The Hippo


Apr 26, 2019








Luther “Guitar Jr.” Johnson. Courtesy photo.

Luther “Guitar Jr.” Johnson & The Nighthawks

When: Saturday, Sept. 27, at 7 p.m.
Where: Nelson’s Candies/Local’s Café, 65 Main St., Wilton 
Tickets: $35 – call 654-5030 to reserve with credit card

Luther “Guitar Jr.” Johnson and Nighthawks play first show in decades

By Michael Witthaus

 A New Hampshire sweet shop may be an unlikely setting for blues history, but on Saturday, Sept. 27, a legendary guitarist and a standard-bearing D.C. band will perform together for the first time in over 20 years at Nelson’s Candies Local’s Café. 

The café has hosted some great shows in the past few years, but none akin to this one. A film crew will document the night — it’s that momentous.
Back in the day, Luther “Guitar Jr.” Johnson and The Nighthawks traveled the country, played over 100 shows and made records together. They met in 1976, when Johnson was in Muddy Waters’ band. 
“We opened for Muddy every chance we got,”  Nighthawks front man and harp player Mark Wenner said recently. 
Gigs included weeklong runs at Washington’s Cellar Door club. 
“We started to sit in with Muddy at the end of the show for ‘Mannish Boy’ and ‘Mojo,’”  Wenner recalled, saying members of his band came out for their sets. “Junior, Pinetop and Bob Margolin … it got to where you couldn’t tell where one band ended and the other began.”
The bond between Junior and the Nighthawks solidified after that edition of Waters’ band split up — “the mutiny,” Wenner called it. “I can remember hanging with Junior, getting wings and stuff and chattering away into the night. I thought he really had the goods to become the next big guy … an incredible performer. He knew hundreds and hundreds of songs.”
Today, Johnson is among a few living connections to blues past, “one of the last of the real guys,” said Wenner.
Michael Streissguth is known for writing a biography of Johnny Cash and making a documentary about his concert at Folsom Prison. But he interviewed B.B. King for his college paper and earned his first money as a writer profiling Bobby Blue Bland. He’s a fan of the blues, and Wenner in particular. 
“The Nighthawks are D.C.’s very own blues band,” said Streissguth, who found them on public radio in the 1980s when most kids his age were watching MTV. 
Wenner contributed to Record Paradise: The Musical Life of Joe Lee, Streissguth’s 2012 film about an offbeat Maryland storeowner and impresario. 
“We got to chatting off camera and I realized no documentary had been done on the Nighthawks,” Streissguth said. “I thought, what an injustice. This is a band that’s been around 40 years. In my mind, it’s high time for that to happen.”
Filming went on all this year, and Streissguth helped engineer the Wilton show. 
“I wanted to capture the reunion because it echoes a big part of the Nighthawks’ history … playing with so many of the blues masters — Muddy, J. B. Hutto, James Cotton, Otis Rush,” he said. “Of course, many of those names are gone [and] Luther is the link to that black blues tradition that they drew so much from.”
Streissguth and his crew will travel with the band from Washington to Connecticut to New Hampshire, filming Junior and Wenner’s first meeting since their touring days. 
“I’m really excited about that because these guys are road warriors,” said the filmmaker. “They pile into a 10-passenger van and crisscross the country. The story can’t be told without talking about the road.”
Venue owner Doug Nelson is excited to host the historic show. 
“I never dreamed I’d get the Nighthawks here; it’s amazing,” said Nelson, who also plays guitar in the store’s house band, Sweet Tooth. 
Capacity is 55; if he’s lucky, Nelson will break even. But money is secondary to providing a haven for blues perfomers, who appear every few weeks. Junior loves Nelson’s BYOB listening room; the Sept. 27 show will be his fifth there. 
While making the film gives Streissguth an avenue to explore his love of the blues, “at the same time, I’m very interested in the life of a band,” he said. “The classic lineup disintegrated, but Mark Wenner’s vision keeps it ticking; he continues to carry the torch for the blues, despite many disappointments. It’s a commentary on the determination of this human being.” 
As seen in the September 25, 2014 issue of the Hippo.

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