Kim Wilson: ‘Take Me Back!’ is mission accomplished

Kim Wilson’s “Take Me Back!” is recorded live to tape.

The instant Kim Wilson starts singing and playing these blues, a world full of troubles begins to melt away into gritty, sometimes gleeful, always gripping melody.

Wilson has led The Fabulous Thunderbirds for more than 40 years, performing blues steeped in tradition, and blues that delve into the rock and roots realms. But every time he gathers up top-flight players for one of his solo albums, they dig deep into the gilded age of the blues with unwavering passion.

“Take Me Back!,” Kim Wilson’s seventh solo venture, takes us back to the 1950s, when the blues flourished in signature styles by now-legendary performers. Studio albums were cut right off the floor back then, the players interacting with one another to capture a moment. That’s exactly how Wilson and his friends cut “Take Me Back,” in several sessions at guitarist Big John Atkinson’s Bigtone Records studio, live to tape, in glorious mono.

Seven of the 16 songs presented are Wilson originals, and four of those—“Wingin’ It,” “Strollin’,” Rumblin’,” and Out of the Fryin’ Pan”—are instrumental workouts that feature three different bands going to town, the focus squarely on Wilson’s wizardry with a harmonica. Each tune highlights a particular melodic structure, and within them, the discerning ear will pick up snatches of James Cotton, Little Walter Jacobs, Big Walter Horton, Lazy Lester and Slim Harpo, the five icons of the instrument that are Wilson’s primary inspirations.

By citing them all and mixing them together consistently for four decades, Wilson’s bold harp sound has become very much his own. But Kim Wilson is a double-threat, being one of the most accomplished singers in the business too. When the band — Atkinson on guitar, Johnny Viau on honking sax, pianist Robert Welsh, bassist Troy Sandow and drummer Marty Dodson — eases into Jimmy Nolen’s “You’ve Been Goofing,” Wilson sets off grappling with loving a loose woman in a singular, smoky vocal performance that moves from pleading to defiant without notice.

In Larry Williams’ classic, old-time rock ‘n’ rollin’ “Slow Down,” Wilson sings as if he’s on “American Bandstand,” swaying in front of the dancers, and hitting high notes and rippling his lips like a teenager. His persuasion, control and abandon, and tone, are all unrivaled. Atkinson plays the lion’s share of the great guitar on the album. His down and dirty, nimble-fingered acoustic work on Howlin’ Wolf’s “No Place to Go” makes a particular impression.

Chicago blues mainstay Billy Flynn adds his guitar to three of Wilson’s blues. He’s especially fluent on “Play Me,” a romp that also features sparkling, rippling piano by Barrelhouse Chuck. Four songs by Jimmy Rogers made the cut, and “Goin’ Away Baby,” to these ears, could be the Yardbirds in 1963, honoring the American pioneer with a breeze. All told, 16 extraordinary blues musicians join Wilson in various configurations, recreating with aplomb the sounds of yesteryear. Wilson’s Smokin’ Joint and Lookin’ for Trouble, from the early 2000s, were also cut for M.C. Records. Both were nominated for a Grammy in the Traditional Blues category. “Take Me Back!” should certainly garner the same results, at least.

— Tom Clarke

  • Kim Wilson
  • ‘Take Me Back! – The Bigtone Sessions’
  • Label: MC Records

ABOUT Tom Clarke

Tom Clarke
From pre-war blues to the bluegrass of the Virginia hills, Tom Clarke has a passion for most any kind of deep-rooted American music, and has been writing about it for 25 years. He’s particularly fond of anything from Louisiana, Los Lobos, and the Allman Brothers Band and its ever-growing family tree. Tom’s reviews and articles have appeared in BluesPrint, the King Biscuit Times, Hittin’ The Note, Kudzoo, Blues Revue, Elmore, Blues Music Magazine, and now, Tahoe Onstage. Tom and his wife Karen have raised four daughters in upstate New York. They split their time between the Adirondack Mountains and coastal South Carolina.

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