DC favorites happy to be playing live

The Nighthawks have been performing its All-American blues sound for almost five decades, and have played just about every venue in the DC Metro area.

The band was founded in Washington, D.C. back in 1972, when Mark Wenner joined forces with guitarist Jimmy Thackery, and the duo quickly added Jan Zukowski on bass and Pete Ragusa on drums. It didn’t take long for music fans to see them as one of the top blues and roots bands on the East Coast. 

Thackery exited the group early on and Zukowski called it quits in 2005, so when Ragusa announced in 2010 that he was leaving to pursue other projects, it left singer/harmonica extraordinaire Wenner as the last man standing. 

But that didn’t stop Wenner from continuing the tradition of the band. Today the Nighthawks feature Dan Hovey on guitar, Paul Pisciotta on bass and Mark Stutso on drums.

“The spirit of the band remains very much alive,” Wenner said. “I think I have the best version that the band has ever been.”

With nearly 30 recordings and local and international awards to their credit, The Nighthawks are still churning out new material while drawing on more than four decades’ worth of signature tunes for their legendary live shows. 

On Sept. 26, the Nighthawks will play the Birchmere, the band’s second appearance at the club since it reopened. 

“We played two months ago and it was a whole lot of fun,” Wenner said. “It’s such an incredible sounding room and they did such a great job of keeping things safe.” 

It’s possible that Stutso might not be playing drums at the show as he broke his ankle not too long ago, but even if he can’t, he’ll still be at the mic singing. 

“We have some brand-new songs that we hope to record soon, some originals and some we just worked up from the vast storehouse of cool songs out there,” Wenner said. “We’ll be doing one straight 90-minute set.” 

He does note that he’s trying not to be too nostalgic these days, and may shy away from playing too many of the “classic” tunes, but knows the band still needs to do enough of those to keep fans happy.

“We have to show people that this is still the Nighthawks, even though we have some new people,” Wenner said. “But there will be a lot of newer stuff.” 

Considering that the Nighthawks had a new album come out in April, just as the pandemic shut things down, a lot of those songs haven’t been played live much.

“Under normal circumstances, we would have toured right away and as the album picked up momentum, started going out even further—maybe to the Midwest or out to the West Coast,” he said. “But we fled Florida March 16 and had to cancel the remaining run of our tour. We haven’t been anywhere really since.”

Still, the album hit the Living Blues Chart three months in a row, reaching No. 4 on the list in May. The numbers are based on radio play on blues channels around the dial.

“For us, in our little small world, that’s like the Billboard Top 20,” Wenner said. “It’s a good album and we’re very proud of it. We’ll be making it available at the Birchmere store.”

At the show, there will even be special Nighthawks masks available to fans to purchase.

During the pandemic, Wenner spent his time on his other passion—antique motorcycles, and immersed himself in the hobby. 

“I had pretty much retired from working on other people’s stuff a couple of years ago, but I had all my bikes running by April, so I started working with a local guy who was buying all these motorcycles in pieces, so I worked on some projects for him,” he said. “I’m nose deep into four projects right now, which keeps me out of trouble.”

The Nighthawks haven’t had too much time together to play, outside of a couple of outside gigs and the earlier Birchmere performance, but Wenner noted that at rehearsal, the band sounds as good as ever. 

“We’re looking forward to this night and we have another show coming up at Jammin Java on Oct. 10,” Wenner said. “It’s different, but we’re trying to keep the music alive.”

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