Review: The Fabulous Thunderbirds Expand Sound With Outstanding 'On The Verge'

A departure, yes, but a thoroughly satisfying recording
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Anyone familiar with the long and storied career of The Fabulous Thunderbirds will no doubt have certain expectations.  Despite constant lineup changes over almost forty(!!!) years - founder/frontman Kim Wilson is the only original member left -  they've been known primarily for swaggering, Texas blues and roadhouse rock 'n' roll.

On The Verge is a significant departure from the T-Birds' sound.   With burbling rhythms, lots of layered horns and shimmering rhythm guitars, there's more soul and old-school R&B than blues, with very little of Wilson's trademark harmonica to be found.

Indeed, much of the swagger is dispensed with in the opening track, "I Want To Believe," coming closest to the band's old sound - a strong rhythm punctuated by slashing guitars, though Kevin Ankers' electric piano adds a somewhat different texture.  "Lovin' Time" is pure shimmery soul, with delicate guitars courtesy of Johnny Moeller and Mike Keller.  ('Delicate' isn't an adjective that would have applied back when the T-Birds featured such axe-slingers as Jimmy Vaughan, Kid Ramos, or the late Nick Curran).

Wilson's harmonica comes in on the swampy third track, "Too Much Water," but it's applied sparingly, primarily for atmosphere.  "Hold Me" is back to soul, though, a we-can-make-it kind of tune with a rainy-day feel accented by subtle horns.  "Runnin' From The Blues" is in much the same mold, simmering and smoldering, as are "Got To Bring It With You," "Diamonds Won't Kiss You Back," and "Lonely Highway," the latter featuring more of Wilson's moody harmonica work.  There's a bit more strut with "Got To Bring It With You," and the tough "That's The Way We Roll" gives Wilson a chance to get nasty, with distorted vocals and gritty harp.  "Do You Know Who I Am' is a working man's lament, a subtle but scathing indictment of America's decline and a poignant plea for the dignity of a hard-earned life.

Wilson is widely considered one of the best blues harp players around, and what little harmonica is here only confirms his absolute mastery of the instrument.  He's also a supremely soulful singer, a consummate professional who's always mined melody and explored nuance far more than most blues singers.  Both Moeller and Keller are sublimely tasteful guitarists, and the rhythm section (drummer Jason Moeller and bassist Randy Bermudes) are suitably supple yet solid.  There are horns on a handful, more for texture than for brassy punch, and guest Kevin Ankers' support throughout is utterly brilliant.

On The Verge, the band's first recording since 2005, is also their first on Maryland-based Severn Records, where co-producer, engineer, and label honcho David Earl specializes in just this sound, warm and thoroughly organic, with tastefully elegant arrangements and an exquisite clarity and presence.  

It's a different sound, to be sure, but given the T-Birds' freewheeling approach to American music in general, a focus on the soulful side shouldn't come as much of a surprise.  Wilson and company have never fit comfortably into a single genre, and while On The Verge is significantly more polished and the craft more evident, it feels like evolution rather than reinvention, a natural progression in the band's ongoing musical adventures.  Highly recommended!