"Now, let's get one thing straight--I'm really a pussycat," Kim Wilson says, able to hold back the laughter for only a second. Considering the history of his band, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, a bulldog is closer to the truth.

For 17 years, through good times and bad, Wilson has pushed an ever-changing array of players to whip up some Texas electric blues, fold in a healthy helpin' of R&B and season with Louisiana swamp-rock, Tex-Mex and roots-rock.

It's a sound and style that's put the T-Birds next to acts like ZZ Top, Robert Cray and Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble as one of the most successful crossover blues acts of all time.

When Wilson decided to cross over, however, he left a group of fans behind. His reaction? Too bad. He insists the Thunderbirds are still the keepers of the Texas blues flame, but the half-full clubs the band plays to these days say otherwise.

Now he's under attack on a second front. His top-dog status in the Thunderbirds is being challenged by talented newcomer Duke Robillard.

Despite these rumblings, the band is Wilson's baby. He's as protective as a bulldog bitch.

"Actually, I think Roomful of Blues has been at it longer than we have," Wilson says, reflecting on the T-Birds' timeline. "But we've taken it farther than anyone else."

It's funny that one of the first things Wilson mentions is Roomful of Blues. Over the years, the Providence, Rhode Island-based Roomful, which at times has included such luminaries as Lou Ann Barton and Ronnie Earl, has served as a farm team for the T-Birds. Every time the T-Birds lose a member, they end up raiding Roomful for a replacement.

Last year, guitarist Jimmie Vaughan dealt the T-Birds what looked like a fatal blow by announcing he was leaving to pursue a solo career. The timing turned out to be fortuitous for Vaughan because, not long after leaving, he became embroiled in managing the affairs of his late brother Stevie Ray Vaughan. One of Jimmie's first projects after leaving the T-Birds was producing Stevie Ray's first posthumous release, The Sky Is Crying.

True to his tenacious nature, Kim Wilson immediately set about filling the gaping hole left by Jimmie Vaughan's departure. After auditioning several high-profile guitar players, Wilson returned to the old reliable--Roomful of Blues. Without playing a note, in stepped the latest and possibly greatest Roomful recruit, Duke Robillard. The kind of blues cat who favors berets, ocelot-print shirts and hepster scoots, Robillard is every bit the guitar player Jimmie Vaughan was. Maybe more so. Duke's energies have given a fresh new sound to a band that in the past five years has gone from filling arenas to playing to half-full clubs. Robillard's presence has also spurred the band's second guitarist, Kid Bangham, into honing his playing until Bangham's now what Wilson calls "a contender." "Duke's fuckin' awesome," Wilson says. "He's just a great musician. I mean, he can really turn himself into T-Bone Walker if he wants to. I take it as a great compliment that he wanted to be part of the band."

Wilson may be taking it as a compliment now, but it will be interesting to see just how much of the spotlight Wilson gives up to his new guitarist. In many ways, the T-Birds have become a Kim Wilson solo project. He writes the tunes, fronts the band and does the interviews. Despite protestations to the contrary, he loves being The Man. But Robillard is also a bandleader. Part of the bargain when he joined the T-Birds was that he would continue to have a solo career with his own band. After all, the Duke Robillard Band's last record, 1991's Turn It Around, was a strong effort filled with great originals and powerful playing.

At the moment, Wilson says that eventually he and Duke will share lead vocal duties. And despite the fact that no Robillard originals made it onto the T-Birds' latest record, Walk That Walk, Talk That Talk, Wilson says that eventually the band will begin to work Robillard originals onto the set list. Although Wilson says it's no big deal, some sort of power struggle seems inevitable. "It isn't my solo project," Wilson says. "Of course, you can't have too many cooks, either." One thing Wilson will concede is that Robillard has given the band "a real shot in the arm."

"These days," Wilson says, "there's a lot more of the smell of blood about what we do. I mean, Duke and the rest of the band know how to go for the throat. Plus, when people count you out, like they've been doing to us the last few years, then it really becomes a challenge, it really gets fun."

The Fabulous Thunderbirds haven't really been counted out since their first gig in Austin, Texas, in 1974.

Formed that year, it was the house band at Austin's most famous blues joint, Antone's, for the rest of the Seventies. There, the T-Birds had the opportunity to back up such blues greats as Muddy Waters and Jimmy Reed. The band's original lineup (conspicuously expunged from the band's current bio) reads like a who's who of Texas R&B and roots music. The first drummer, Mike Buck, went on to play with the unjustly ignored but widely influential roots 'n' blues quartet the LeRoi Brothers. Buck can also be heard on the seminal Big Guitars From Texas compilation albums. Bassist Keith Ferguson was a key member of the Tail Gators before going solo in 1989. And besides being the source for much of his younger brother's inspiration, Jimmie Vaughan has worked with everyone from Eric Clapton to Joe Ely. By 1979, the T-Birds had seen enough blues greats and worked up enough originals to make their first record. After being turned down by nearly every label on the globe, their self-titled debut album was released on tiny Takoma Records. The success of The Fabulous Thunderbirds led to a record deal with Chrysalis. In 1986, the band moved to Epic Records. Along the way, it opened a series of 1984 Texas concert dates for the Rolling Stones and recorded classic albums like Butt Rockin' and What's the Word. In 1986, the group won a W.C. Handy Award for "Best Blues Band." Since then, its music has been featured on several movie soundtracks, including Cocktail and Bull Durham. The Roomful of Blues connection was working hot and heavy throughout those years. When Mike Buck left after the debut album, he was replaced by Roomful drummer Fran Christina. In 1984, bassist Preston Hubbard left Roomful to replace the Tail Gators-bound Ferguson.

Besides bringing them a Handy Award, 1986 was also the year that the T-Birds broke into radio. Aimed directly at Top 40 playlists, the slick title tune from the Dave Edmunds-produced album Tuff Enuff won them national airplay. But as "Tuff Enuff" shot into the Top Ten and cracked the sanitized playlists of AOR radio, the band was berated by loyal fans who accused it of selling out.

Today, there is a very defined cleavage among T-Birds fans: those who knew them before Tuff Enuff and those who've come to love them since. Since it's had a hit, much of the band's original audience no longer listens. Part of this can be attributed to the band's obvious commercial intent and the fact that its music has become less bluesy and more R&B oriented.

A smaller part of the why-people-aren't-listening equation comes from the music-business Catch-22 that holds that once you're not starving, you're no longer cool. Wilson understands that the band is having trouble finding an audience, but the part about "selling out" and "going commercial" gets him riled. "What is `commercial'?" he says. "Commercial means selling records. That's all it is. If Junior Wells' Live at Peppers album had sold a million copies, it would be commercial. I really don't have to cater to anyone except myself. I know I can deliver the goods to the audience and after that it's up to them."

As someone who's been committed to the band for nearly 20 years, Wilson defends the T-Birds' ventures into the Top 40. In fact, he says, it feels good!

"I don't care what everyone else says: When you get a taste of Top 40 success, you want to go back there," he says. "There's a lot of nice things that come with it: money and just knowing that you got there by being yourself."

There are a lot of old T-Birds fans who would dispute that last statement. They'd argue that the T-Birds made it into the Top 40 by not being themselves.

Either way, since Tuff Enuff, the band's airplay and sales figures have returned to the doldrums. The usual pattern is that the first 30,000 to 40,000 records go quickly to T-Birds fanatics, but after that the going gets tough.

And if record sales and tour dates aren't enough to think about, the band's also laboring these days under the pall of Stevie Ray Vaughan's death. Although his death has awakened a new interest in Texas music, it has also cast a shadow over the vibrant Austin scene.

"In the last few years, Stevie and I didn't see each other much because we were both on the road," Wilson says. "It's weird, but we sort of depended on running into each other at home in Austin. You know, I'd be hanging around Antone's and he'd pop in, or vice versa. It's weird that now even that's gone.

"At his funeral, I had the same feeling I did at Muddy Waters' funeral. I'm sitting there looking at him in his coffin, thinking, `I wish you'd get up!'"

The Fabulous Thunderbirds will perform at the Mason Jar on Tuesday, December 10. Showtime is 9 p.m.

Robillard's energies have given a fresh new sound to a band that has gone from filling arenas to playing to half-full clubs.

Since it's had a hit, much of the band's original audience no longer listens.

The part about "selling out" and "going commercial" gets Wilson riled.


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