Last Man Standing

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.

"Not to toot my own horn here, but I think 'High Water' is a classic song," says Wilson. "It's so fuckin' heavy."

Putting it mildly, Kim Wilson isn't an easy person to track down. Last year, Wilson estimates, he lived out of pocket no less than 246 days. While on tour, his lifeline is a voice-mail pager with an 800 number. And even if you do manage to get a message to him, there's no guarantee he'll return the call any time soon, especially if (as in my case) the T-Birds' tour bus happens to be battling a blizzard in Cleveland.

Once he's glued to the phone, though, it's all anyone can do to pry him away. On this particular December morning, Wilson is keeping the rest of the Thunderbirds -- guitarist Kid Ramos, bassist Willie J. Campbell, keyboardist Gene Taylor and drummer Jimi Bott -- waiting while he ponders High Water's dreary commercial performance thus far. Released in May to raves from the press, the CD has yet to show signs of life outside critical circles.

"It's all a moot point if it doesn't get to the radio," says Wilson. "It's kind of up in the air; it's a jump ball."

But then Wilson quickly turns philosophical. "No matter what you give, sometimes it's just not the time," he says. "If it truly pans out that High Water just kind of flies by people, [Kortchmar and Jordan] are the ones who are going to be disappointed, and that's what disappoints me."

It's not as if Wilson hasn't had letdowns before. He actually prides himself on his ability to bounce back from just about anything; his keeping the Fabulous Thunderbirds rolling along all these years is a testament to that. Lord knows, the T-Birds have seen their share of rocky terrain since they exploded out of the Austin scene in the mid-1980s, feeding off the good-time charge of the hits "Wrap It Up," "Stand Back" and their Top Ten breakthrough, "Tuff Enuff." Come 1986, the T-Birds were one of the leading beneficiaries of a roots-rock revival sparked a few years before by so-called New Wavers such as Nick Lowe, Dave Edmunds and Jason and the Scorchers. Thanks in large part to the Edmunds-produced Tuff Enuff CD, the group's fan base ballooned. It was all the reason Wilson and the others needed to stay on the road until their bodies gave out.

As a result, the band was showing signs of burnout by the end of the decade. Co-founder Jimmy Vaughan gave his notice in 1990, and his departure might have signaled the beginning of the end if it hadn't been for Wilson, whose stubborn resolve has willed the band along ever since. Only rarely has he allowed anything -- lineup changes, label and money issues, what have you -- to impede the Fabulous Thunderbirds' pursuit of roadhouse rock and roll.

"Little ups and downs don't faze me," says Wilson, "because whether they're ups or they're downs, I'm going to dig in just as hard."

Now, as the only original T-Bird left, Wilson is the sole arbiter of the band's fate. For what it's worth, he has long since left Texas, returning a few years ago to California, the state in which he was raised. By most indications, everyone else in the group seems to have little problem putting their faith in Wilson. Touring behind High Water, the other T-Birds were given the unenviable task of re-creating -- or rather, reinterpreting -- what went on in the studio between Wilson, Kortchmar and Jordan. According to Wilson, they've responded famously.

"They were very cool about the whole thing," he says. "[They knew] I couldn't take the music out of the hands of the guys that invented it. And to be honest with you, I didn't think the band was ready to do a record at that point."

Once he gets back home to Orange County, Wilson plans to assemble the road band for a studio release. And the music on this T-Birds CD, he adds, promises to be a far more accurate reflection of its billing than was the case on High Water.

"I had it in my mind that I was gonna make the T-Birds something different every time out. I still think that theory could work," Wilson says. "And who knows? Down the line, maybe High Water will sell itself. That would be beautiful. Then I could thumb my nose at a lot of people."  

The Fabulous Thunderbirds perform at 8 p.m. Sunday, December 28, at Rockefeller's, 3620 Washington Avenue. Tickets are $18 to $28.50. The Fabulous Jalapenos open. For info, call 869-

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