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Playing Music the Best They Can 

The Nighthawks work to break out of the blues category

Just like Rodney Dangerfield, early in their career, The Nighthawks "didn't get no respect." When the 'Hawks played the now defunct ChicagoFest in the late '70s, finishing the set with "Little Sister," one critic snidely remarked that it seemed like harpist/frontman Mark Wenner had learned his blues from Elvis. "What's wrong with that?" Wenner asked last week, phoning in from his Maryland home. "When I was 8 or 9 years old, I actually knew some classic blues stuff from Elvis."

Though they're classified as a blues band, Wenner never thought of The Nighthawks in those terms.

"I certainly feel we've been true to the music we set out to play," he says. As a child, he remembers the radio playing John Lee Hooker back-to-back with Elvis, Big Joe Turner and George Jones, on the same station. He considers The Nighthawks "not a white-boy blues band, but an American music band reaching out to all these great musical sources."

Critics, as well as record execs, never quite knew what to do with the band. In the '70s, four white guys playing black music, dressed like they just got off work from their blue-collar jobs, elicited a lot of head-scratching from observers. "That's right," Wenner says, laughing at the memory. "We were four different styles of presentation. Still are. At least in the band now, it looks like Johnny [bassist Castle, who has a bearish, biker look to go with Wenner's full-sleeve tattooed arms] and I rode up on motorcycles together, and not in the same car."

Wenner believes four is the perfect number for marketing a band. "Four have this balance, this ability to include everybody on a more equal basis than somebody in the front." He points out that you knew Beatles John, Paul, George and Ringo, but unless you were really into the band, you knew only Stones Mick and Keith.

Everybody in The Nighthawks plays a visual as well as an aural role. Drummer Pete Ragusa is a benign Buddha behind his kit, thumping out a sternum-rattling backbeat. Guitarist Paul Bell, onboard since '94, has had the awesome task of shoe-filling for 'Hawk co-founder/ guitarist Jimmy Thackery.

Even though Thackery's been gone for over two decades, he's still the elephant in the room that has to be pushed aside every night. In addition to bringing in his own style that compliments the band's songs old and new without copping Thackery's licks, Bell has brought a higher level of harmonic vocals to the group as well.

Castle, also onboard since '94, contributes a considerable amount of the band's material. "He's certainly the most active writer right now of the songs we're gonna record," says Wenner, who goes in the studio next week to work on their latest, as-yet-untitled release. "I'm doing a couple of Dylan songs, a Marvin Gaye song and a song from the Imperial Crowns."

Wenner says he has a problem when it comes to creating his own material. "My wife says it's an excuse, but every time I start working on an idea, I can think of a great song that says it better," Wenner chuckles. Nevertheless, he did write "Back to the City" and "Guard Your Heart;" several songs on '77s Side Pocket Shot, and one verse of "Too Tall To Mambo."

Most of the stuff he hears nowadays doesn't impress Wenner. "I hear a lot of so-called original blues songs that are just little collages, a verse from here and a verse from there." But the practice of collecting quotes as a body of work has a classical lineage says Wenner, who got a degree from Columbia University before he hit the road. "In the oral tradition of epic poems, where Homer was spewing out stuff orally, using a whole lot of predetermined phrases to really put that stuff together, we're of that tradition."

Nevertheless, the harpist says, dropping back into Nighthawk-speak, "I keep coming up with cool songs to do."

He'd like to take those cool songs to a wider audience, "to bust out somehow into this so-called Americana, at least get a little more recognition for being more than a blues band without living in the blues world and always pissing off the purists."

He thinks XM radio's cross-country channel may give him the respect and the audience he's been looking for. "I'd like to at least break that wall down a little bit," he says. "Us doing a Johnny Cash song certainly qualifies us for their playlist."

The Nighthawks play the Double Door Saturday, Nov. 17. Call (704) 376-1446 for times and prices.

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