The Fabulous Thunderbirds
On The Verge
Severn Records, 2013
As the Fabulous Thunderbirds near their 40th anniversary, the only constant in the band’s lineup is its front man, Kim Wilson. The extraordinary singer and harmonica wizard has his pick of the very best players, from among whom he chooses exceedingly wisely, and clearly exercises absolute control over the unit’s vision and sound, which has remained for the most part very consistent through years of personnel changes. Until now. On their new album, the Fabulous Thunderbirds expand the flirtation with soul music that provided a hit in the 1980s (their cover of Sam & Dave’s “Wrap It Up”) into a full-fledged courtship. The band’s once stripped-down sound is fleshed out with the addition of keyboards, backing vocals, percussion, and a four-piece horn section, and the ten new songs comprising On The Verge, most of them written by Wilson, with help from guest keyboardist Kevin Anker and Severn regulars David Earl and Steve Gomes, explore soul and R&B from a number of angles.
Wilson sings for all he is worth on the opener, “I Want To Believe,” a midtempo number with a determinedly positive message and an insistent, Stax-y push-pull feel reminiscent of the funkiest Otis Redding and Staple Singer grooves. Bassist Randy Bermudes’ terrific “Runnin’ From The Blues” gets a country soul treatment much in the vein of Joe Simon’s immortal “The Chokin’ Kind,” pulled together with twangy, deep-set guitar hooks. “Hold Me” is in the vein of artists like Clarence Carter. The interesting Kevin Anker piano figure that appears in the introduction and during the choruses lacks a dominant tonality, and is a bit unsettling in this traditional Southern soul context.
Several dark threads run through On The Verge. Over a slinky, minor key groove that tops the feel of Bobby Bland’s “I Wouldn’t Treat A Dog” with some special O.V. Wright sauce, “Too Much Water” chronicles the end of a relationship. The album’s closer, “Lonely Highway,” is an excellent slow number with moody horns, again reminiscent of O.V.’s Hi Records sides. And while many blues have dealt with poverty, few have presented the situation as starkly as “Do You Know Who I Am,” a stately soul ballad that calls for understanding and help from the vantage of the economically deprived, unemployed, and homeless.
“Got To Bring It With You” serves up dirty funk that marries wah-wah guitar to a horn chart that stepped straight out of an Al Green or O.V. session. Its simple guitar solo is more thematic than improvisational. “That’s The Way We Roll” is even more lowdown–this is heavy, trailer park funk, baby, with a slow-dragging, syncopated groove. Wilson blows minimalistic, distorted harp, and sings through the harp microphone for extra grease. At the other end of the R&B spectrum, “Lovin’ Time” has a pop-inflected melody that befits the lyric’s fond reminiscences. Smooth electric piano and organ, hand drums, and the airy, interlocking guitars form a distinctive arrangement. Gomes’s “Diamonds Won’t Kiss You Back,” with its intricate guitar and bass parts, catchy, riffing horns, and beautiful, melodic vocal line, is sweet soul directly from the Chicago school.
One observation: Although The Fabulous Thunderbirds’ last two lineups have featured some of most exciting guitar players on the planet, Wilson has seemed oddly reluctant to let them loose on record (this is emphatically not the case in concert). Nick Curran and Kirk Fletcher were largely indistinguishable from each other on Painted On, and while Johnny Moeller and Mike Keller’s guitar parts are crucial to the new CD’s sound (and often quite memorable), virtually no lead guitar can be heard, even though this style of music can certainly lends itself to instrumental breaks–just listen to Stax-era Albert King, anything Little Milton cut after the mid-1960s, or recent albums by, for instance, John Németh. Wilson himself barely cuts loose on his instrument. I’ll extend this line of thinking to include the rhythm section: Jason Moeller, one of the world’s premier shuffle drummers, doesn’t get to drive one home. While I can appreciate the focus on the songwriting and singing, it seems a shame that Wilson passed up the opportunity to record this hot lineup really showing its stuff.
That may well be a churlish attitude, as the album sounds fine the way it has been delivered. While there is the risk that On The Verge will alienate longtime fans who prefer to hear the tough, butt-rockin’ blues on which the T-Birds built their reputation, its tilt to the soulful side of the blues makes for a cohesive and successful album. Its polish, inherent tunefulness, and creamy feel should win the Fabulous Thunderbirds additional fans.
Review copy provided by Mark Pucci Media.