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Thunderbirds or no, new Kim Wilson CD rocks

High Water
High Water
By The Fabulous Thunderbirds featuring Kim Wilson

High Street Records: 1997

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This review first appeared in the December 27, 1997 edition of the American Reporter.

The purists among us have their shorts in a knot over the new Kim Wilson CD. It's billed as "The Fabulous Thunderbirds," they say, yet the only T-bird in the pack is Wilson, the former lead singer and harpist for the Austin-based roots and blues band. Where are the other original members, they ask, and just who are Steve Jordan and Danny Kortchmar?

Fair enough questions in this age of musical fraud, but let it be noted that Wilson is a founding member of the Thunderbirds – and the band that's been touring and recording as the Fabulous Thunderbirds the past few years has included neither Wilson nor former lead guitarist Jimmie Vaughan, the two members who most defined the band. Heck, the original bassist, Keith Ferguson, left years ago for the Tail Gators – just who are the impostors here, anyway: Wilson or the current Thunderbirds?

Besides, the album ultimately ought to be judged on its artistic merits, and there Wilson scores highly – except, perhaps, for the purists. "High Water" is not nearly as blues-based as previous Wilson or Fabulous Thunderbirds CDs – it's more daring, closer to Los Lobos' recent pop-oriented "Colossal Head" than the T-birds' breakthrough "Tuff Enuff."

There are more modern dance grooves here, experimental art rock that borrows from David Byrne, acid blues riffs marrying acoustic guitar to a Eurobeat rhythm (with a nod to Skip MacDonald of Little Axe). There's a blues foundation to everything, of course – the blues underpins Wilson's musical foundation. But it's modern blues – and has gotten mixed reviews in the blues press, with some critics feeling it's not respectful enough of the past.

Such silliness. Every musician regarded as genius or important today is so regarded because in their time they pushed the boundaries of what the critics of the time considered proper.

Which isn't to say Wilson is genius – but "High Water" is his most experimental project, and more works than not regardless of the critics. On "Do Right By Me," for instance, Wilson has a Pops Staples-like vocal grit going. On the title track, it's more a Van Morrison approach, both in structure and performance. "Hurt On Me" could have come right from the Thunderbirds' glory years of the mid-'80s, with a radio-friendly blues/rock sound.

Wilson's harmonica playing is as good as ever; he was never one of the best, never on a plane with a James Cotton or Rod Piazza, but he's a nice, distinctive sound and his solos are generally tasteful.

From this quarter, it seems Wilson deserves credit for trying something different. Not a perfect album, it's still engaging and listenable and worth your $16 or so.