Close to 40 years into his career as bandleader of The Fabulous Thunderbirds, singer and blues harpist Kim Wilson feels he’s experiencing a rebirth.
It began in 2011, when the blues rock hybrid group signed with independent blues label Severn Records. Wilson was impressed with the label’s new studio in Annapolis, Md., and approached Severn founder David Earl about making a new Fabulous Thunderbirds studio record, the band’s first since 2005’s “Painted On.” In March, the band released “On the Verge,” produced by Wilson, Earl, Kevin Anker and Steve Gomes.
“I didn’t really realize what a workaholic he was,” Wilson said with a laugh, while at his home in California. “And the direction he is going with that label — he’s been doing it now for, I don’t know, 10, 12 years. He really got great at the material, and sonically — this is a beautiful record sonically; it’s really, really good. The material is better than any material I’ve ever had on a record.”
A new tack
With Earl’s help, Wilson was able to inject elements of soul and R&B into the band’s usual blues-inflected stomp. It’s a tack the band has taken in the past, but never to the extent that’s shown on “On the Verge.”
“It’s been quite a few years [since the last album] but it was worth it waiting for a good label,” Wilson said. “They really facilitated a lot of things for me as far as being an artist — they took me in a direction that I wanted to go in for a long time. You know, we were messing with soul and R&B all the way back to the ‘Tuff Enuff’ record [in 1986], and even before that with things like ‘How Do You Spell Love,’ earlier on, but I think now we finally have got the personnel to be able to handle this kind of material.”
The Fabulous Thunderbirds, with Super 400
When: 5 p.m. today
Where: Alive at Five, Corning Preserve at Albany Riverfront Park
How Much: Free
More Info: 434-2032, www.albanyevents.org
Wilson and the rest of the Thunderbirds — for the past five years it’s been guitarists Johnny Moeller and Mike Keller, bassist Randy Bermudes and drummer Jay Moeller — will be kicking off a summer of weekend touring with their appearance at the first Alive at Five show of 2013 tonight.
The annual free concert series, taking place on Thursdays at Albany Riverfront Park through Aug. 8, will include George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic (June 27), Starship (July 18) and The Original Wailers (Aug. 1).
The Thunderbirds’ Alive at Five kickoff will be the band’s first visit to the Capital Region since July 2004, when it headlined the Fleet BluesFest at Empire State Plaza.
These days, the band has certainly slowed down its touring, sticking to weekend dates. The longest stretch of time the band will hit the road is a three-week tour of Europe later in the year. For Wilson and the rest of the band, which earned a reputation for its hard touring in the ’70s and ’80s, the sparse schedule is a welcome relief.
“We used to go out for 300 days a year, and that’s — I’m not sure what it is now, but it’s not that,” Wilson said. “It does get to a point where you do have a desire to kind of make a choice. Sometimes, when you’re beating the crap out of yourself, it kind of takes the enjoyment out of what you’re doing, and music is all about the enjoyment.”
The band’s set will focus heavily on the R&B-inflected material from “On the Verge.” With the band’s various shifting lineups — Wilson remains the only original member from the quartet he first formed with guitarist Jimmie Vaughn (the older brother of Stevie Ray Vaughn) in 1974 — older songs such as “Tuff Enuff,” the band’s only top 40 hit, have also been given a fresh spin.
“It’s a spontaneous show — I don’t use a set list ever,” Wilson said. “I’ve kind of been talked into playing what they call the Thunderbirds classics in the show, along with all the new stuff, so that’s good. I’m not a person that likes to dwell on the past of this band — I like the present and the future — but I’m able to do it just because I know the fans like it. . . . This band has its own voice on this stuff anyway, so it’s not like it’s done exactly like it was.”
Even before Jimmie Vaughn’s departure in 1989 (he joined Stevie Ray’s band shortly before the legendary blues guitarist’s death, and later went on to a solo career), the Thunderbirds’ lineup has seen constant shifts. That was as much out of Wilson’s desire for players who could handle the material he wanted to play, as it was due to people leaving the group.
“I wanted people with their own voices,” Wilson said. “I mean, I didn’t fire all of them — some of them actually did quit; that’s just the way music is. If you want to keep going in a direction that you have dreams of, there’s not always people — you don’t know people until you live with them, and I think there were a lot of variations of the band that looked great on paper, but it didn’t really work as far as reality.”
At this point, Wilson feels he has hit upon the perfect lineup for the group. With the band’s relationship with Severn just beginning, Wilson is looking forward to pushing in new musical directions in the future — something that has always defined the band’s ethos.
“When you get to be my age, it’s really all about me,” Wilson said. “I have to realize, how many years do I have left in this business? In blues years, I have quite a few, but as far as contemporary music — that’s another beautiful thing about the majors [major record labels] going downhill, the whole age thing has kind of changed too, which is great for me.
“But I think that I have to live out my musical dreams, and in order to do that I have to have people who are well-versed in a lot of different kinds of music, and I have to have people that have their own voice, who aren’t so reverent of the past that they don’t know which way to go. These guys have that, so I did get lucky.”