T-Birds Founder Kim Wilson to Play The Linda

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Ever since The Fabulous Thunderbirds hit it big with “Tuff Enuff,” band leader/singer/harmonica player Kim Wilson has played both sides of the fence, blues-rock with The T-Birds vs. hard core blues with a merry-go-round of pickup bands. He’s at The Linda Norris Auditorium Friday night with the latest side gig, The Kim Wilson Blues All Stars.

“Before we (The Thunderbirds) even started to have hit records, our manager told me, ‘Harmonica really doesn’t sell.’ So, he started to tell me he didn’t want me to play very much harmonica. (I said to him) ‘Ok, here’s the deal. I’m still gonna do this, but I’m gonna go do this other thing so I can be satisfied.’ So, I went over to Clifford Antone’s (to make solo albums), and that’s where those Antone’s records started, and it really was a labor of love.”

Kim Wilson of The Fabulous Thunderbirds
Kim Wilson of The Fabulous Thunderbirds
Photo by Stan Johnson

From the outside looking in, it may seem like the two separate careers are just that, two separate careers. When he plays Albany with the Blues All Stars Friday night (March 13) he’ll be doing traditional blues in front of about 100 people. When he tours with the T-Birds, they do blues-rock in front of as many as 30,000 people. “They both feel good,” he explains. “I used to see Muddy Waters play in places like this (Blues All Stars) tour coming up. It makes me pretty nostalgic which I enjoy. I enjoy nostalgia very much because I was around all those guys, and I was playing with them since I was 17, 18, 19 years old. I was on my own shows with those guys on ’em. So, I really enjoy doing that.”

It would be an injustice to dismiss The Blues All Stars as just another pickup band chosen to fulfill Wilson’s need to play more harmonica on traditional blues covers.  Dean Shot is Kim’s guitarist in the All Stars. Dean has toured with Junior Watson and Mark Hummel. He spent five years in the ’90s with Howlin’ Wolf’s guitarist Hubert Sumlin who called him his son.

“He had the most amazing hands I’ve ever seen on a guitar player,” says Dean about Hubert. “He just had long, strong hands, and he could squeeze out notes and bends and vibratos unlike other people. He was just a unique cat. If you got to know him personally, that’s who he was. He was quirky, creative, unique, not scared to be different but first. It wasn’t like he just picked up a guitar and made up that stuff. He knew what everyone else was doing.”

“You gotta realize something. Blues is where I live, ok?”

Kim Wilson of the Fabulous Thunderbirds

Dean brings to Kim’s All Stars a freedom Kim doesn’t get out of the T-Birds. “The only way to have any fun doing this kind of music is to be able to just wing it with your own kind of style,” says Kim. “How you get that kind of thing is you got to have so many different influences and not dwell on one influence. If you’re dwelling on Little Walter, that’s it. You’re gonna sound like pseudo-Little Walter, and that’s it. You’re gonna sound like pseudo-Little Walter your whole life. Sonny Boy, Little Walter, Sonny Boy I, James Cotton, Big Walter, Slim Harpo – all different people in your sphere. 

“You just (need to) forget about it and blow. All these things are gonna come out. It’s not really that difficult if you think about it, but a lot of people don’t do it. Dean Shot’s great about that.”

The Fabulous Thunderbirds
Photo by Tim Reidy

Dean got his chops from Hubert Sumlin. “He called me his son, and at that time before he had a resurgence of his popularity later in his career he was not sure the direction of his career, and he would constantly say, ‘I’m not sure why I’m still here because all my friends are gone. It must be to pass this on to you. This must be part of why I’m here, to pass this music on to you. You clearly want it.’ I mean, he could play Freddie King’s music, Muddy Waters’ music, all Little Walter’s music, Lightnin’ Hopkins. He would mess around and mimic Albert Collins and Albert King, and he could do it well. If he wanted to, he could have done that live, and people would have gone nuts. He just didn’t do it.”

 And that’s what Kim gets out of Dean. “Yup, Dean Shot blew my mind actually because he’s been trying to get me on these shows for many years, and it just didn’t work out. I finally get up there with him and Mike Law on bass and this guy Chris Rivelli on drums. They all blew me away. I couldn’t believe how good they were.”

One could almost say the T-Birds are Wilson’s day job, and bands like the All Stars are his bliss. The Thunderbirds’ hit song “Tuff Enuff” in 1986 and the follow-up “Wrap It Up,” both written by Wilson, were the T-Birds’ meal ticket, and his side projects are his first love. He told me in 2013, that he, himself, was the T-Birds, and the other ever shifting cadre of artists in the group were his hired hands. Not anymore. He’s happy with both entities now and feels a certain convergence between them. There’s improvising in both. “It’s coming closer together. I think there’s a little bit more contemporary – whatever that means these days – divergence with the Thunderbirds. The All Stars is just dyed in the wool blues.

“I’ve never had a set list or anything, but I’ve kind of paired it down now to where you might get a few more rock and roll things in the Thunderbirds, and the Thunderbirds may be a little more on steroids, maybe a little more volume, but actually quite a bit more on volume, but yeah, I have to satisfy myself.  

The Fabulous Thunderbirds
Photo by Tim Reidy

“I’m not really a soul singer. If I want to sing a soul kind of song, I’m gonna sound like a blues guy, you know? And if it’s rock and roll, well, rock and roll is blues anyway. So, ha, ha, ha. That’s an easy one to transfer from blues to that beat basically if you look at people like Lonnie Brooks, God rest him. He was Guitar Jr. out there (Brooks’ pseudonym in his 1950s blues-rock band). There was a lot of different stuff going on, but then you look at Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters. A lot of that stuff translates pretty easily. When you had people like Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters, and Otis Rush, all those different stylistic things going on, it was really very, very cool, and it was the real thing.”

The artists in both the T-Birds and All Stars are experienced journeymen.“You have to be a journeyman,” Wilson explains. “That takes your whole life to get.And if you don’t want to become a journeyman they’ll say, ‘Well, I’ll never be able to become that, so I’m gonna do this and call it that.’ Sonny Boy, Little Walter, Sonny Boy I, James Cotton, Big Walter, Slim Harpo – all through different people in your sphere, and you just forget about it and blow. All these things are gonna come out. It’s not really that difficult if you think about it, but a lot of people don’t do it.”

The T-Birds haven’t had another hit like “Tuff Enuff” and “Wrap It Up” since the mid ’80s. “It wasn’t really our fault,” Wilson explains. “The business had changed so much. There really wasn’t a way you could have a hit record like that anymore, and that’s pretty much it. We got in on the very end of when you could have a record like that, when you actually could make money on record sales. Now, if you sell 50,000 records, you’re going to get a Grammy. You’re going to be highly acclaimed if you sell 50,000 records. If you sell 25,000 records, you’re probably going to get a Grammy.”

If you measure the worth of an artist in numbers, The T-Birds beat out Kim Wilson’s Blues All Stars by a huge margin, but if you’re looking for the real essence of blues, this show at The Linda promises to take you to heaven. Dean Shot: “Oh, my God. I couldn’t be more honored and more excited about playing with Kim. To me, Kim is the best of the best at what he does in the world. Hands down, I don’t think there’s anybody that does it any better than Kim Wilson. Kim is a real natural band leader, the way he goes about leading the band, interacting with the musicians. There’s no ego in it. He’s as confident as you can be, rightfully so, but there’s no ego in the negative sense of the word. I think if you’re doing it right, you should make others feel good, and he does that, and he’s teaching us while he does it.”

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