The marquee on The State Theatre read “Get Well Soon Mark Wenner” after the founding member and harp player of The Nighthawks underwent open-heart surgery in April. Next Wednesday, a recuperated Wenner and his legendary D.C.-born roots band will take the stage at the State. Joined by L.A. roots rockers The 44’s, The Nighthawks will be introducing local audiences to tunes from their latest critically acclaimed album before crossing the pond for a three-week European tour. It’s proof enough that Wenner was not stopped or stalled, but merely (and only temporarily) sidelined by the operation.
It was only a few days after surgery, while still in the hospital, that Wenner started playing the harmonica again. After six weeks he was sharing a stage with The Nighthawks, who had enlisted local singer Tommy Lepson as a stand-in for Wenner – “I was basically sitting in with my own band,” Wenner joked.
But the gravity of the situation was not lost on Wenner. He was afraid for some time of everyday physical jostling – small when compared to the extreme toll that touring, from loading equipment to simply performing on a stage, can have on a body. But the 63-year-old has spent so much time playing his music, he can’t imagine stopping for any long stretch.
“It’s what I’ve spent a significant portion of my life doing, and I think I’d go pretty nuts if I didn’t get to do it,” Wenner said. “I’m very, very addicted to the stage – to the performance, to the audience, to that whole thing.”
He’ll admit, though, that the band’s schedule now is less aggressive than when he was a 20-something and The Nighthawks were first starting out, driving hundreds of miles a day and touring 300 days out of the year.
The band, founded in 1972, had a solid quartet of musicians by 1974 that would record nearly a dozen albums and take the music of The Nighthawks across the globe in its 14-year run.
Guitarist Jimmy Thackery was the first to part ways with the group in 1986; he went on to form and front other blues projects and establish himself as a solo performer. Bassist Jan Zukowski left the band in 2004, and with the departure of drummer Pete Ragusa in 2010, Wenner became the sole original Nighthawk to lead the band into its 40th year.
They had “a pretty good, long run,” Wenner says, and at a time when the music they played put them on the cutting edge of a mainstream return to the classic musical forms of America’s past, as melded, repurposed and renewed by chart-topping acts of the day like The Fabulous Thunderbirds and Stevie Ray Vaughan. But Wenner has high praise for his current lineup of Nighthawks, and critical response to the band’s latest album “Damn Good Time” seems to agree.
Guitarist Paul Bell and bassist Johnny Castle, though relative newcomers in the 40-year history of the band, came on in 2004 and brought veteran experience to the table. Mark Stutso, who took over drum duties from Ragusa, had been drumming for former Nighthawk Thackery since 1991. It took a few rotations to get these four together, but Wenner believes this lineup is where the group was heading all along.
“This bunch is the best team,” Wenner said. “Everybody’s there, everybody wants to be there, everybody does their part. In some ways I feel like I put all that time in to get this particular band.”
It’s a “take care of business” attitude with this group, Wenner says; decades of experience from each band member shows in their efficiency and focus in the recording studio; “Damn Good Time” was swiftly recorded and released in May.
Wenner has made more than 25 albums with The Nighthawks. Some he’s been pleased with on the first listen, and others have brought him to disappointed tears upon first listen. But when “Damn Good Time” was put to the test of the venerable tour van radio the very first time he heard the finished album, Wenner knew The Nighthawks had something special to share.
“I listened to it from start to finish with the dumbest, silliest, happiest grin on my face I’ve had in a long time, and that was a great moment,” Wenner said. “I said, when this comes out, somebody – friend, reviewer, whoever – listens to this, at least I’m happy with it, and hopefully they will be. That’s a pretty good feeling.”
• For more information about The Nighthawks, visit thenighthawks.com.