The December roots music schedule around Capitol Hill is lighter than usual, as artists take time off for the holidays and venues host private parties on many nights. In the week before Christmas, though, we’ll have an opportunity to see two hard-working roots rock bands.
The Nighthawks, who play a free show at Pearl Street Warehouse on December 21, are a local band with a national profile. Los Lobos, who come to City Winery for a two-night stand on December 21 and 22, are America’s greatest roots rock band, but they’re still closely associated with their hometown of Los Angeles. Both groups feature a rich catalog of songs and cohesive, top-notch musicianship.
Nighthawks founder and frontman Mark Wenner grew up in DC, and moved back to town in 1972 to start a blues and rock combo that could hone its chops by working almost every night.
He had been playing in bands in New York, but “there was no way to get nightly experience there,” he said. “We would go from rehearsing to showcase situations.”
Before long the Nighthawks had nailed a steady three-night-a-week gig, and were playing shows most nights. “We were touring the Beltway,” said Wenner. “You would play in Arlington one night, then out in Prince Georges County the next. It might as well have been on the other side of the ocean.”
After guitarist Jimmy Thackery joined the group, the Nighthawks were able to hire a first-rate rhythm section, and they would book about 300 shows a year – still mostly one-nighters. Nowadays they play about half that many gigs, mostly within a day of the DC region except for a couple of short tours each year. In a sense, they’re ambassadors for roots music in the DC area – they were featured in a scene from the HBO series “The Wire,” set in Baltimore, and their latest LP, “Damn Good Time,” was recorded in Annapolis.
In the current lineup, bassist Paul Pisciotta and guitarist Dan Hovey both grew up in the DC suburbs, and drummer Mark Stutso has been around for a while. While several new venues have opened in recent years and many beloved joints have closed, Wenner says the local scene for his kind of music hasn’t really changed much.
“I consider (us) a blues and roots band, and there’s a lot of that around. Nobody’s getting rich, but they’re working. If I can go another three or four years, I can say I have 50 years in the Nighthawks.”
Los Lobos drummer Louie Perez once called the band’s tapestry of rock, blues, country and Mexican music “the soundtrack of the barrio,” but it’s really the soundtrack of America today.
Perez and singer/guitarist David Hidalgo met in high school in East Los Angeles, and they started hanging out, playing guitars and writing songs. They formed a band and began playing at weddings and parties in the neighborhood, and their first LP, “Just Another Band from East LA,” made a splash in LA’s punk scene. By the time of their major label debut, “How Will the Wolf Survive?” Los Lobos had won a Grammy for Best Mexican/Tejano Music Performance, and earned a reputation as one of the best American bands in any genre. The band was recently inducted into the Austin City Limits Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a more authentic alternative to the commercial operation in Cleveland.
These days, Perez and Hidalgo both work on side projects. Perez wrote a memoir of his musical journey – Good Morning Aztlan – that was published recently. Hidalgo will soon embark on a national solo tour with David Bromberg. But fortunately for lovers of rocking roots music, their commitment to Los Lobos is still strong, and they show no sign of letting up.