Native Californian and harmonica player Kim Wilson and Texas superstar Jimmie Vaughan (elder brother of Stevie Ray Vaughan) came together in a groundbreaking way as two key members of the Fabulous Thunderbirds. Their original line-up included bassist, Keith Ferguson and drummer Mick Buck. The band has been going strong for a landmark forty years despite a few line-up changes and record label deployments.

It is true that Kim Wilson took a hiatus from the group in the late 1980s, but he didn’t stand on ceremony. It was during that break that he recorded two solo albums for the Antone’s label (and Retroworld).

Unfazed by the burgeoning punk and new wave fever of the late 70s, the Fabulous Thunderbirds released their debut ‘Girls Go Wild’ in 1979, which featured their special fusion of traditional blues and rock and roll and the album was enthusiastically and internationally lauded. ‘What’s The Word’ (1980), ‘Butt Rockin’ (1981) and ‘T-Bird Rhythm’ (1982) followed in a rather quick progression on the Chrysalis Record label. Around this time, also, Fran Christina took over drum duties. For a number of years they were hot stalwarts of the American blues revival scene, but their subsequent recordings never matched the success of ‘T-Bird Rhythm’ and they were dropped from the label. Then after a few years of intense performing nationwide and with new bassist. Keith Ferguson in tow, they garnered a new contract in 1985 with Epic.

It was their fifth album, 1986’s ‘Tuff Enuff’, which became their crowning glory reaching the US Top Ten. The single, ‘Wrap It Up’, a Sam and Dave cover, enjoyed status as a Top Ten track. After two flailing recordings, Jimmie Vaughan left to pursue a duo with his younger brother, the late Stevie Ray Vaughan. After his sibling’s death in 1990, Vaughan became a solo act. The Fabulous Thunderbirds continued on with Duke Robillard and Kid Bangham. The new line-up would record ‘Walk That Walk Talk That Talk’ a year later in 1991 before being dismissed from their Epic contract.

Wilson reignited the band in 1994. Their ninth album ‘Roll of the Dice’ was released in 1995 on Private Music and was followed by two more recordings; one studio and one live before Wilson, again, reformed the band in 2004.

Repertoire Records have recently reissued the first four of these albums, with previously unreleased tracks, new liner notes and contemporary packaging. Repertoire have also compiled together ‘Tuff Enuff’, ‘Roll of the Dice’ and ‘Hot Number’ albums on one double CD, and released a twenty-seven track compilation ‘The Bad and Best of the Fabulous Thunderbirds’ which includes tracks from throughout their career.

‘Girls Go Wild’

Girls Go Wild’ features amazing vocals and harp, and some unbelievably gutsy guitar. Of course, Keith Ferguson (bass), and Mike Buck (drums) don’t stand on the sidelines. ‘Wait on Time’ is real authentic blues. The vocals are relaxed and the riffs are razor sharp. Passions flare on ‘Walkin’ to My Baby,’ with low down bass and rolling thunder riffs. “I got blisters on my feet” – that sums up what this man is hell bent on doing to win back his lover.

‘Scratch My Rock’ finds Wilson sweeter and more convincing than ever on this live track. The vocals are sparse but fitting as the song is largely instrumental.

‘Marked Deck’ clearly states, “love is like a card game”. This is one street-smart shuffle. ‘Pocket Rocket’ (live) is a superb energy-packed instrumental brimming with generous give and take.

There are two versions of ‘Wait on Time’ but the live and the studio offerings contrast greatly in tone and mood. ‘Rich Woman’ recalls the Ventures with its smart instrumental hooks and wild guitar. (It was recorded by Li’l Mike and the Creoles in 1955.) Two of Wilson’s originals ‘Wait on Time’ and ‘Scratch My Back’ are outstanding examples of “less is more” in songwriting. Each note and phrase stands on its own.

‘What’s the Word’

The fab back beat of ‘Runnin’ Shoes’ merges with a gruff and desperate plea for help. Why? “She got a bad old man/I’m too young to die.” ‘You Aint’ Nothing But Fin’’ hearkens back to Buddy Holly with its innocent text and jangly rhythm. ‘Low-Down Woman’ has a low down bass line to accentuate her unpredictable curves. ‘Extra Jimmie’ features the classy guitarist’s unmistakable penchant for melody. The hand claps and blues harp of ‘Sugar Coated Love’ take you way back in time. ‘Last Call for Alcohol’ is a nondescript instrumental, and then the unexpected ‘The Crawl’ appears – a homage to a dance. ‘I’m A Good Man’ has straightforward and brilliant lyrics whilst ‘Look Whatcha Done’ features more spectacular guitar.

‘Butt Rockin’

‘Found a New Love’ is pure soul with resonant vocals and a soulful refrain. The live ‘Mathilda’ is fun and incredibly optimistic amidst the usual sea of bitter tears that make up the text of many blues songs.

‘Someday You’ll Want Me’ is biting and wonderfully vengeful. The instrumental ‘In Orbit’ finds Wilson leading off with fresh, clean, sharp chops.

‘T-Bird Rhythm’

‘T-Bird Rhythm ‘leads off with some more great vocals. ‘Can’t Tear It Up Enuff’ is just one example. ‘Gotta Have Some/Just Got Some’ is about a man who starts off in a sorry state but not for long. Wilson’s astute punctuation is astounding. ‘Neighbor Tend to Your Business’ has a truculent bass and an amusing storyline: “You’re sneaking, peeping through my door”.

Fran Christina’s drums and backing vocals are a nice touch, too, as is the photo of the cherry red 1957 vehicle on the back cover.

‘Tuff Enuff’/Roll of the Dice’/‘Hot Number’

The first disc of this double CD three album reissue contains all of ‘Tuff Enuff’, which features more unforgettable bass lines and hooks and contemporary production. It begins with the self-titled song, a real driving force on this recording. ‘Tell Me’ is Zydeco tinged. ‘Look At That Look At That’ is a wonderful wink back to the 50s.

‘Two Time My Lovin’ is a moving soul ballad whilst ‘Amnesia’ speaks of a clever man trying to worm his way out of an awkward situation. ‘Wrap It Up’ is flawless and a potent rendition of a classic American ballad. ‘True Love’ is rockabilly genius. It’s getting impossible to peg this band because ‘Why Get Up’ could have been a hit for the Coasters. ‘Down at Antone’s’ is a signature song, perhaps in gratitude, for the close alliance the band developed with the owner and the years securing a loyal fan base at the famous Austin club. The harp is fast and seductive
From the ‘Hot Number’ album ‘Stand Back’ sounds so Stax! ‘Streets of Gold’ brings forth brass and keyboard riffs, something novel and refreshing at this point. ‘Sofa Circuit’ also has brass flavourings. ‘It Comes To Me Naturally’ is an Americana flirt fest. ‘It Takes A Big Man to Cry’ completes the set. It’s another winner: a deeply emotive and reflective ballad.

‘Roll of the Dice’ follows on from the second album. The title song is philosophy mixed with street smarts; another great story with strength and focus. The next story ‘Too Many Irons in The Fire’ is about a man who is completely overwhelmed. “Too many hands in the glove…” he winces. The drumming is phenomenal. ‘How Do I Get You Back’ is vibrant and ‘Mean Love’ is coloured with Wilson’s screeching grandeur. The titles point you to the varied moods and points of view: ‘Lookin’ Forward to Lookin’ Back’, ‘I Can’t Win’ and ‘Memory From Hell’ could be pages torn from a diary and put to music. The grand finale is a cover of ‘Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah’ – The band takes a standard with a predictable, cornball lyric and melody, and reimagines it as a one-of-a-kind epic.

‘The Bad and Best of the Fabulous Thunderbirds’

‘The Bad and Best of the Fabulous Thunderbirds’ is boundless in its energy. ‘Mathilde’ is stunning and ‘How Do You Spell Love’ – the cynical answer: “M-O-N-E-Y” says it all. ‘You’re Humbuggin Me’ is a tug of war between Vaughan and Wilson that can’t be missed. ‘She’s Tuff’ and ‘My Babe’ are two examples of efficient storytelling once again. This time it is ‘Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White’ that deviates from the norm; it’s got an irresistible marimba flavour. A stampede of sound screams out in ‘Powerful Stuff’ – a testament to finding “the one.” “When I saw her, I burned my little black book” – although it’s done in an uber casual way, it’s quite romantic.

In essence, I wouldn’t advise even the most ardent fans to run out and buy all of these CDs as there is a lot of duplication, but you’ll be rewarded with some immensely entertaining tracks and memories if you choose wisely. There are few bands that can compete with the Fabulous Thunderbirds because they have created such an awe-inspiring, authentic and variegated discography. These reissues are as relevant, super-charged and satisfying now as when they were first released.

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