and brushes. No wonder this tune is often an opener at swing dances! Next up, Muddy Waters’ “Nineteen Years Old,” gets an authentic country blues treatment, even though the original was from Muddy’s heavily amplified period. Harmonica player and lead vocalist Mark Wenner has slightly altered the lyrics, adding years to the woman’s age as the song progresses.
Acoustic James Brown? Well, when James and the Famous Flames recorded the original “I’ll Go Crazy,” they were virtually a doo-wop group, and the only amplified instrument on the session was guitar. Johnny redoes two tunes he sang on the Hawks 2006 live CD, Blue Moon in Your Eye. When the acoustic Nighthawks concept was evolving, the band did a radio show in Milwaukee in an almost-acoustic format and, hearing the recording of “Thirty Days,” realized how well acoustic tunes could rock. And “You Don’t Love Me” rocks even harder.
Between those two tracks, Mark does a version of Slim Harpo’s “Rainin’ in My Heart.” Slim Harpo’s recordings were in Mark’s collection when he was just beginning to fiddle with the harmonica in high school, and one of the high points of his life was a chance to sit in with Slim Harpo and Lightnin’ Slim in New York City. Mark remembers Slim Harpo encouraging him to get a group together and stick with the guys!
“Can’t Be Satisfied” was Muddy Waters’ first hit after he moved to Chicago. Paul Bell’s slide guitar is nothing short of spectacular, really capturing Muddy’s feel. “Mighty Long Time” is one of the greatest, gentlest, most moving pieces Sonny Boy Williamson ever recorded: “It’s been so long, the carpet have faded on the floor….” In the Nighthawks’ version, much tribute is paid to Sonny Boy’s harp and vocal style, but the solo is taken by Paul, making the track unique.
“High Temperature” is given the doo-wop treatment it got on the band's 1996 album Pain and Paradise, although the band handles its own vocals here where they imported the Orioles on the previous version. The groove is based on one of Little Walter’s outtakes rather than on the original release. And what better closer than the Muddy Waters/Little Walter rave up of “Rollin’ and Tumblin,’ ” set up here with Pete’s distinctive tambourine-stick drumming and everybody moaning.
The Nighthawks are:
Mark Wenner: harp, vocals
Pete Ragusa: snare drum, vocals
Paul Bell: guitar, vocals
Johnny Castle: bass, vocals