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Last Man Standing

Kim Wilson is the sole T-Bird on the band's best release in years. But is anyone listening?

Consider it a minor miracle of happenstance. Kim Wilson sure does. Wilson, the grizzled 46-year-old leader of what is still one of Austin's best-known exports, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, had been chilling in a New York recording studio with a couple of his pals, laying down bare-bones demos for an upcoming T-Birds release. At first, the three men were essentially biding their time, hammering out hooks, grooves, choruses and the occasional lyrical turn while waiting for something to stick. Their assignment was a rather hefty one: a trio of friends, a set of drums, a few guitars, a harmonica and next to no finished music, all assembled to make something out of nothing.

Joining Wilson were Danny Kortchmar and Steve Jordan, both session aces with so much experience between them that it boggles the mind that they aren't household names. Kortchmar's resume includes crucial '70s affiliations with Carole King and James Taylor, intensive work with Don Henley in the '80s and a mountain of production credits in the '90s. Jordan came of age as a drummer in Paul Shaffer's Late Night with David Letterman band, and has since leapt into the role of Keith Richards's right-hand man whenever Richards catches the solo bug.

Neither Kortchmar nor Jordan is of the gig-weary ilk that Wilson has been accustomed to running into on tour with the T-Birds over the last 23 years. And it goes without saying that either could have found a half-dozen ways to spend his time more profitably than by woodshedding with a man who hasn't had a hit in a decade. But the two stuck it out, mainly because each has had such a blast producing Wilson projects in the past: Kortchmar was behind the boards on the T-Birds' 1995 effort, Roll of the Dice, and Jordan handled production duties for a Wilson solo effort.

Jovial, enthusiastic and remarkably resilient, Wilson is an agreeable workmate by any standard, and before long he and the other two musicians had cobbled together enough raw material to forward to the T-Birds' label, Windham Hill/High Street, for a preliminary listen. Basically, the idea was to show the suits in Los Angeles that things were moving along. Windham Hill/High Street's enthusiastic reaction to the demos caught Wilson, Kortchmar and Jordan a little off-guard. The label wanted to hear more, so the trio gladly went back to work.

The results of those loose-knit sessions can be heard on the recent High Water, which is easily the most effortless and inspired hybrid of rock and roll, soul and rhythm and blues to bear the Fabulous Thunderbirds stamp since Jimmy Vaughan left the band more than 15 years ago. In reality, however, the 12-track CD is a Thunderbirds release in name only, since Wilson is the only actual T-Bird to make an appearance on it. And with its subtle, wide-open arrangements, front-porch guitar interludes, funky, relaxed grooves and ear-ticklingly intimate mix, High Water has all the earmarks of a Wilson solo effort, though he had a lot of help from his friends. (Writing and production credits are shared by Wilson, Kortchmar and Jordan.)

Naturally, this raises the question of why High Water makes use of the Thunderbirds name at all. In response, Wilson alludes to powers beyond his control. "I'll put it this way, it wasn't my idea," he says. "But I went with it because I really wanted the record to come out."

Not surprisingly, High Water's only hints of the T-Birds' signature streamlined muscle come from Wilson himself, and even those are slimmed down to modest proportions. The spontaneous recording situation obviously did a job on the singer, who must have had to dig exceptionally deep to tap emotions as raw and honest as those heard on the CD. That wellspring of feeling, in turn, carried over into other areas, kindling the fire in his harp playing, sharpening the graveled edges of his low-down baritone and adding fresh bite to his lyrics -- all of which jell into a particularly poignant whole on the title track. Written in the studio in a matter of minutes, "High Water" was inspired by the widespread flooding that gripped many parts of the nation in the summer of 1996.

"When darkness falls over the land / It strikes fear in the heart of man," Wilson sings over a hollowed-out 4/4 beat from Jordan and a simple but memorable set of chords. "Get down on your knees and pray / This is rehearsal for judgment day."

For a tune with a natural-disaster theme, "High Water" is profoundly life-affirming. From the beginning, the urgent ache of Wilson's delivery sends shivers up the spine, while Kortchmar's delicate guitar work soothes the hurt and the backing vocals of all three musicians lend the song a gospel-like lift. As the song progresses, the mood brightens significantly as Wilson continues, "Someday we gonna turn it around / We gonna find that higher ground / Lord knows the time is at hand / For rising waters to cleanse the land."

Any way you look at it, Wilson's contribution to "High Water" is the finest thing to come out of any Thunderbird in quite some time. And Wilson, for one, isn't about to argue the point.

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