The Fabulous Thunderbirds are an American institution which has survived near perpetual personnel changes since their origin in the mid-seventies. The lone constant has been Kim Wilson, their charismatic front-man and major inspiration. Wilson is a blues harmonica maestro, gifted vocalist, able songwriter and robust road warrior who has been the enduring glue that has sustained the unyielding viability of the rootsy Blues/Rock band from Texas for so many years. The new release is titled On the Verge on Severn Records, and it’s a blast of the T-Birds trademark blend of Blues, Rock, R&B and lesser supplementary genres – much like the blend of ingredients found in a spicy bowl of Texas chili.
Kim Wilson, blessed with a thick, hearty soul/blues voice, has repeatedly teamed with the best of Texas’ ace blues electric guitarists in The Fabulous Thunderbirds. This trend has begun with Jimmie Vaughn and has carried on through Duke Robillard, Kid Ramos, and more recently Nick Curran. The latest guitar-slingers hailing from Austin, Texas to join the Thunderbirds are Johnny Moeller and Mike Keller; both of whom previously paired with Nick Curran in the Austin-based group The Texas Northside Kings. Both Moeller and Keller do an admirable job, but it is Wilson’s vocals that stand forefront in the mix throughout the release. His exceptional singing remains as tight as ever; not losing even a half-step with age.
The two other new noteworthy additions are Johnny Moeller’s half-brother Jason Moeller on drums and Randy Bermudes on bass. These four younger musicians team with Kim Wilson to infuse the music with a fire and bravado worthy of the T-Bird name. Collectively they provide an undeniable authenticity along with a genuine directness of purpose that is crucial in allowing the blues to pack the emotional punch from which it gains its ultimate power. Additional guest musicians on keyboards, percussion, background vocals, and various horn instruments flesh out the overall sound.
The snappy drums and booming bass are front and center to kick out an infectious groove on “I Want to Believe.” Kim convincingly sings the oft-repeated refrain “I want to believe that things are gonna be alright” and you just have to believe him. The song features an instrumental rock-solid breakdown mid-song that is immaculately sublime in its defiant rocking attitude. It’s a strong song to begin the album, which assuredly is always a good thing.
“Lovin’ Time” contains major Tejano flavoring with a pop beat cushioned by Kevin Anker on keyboards and the guitars alluringly chiming in with a savory blend of Los Lonely Boys meeting Doug Sahm. The body-swaying beat is accompanied by Wilson persuasively advocating his former squeeze to revisit the good old days and “take it back baby to that sweet lovin’ time.”
“Too Much Water” has an almost uncanny semblance to Robert Cray in the vocal, the lyrics, and the musical rhythmic syncopated stance. Every time I hear it I keep expecting the Robert Cray guitar break that seems destined to come, but in its place is a Wilson melismatic blues harp lead that is simplistic, yet mighty tasty in its restraint. All the bluesy elements come together perfectly with the truly fine commanding lyrical content, making this one of the finest songs ever recorded by the T-Birds.
Severn Records proudly carries the motto “Roots Music for the 21st Century”. The T-Birds adhere to that credo, oftentimes going back in time just a bit to forge a famous yet contemporary sound as is the case with “Hold Me Baby.” The song is a nice Southern Soul-Blues song fusing the disparate elements of popular music into an amalgamation that is all The Fabulous Thunderbirds. The lyrics are straightforwardly basic, but Wilson’s soulful croon makes it all sound so sophisticated, and the contributions by the entire group are significant.
A guitar intro for “Running from the Blues,” penned by bassist Frank Bermudes, rightly signals that the guitars will be a highlight of the song. Bermudes himself provides a propelling bass popping beat with a superior sensitivity coming from Kim Wilson’s heart-felt raw vocal. The driving backbeat gives the song a dynamic punchy boost, and this one comes across as another initial favorite song on the CD.
A taste of gospel-blues is juicily present on “Who You Know Who I Am,” performed in a medium/slow tempo with a choir of back-ground vocalists to ably accompany the testifying lead vocal of Wilson. The song is one of only two on the disc that are Kim Wilson solo compositions, but he secures co-writer credit on nearly every other number situated on On the Verge, making the sum clearly his prevalent vision. The lyrics here reflect the dire economic environment that faces all of us, but with an unwavering optimism of better days ahead. Wilson’s vocal here is incredibly potent and brawny, again showing his mastery of all blues styles. Church style organ throughout, blended with a brief cutting guitar solo and backing horns combine to further the song’s overall gratifying experience.
A ultra-smooth soulful vocal graces “Got to Take It with You.” Menacing intertwining guitars wielding wah-wah effects and “Shaft-like” vintage riffs coalesce with interspersed horns to make a compelling statement for this blend of Southern Soul-Blues. Wilson adds some harmonica touches and the churning rhythm section ties it all up into a super-snug package of Soul-Blues.
The interesting “That’s The Way We Roll” features a grit-filled vocal with production effects that sounds like Kim is singing in a rain barrel. His mouth harp is also being run through some sort of processor to generate the decidedly imposing growl of a big electric cat. It’s a pretty nice touch that sets the song apart from its companion pieces on On the Verge. A deep-groovin’ sinewy bass line winds serpentine all the way through the track augmented by throbbing wah-wah rhythm guitars.
The final two cuts on the album are both standouts in different blues veins. The first, “Diamonds Won’t Kiss You Back,” has the distinct coolly cozy flavor of Memphis soul-blues ala Al Green or Johnnie Taylor with Wilson’s soulfully nuanced-filled vocal and a funk horn accompaniment. “Lonely Highway” again visits the territory of the Robert Cray Band, this time with a slow blues workout with the keyboards shaping the rhythm track and Wilson shining brightly while pulling out the stops on his blues harp.
As the ever influential great bluesman Albert King once proclaimed: “If you don’t dig the blues, you got a hole in your soul.” The blues serves as the foundation for On the Verge, but the group is not hesitant to move the sound into other directions. The new mix of players has clearly re-invigorated Wilson, who has constantly flaunted the stalwartness of “The Energizer Bunny” as he just keeps going and going. His harmonica playing is not as prominently on exhibit as in the past, but when he does cut loose it is nonetheless inspired. And masterfully brilliant could well describe his blues singing which, when all’s said and done, captures the prime sort of emotive primal styles that embodies the genre’s core essence. On the Verge is an ambitious copious blues lesson presented by gifted purveyors that can, and most assuredly should, be enjoyed by the masses.
KIM WILSON VOCALS AND HARMONICA
JOHNNY MOELLER GUITAR
MIKE KELLER GUITAR
RANDY BERMUDES BASS
JASON MOELLER DRUMS
KEVIN ANKER KEYBOARDS
MARK MERELLA PERCUSSION
PAIGE MARTIN, CHRISTAL RHEAMS, CALEB GREEN, DARYL DUFF BACKGROUND VOCALS
KENNY RITTENHOUSE TRUMPET AND HORN ARRANGMENTS
LESILE WHITAKER TRUMPET
MORGAN PRICE SAXOPHONE
VICTOR BARRANCO TROMBONE
Randall Parrish is a Senior Editor at Vivascene, with extensive publishing credits at various jazz and blues sites. He is also an avid guitar player whose musical knowledge of jazz, blues and roots music is widely respected. He can be reached by email here: RandallParrish@vivascene.com