[19 December 2008]
Having grown up a blues music fan in Washington, D.C., there was no way to avoid the Nighthawks. Winter might have been dictated by potholes and freezing rain; the fall might have been dominated by the Redskins; but the summer—especially those sticky, BBQ-filled evenings—certainly belonged to the Nighthawks. You didn’t need to be a blues aficionado or haunt local blues venues like The Bayou and Chick Hall’s Surf Club or even buy a ticket to hear a set from the hardest working band in the blues. No, instead, you just needed to step outside your front door, because in the summer it seemed like you couldn’t throw a street festival in the District, Maryland, or Virginia without featuring a set from the Nighthawks. And it’s with these performances, not their studio albums, that the Nighthawks earned a reputation as one of the most consistently enjoyable bands around.
Over the 30+ years the Nighthawks have existed, individual band members have certainly gotten older, but somehow the group’s music remained fresh and always sounded timeless. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Jimmy Thackery, the group’s former lead guitarist, who, on his latest release Inside Tracks, is starting to sound his age.
One of the challenges of being a blues recording artist is how to make a simple 12-bar formula that has been played and perfected for nearly a century seem original and relevant. Thackery, who left the Nighthawks after 14 years in 1987 to start a solo career, describes this challenge in the press materials for Inside Tracks: “A lot of people who are making blues records are just trying to make another T-Bone Walker record or another George Thorogood record,” he says. “I’m at a point where I’m going to record the kind of music that I want to play and I want to listen to.”
If Thackery’s statement is true, his iPod is overflowing with Englebert Humperdink, Barry Manilow, and other easy listening greats these days. That may be helpful for a pop singer, but it’s not so useful for a bluesman with a reputation for jutting guitar solos and growling lead lines.
The opening three songs on Inside Tracks are among the most bland and uninspired that Thackery has ever recorded. “All Because of You” and “That Dog Won’t Hunt”, two Thackery originals, have been mixed and polished to within an inch of their Pro Tools lives. The drums sound artificial and the bass lacks any blues bite. On “Promised Land”, a Chuck Berry cover, Thackery and his backing band the Drivers—drummer Mark Stutso and bassist Mark “Bumpy Rhodes” Bumgarner—have managed to turn a blues classic into a song you might hear during the Prom scene of a bad teen movie from the ‘80s.
Inside Tracks does briefly pick up. On “Change the Rules”, Thackery sounds a bit like his old self. The guitar lines are angular and offensive, punctuated by the cutting harmonics and bleating distortion that characterized Thackery’s work with the Nighthawks. Thackery’s voice, too, shakes again with some life; it’s playful cross between Tom Waits and Howlin’ Wolf. “Landlocked” is pure, hedonistic riff rock, with a guitar solo that would make George Thorogood smile. On “Just a Feeling”, a haunting surf-country-blues instrumental, Thackery summons the ghost of Danny Gatton and the spirit of Dick Dale.
Unfortunately, Inside Tracks ends much like it began, with a trio of tiresome and generic blues tracks that lack any of the piss and vinegar we’ve come to associate with Thackery’s early solo releases and his work with the Nighthawks. And while Thackery’s guitar solos are consistently interesting throughout, they aren’t enough to overcome the album’s formulaic songwriting and over-polished production. All in all, Inside Tracks is a forgettable effort from an unforgettable blues master, and one that Thackery will hopefully leave out of his summer festival sets, especially in D.C.