Kim Wilson occasionally uses the term Americana to describe his band, which is inaccurate by today’s standards. However, the Fabulous Thunderbirds are certainly a quintessential American band.
The Fabulous Thunderbirds on April 12 thrilled a Lake Tahoe crowd in the MontBleu Theater with the greatest music this country has created: blues, soul and rock.
The emphasis was blues. Twelve of the 19 songs were blues.
“Y’all like the blues?” Wilson teased the crowd early in the show.
The pompadour Wilson had when the band had a pair of hit singles is long gone, replaced by a clean plate, a no-hair style that has become fashionable, and also taken by T-Birds bassist Randy Burmudes.
Mentored by George “Harmonica” Smith, Wilson when he started out in Southern California was known as “Goleta Slim.” He went to Austin, Texas where he became the leader of Antone’s house band, often supporting Muddy Waters. After starting the Fabulous Thunderbirds, which at the time included Jimmy Vaughan, Wilson’s band became famous with the songs “Tuff Enuff” and “Wrap It Up.”
“A lot of people who latched onto those songs had no idea I was really a blues guy,” Wilson told this reporter in 2007. “It was a real coup for any period of time.
“The Fabulous Thunderbirds were forerunners to blues’ greatest movement into the mainstream. It had two top 40 hits, which I don’t think any blues band has ever done before. Robert Cray got big, then Stevie Ray Vaughan got huge and people like Albert Collins and Albert King got noticed.”
“Wrap It Up” was a soul song first recorded by Sam and Dave, but “Tuff Enuff” is a Bo Diddley-like tune and certainly blues.
Vaughan, of course, has since left, as had another brilliant guitarist, Kirk Fletcher. The current lineup has been together for seven years with the Moeller brothers, Johnny on guitar, Jason drums, bassist Bermudes and guitarist Mike Keller.
Moeller and Keller took turns at lead guitar, and when they were making string bending blues, they reveled in old-time rock and soul. The talented band is tight, and the night was festive.
Wilson has been regarded for years as one of the greatest living harmonica players. Waters called him his favorite. He displayed a huge range on the harp, blowing both in his vocal and harmonica microphones. But what led to the elusive hit songs in the 1980s was the deep and cheery voice of Wilson, who sounds just as great today.
In 2013 the Fabulous Thunderbirds released studio album No. 12, “On the Verge.”
“I think it’s a very diverse record,” Wilson wrote on the band’s website. “I think there’s a lot of bluesy stuff, but there is a lot of ‘soul-y’ kind of R&B. It’s really more Americana. I’m not really a dyed-in-the-wool soul singer, but people seem to think I am on this one. I am just singing along with the tracks and doing it in my own way.”
Concert photography by Tahoe Onstage’s Kurt E. Johnson and Larry Sabo.