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Question: How do you keep the blues alive after nearly 40 years on the road?
Answer: It’s Tuff.
Blues harmonica maestro and Fabulous Thunderbirds frontman Kim Wilson talks exclusively to BluesInLondon about a new band, a new CD, a new style - and a new wife who’s helped to kick-start the veteran bluesman into much-appreciated action once again.
"Man, I'm done," says harp legend Kim Wilson as he settles into the back seat of a black cab heading up Oxford Street. He looks drained - and it's not surprising as the band is just about to complete a gruelling tour of Europe to show off a new line-up and promote their upcoming CD. I ask him if he's ready to get back home to his wife and kids in California. "In my head, I’m already there," he grunts.
Kim and the Thunderbirds have just finished their sound-check in London's 100 Club, but despite the stresses and strains, they sound better than ever. Later on they'll pull out the stops and deliver a stonking set to an appreciative London crowd, and they'll showcase songs from their new CD – entitled The Fabulous Thunderbirds, and due out next month.
It's a great album, rawer and tighter than their last studio album and with a definite soul feel that proves the best living blues harp player can still take what he calls 'legitimate' music onwards and upwards.
In a relaxed interview before the gig, Kim reveals his two current inspirations – his band and his new wife, Amanda. He married her last January and cheerfully admits that she’s the driving force behind the 57-year-old frontman’s decision to get there and do what he does best.
"My wife; she's a big fan, she kind of pushes me. She's a young woman but she's very freakish for blues music you know? She’s very intimidating to most musicians because she knows so much about it," he discloses.
"Its kind of a tough thing to be around her if you are not on top of your game. Because, you know, she’ll call you out." I express disbelief that tough guy Kim Wilson could ever intimidated by a wife, but he laughs.
"I'm telling you man! If I screw up at work - say get the words wrong on a Jimmy Rogers song or something - she'll come up to me and it’s like: 'You call yourself a blues man?' Especially if I screw up on something like an Elmore James song - he’s like her guy, and also Jimmy Reed."
He paints a picture of a loving, (and blues-obsessed) home life – with Amanda and two young sons: Hunter McKinley (named after Hunter S Thompson and McKinley 'Muddy Waters' Morganfield); and Stephen Jacobs (named after Marion 'Little Walter' Jacobs”).
Raised the bar
The temptation to kick back and relax with his family after 40-years in the business was strong – but Kim reveals his wife was having none of it.
"Amanda's definitely raised the bar - it's not that the bar wasn't high before, mind - but sometimes you get complacent, you're just sitting around the house, which I like. But now I can't do that – I'm forced to be good all the time!" He laughs.
So he and a new band – which Kim can't praise highly enough – have headed back out onto the road. At the Thunderbirds core are long-standing brothers John and Jason Moeller with Randy Bemundes on bass, plus hot new lead guitarist Mike Keller who, judging by the cheers he’s invoking on this tour, is destined for great things.
If so, he might follow in the footsteps of former Wilson protégés Nick Curran, Rusty Zinn, Kirk Fletcher and of course original Thunderbird Jimmy Vaughan.
Like Muddy Waters - who he played with in the 1970's and who first bestowed on him the 'world’s best' moniker - Kim is famous for taking the youngest and best around, before launching them onto blues fame in their own right.
But Kim laughs at suggestion he’s a modern day Muddy.
"I just see myself as a very greedy person," he laughs. "I just pick the guys that'll make the best band – and if they happen to move on, so be it."
Nevertheless, for new arrivals, playing in the Thunderbirds involves a steep learning curve.
"There's one thing you have to understand about the way we play," says Kim. "There's no set-list. We go out there and we're winging it every night. I'll just get up and holler out a key and I'll just start playing. And they'll have to start playing whatever it is with me. When you do that, the band has no preconceptions of what it’s gonna be."
"These guys are just learning my signals; Johnny still comes over to me and yells: ‘What?’ It's to keep it all fresh. And you know, at my age you need to wing it all the time."
For the Thunderbirds, who've hand 13 line up since 1976, change has always seemed a good thing. Kim is scornful of the dinosaur bands of yesteryear, who stay together for the security (and the money), but end up sounding just like their records.
'Bitter old fucks'
"One reason I'm always now playing with younger players is that you don't want to be around a bunch of bitter old fucks all the time. I'm around myself enough!” He laughs again.
"What I love about them is that they really have their own take. I didn't tell them to do that arrangement just now' (a dirty blues number called Payback Time the band played during the sound-check).
"They went out, they heard my song and they wrote that arrangement to fit that song. The first time I heard it, was today. It was awesome! That’s the thing, you need - musicians who believe barriers are made to be broken."
"We're now combining all the music: blues; rock and roll, soul. There's a taste of Cajun, even some jazz-funk. But you have to have guys who are open-minded, who can combine all these musics without taking them out of context, but who can make something fresh at the same time."
"It's very difficult, but if you just relax and let it happen and not try too hard, that’s when you are going to accomplish it."
Kim’s admiration extends to naming the new album after his new line-up and putting their photographs on the front cover. "I thought, let's focus on the band, let's not even focus on the title. Let's put the guys on the front of the cover."
"It was hard for me to stomach it – looking at myself (laughs) - but I figured lets make sure everybody knows who's in this band. I thought; let's not get confused – these guys deserve it. They deserve everything."
"I'm not really a soul singer, but if we write it ourselves and if it's tailored to how I’m gonna attack it, then it’ll work."
Which brings us onto The Voice.
To his fans around the globe, it's Kim's mastery of the harmonica that's helped write him into blues history.
Harp or voice?
But the man himself reveals a curious detachment from his instrument.
"Sometimes I'm thinking when I'm on tour which one – harp or voice - should I be working on here? Luckily in a hotel room you can pick up a harp and mess around on it as much as you want if you have some kind of work ethic. It's really about the pleasure of it though and getting to know the instrument like it’s breathing, and that's so you can improvise.
"But to me, the singing is the most important thing. All the instrumental parts - they're just there to enhance the singing. The singing is telling the story."
The new album is testament to this new approach, with Kim's sweet and soaring voice carrying the vocals beautifully on soul-influenced numbers like 'Do you know who I am?' and 'Hold Me'.
It feels to me like a high point in a 37-year career, in which Kim has witnessed the all the ups and downs of the blues.
He recalls a 1980 Thunderbirds tour with the UK band Rockpile and still can’t believe the rough reception the British press gave Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds (both of whom went on to produce successful Thunderbirds albums).
"We did 30 gigs - I didn't know then there were 30 gigs in this whole country! Those guys were incredible. They had these fantastic shows and the next day in the paper you'd see horrible articles about them. Stuff like the papers calling them old tossers and such – like they were all washed up."
"It was crazy – they were so good and so enthusiastic!"
Blues took a wrong turning when it married into rock, Kim believes: "When that happened, blues lost its die-hard fans - they all stayed at home.
"The thing is, when you mix blues and rock you get a lot of wanking - no blues and horrendous rock!"
Eli 'Paperboy' Reed
But he sees welcome signs of a proper blues revival when he looks around and gauges the new talent. "I notice people like James Hunter, Amy Winehouse, the girl Duffy. And even some of the more poppy things on the TV, they seem to be going in the R&B direction - people with really good voices, people really performing, real players.
"We were just in Spain and we were with that Eli 'Paperboy' Reed (US R&B/soul singer performer, currently touring Europe). He's really something. He's a got a great band.
These days Kim might allow himself to think that, just occasionally, he gets to be in a room with those people that inspired him...
"If you have a high standard and you're always reaching for it, and if your standard is Little Walter or Muddy Waters... B. B. King... Otis Redding... you know its really unattainable, but you're never gonna stop reaching for that.
"So you try and you try and at a certain point you maybe find yourself in the basement of that peer group - you can hold your head up and think 'Hey! I'm here!' You might fall back through the cracks for a little while, but then when you pop your head back up there's Muddy sitting up there and he's saying "Hey, come on in!""
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