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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1253

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Kim Wilson: Smokin' Joint
George Graham

(MC Records 0043 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 9/5/2001)

The blues, that great American music form, seems to follow periods of boom and bust, in terms of general popularity. We are currently in one of those "up" periods that is probably one of the longest running -- the blues has been enjoying a fair degree of popularity and public awareness for over a decade now. Back in the late 1980s, the two acts that did the most to spread the blues to more general rock audiences were the late Stevie Ray Vaughan and the Fabulous Thunderbirds. Stevie Ray has been gone for a for more than ten years, but the members of the Fabulous Thunderbirds have remained active, though the band has had an on-again-off-again existence. Co-founded by Stevie Ray Vaughan's older brother Jimmie, the group's front man over the years has been vocalist and harmonica specialist Kim Wilson, who has been releasing both solo recordings and Fabulous Thunderbirds records with various configurations of musicians. Wilson's latest effort is a live recording under his own name called Smokin' Joint.

Fifty-year-old Kim Wilson was born in Detroit, but grew up in Northern California. Though his parents were musical, and Wilson took up trombone and guitar lessons, it was not until his high school senior year that Kim Wilson discovered the blues, and was soon applying himself to the harmonica. In 1970, he dropped out of college to play the blues full time, and lived what he described as a "hippie" existence in the Bay Area, playing with whatever blues musicians would come through town. In the mid 1970s, Wilson moved to Austin, Texas, and soon became associated with the famous blues club Antone's, where he became a member of the house band, getting many opportunities to perform on stage with some of his heroes and mentors, including Muddy Waters.

With Jimmie Vaughan, Kim Wilson formed the Fabulous Thunderbirds in the late 1970s, and by the middle of the Eighties, began to enjoy the resurgence in the blues, with their 1986 album Tuff Enuff selling extraordinarily well for a blues recording.

After Jimmie Vaughan left the Thunderbirds to re-join his brother, in what turned out to be a tragically short collaboration, the Fabulous Thunderbirds continued with various guitar players, most notably Duke Robillard, a founder of Roomful of Blues. With the Thunderbirds existence becoming increasingly intermittent, Wilson worked on a number of solo projects with bands he assembled, with those usually being more straight-ahead blues oriented than the Thunderbirds' albums. That was especially the case with the disappointing 1997 Thunderbirds release High Water, which featured Wilson in a drum-machine backed studio band with Danny Kortchmar and Steve Jordan.

But no concessions to the marketplace or commercial music fads are to be found on Smokin' Joint. It's just the blues the way it comes across best, in a live setting. But interestingly, the CD is a composite of performances from two venues recorded almost two years apart, with somewhat different bands including two different pairs of guitar players. But the rest of the rhythm section remains the same and there is a good musical continuity throughout the lengthy, 73-minute CD. That rhythm section includes bassist Larry Taylor who spent some time in the Woodstock band Canned Heat, and who plays acoustic bass as much as electric; and West Coast blues drummer Richard Innes. The rest of the personnel varies. About half the album was recorded in Phoenix, Arizona, in February of 1999 and features guitarists Rusty Zinn and Billy Flynn; while the rest of the CD consists of music from a December 2000 performance in Hermosa Beach, California, and features guitarists Kirk Fletcher and Troy Gonyea, along with keyboard man Mark Stevens. At the center of it all, of course, are Wilson's appealing vocals and impressive harmonica work. Though Wilson is known for his -- as the bluesmen say -- "harp" playing, there are some tracks on the CD on which he is just heard singing, and there are also instrumentals on which Wilson's harmonica takes center stage.

Wilson and company cover a rather broad range of blues styles including Texas style shuffles, jump-band swing, classic slow blues, hard-driving Chicago style, and some Memphis soul influenced tracks, which the Thunderbirds would often do. Four of the thirteen songs are originals, while the rest are from a variety of sources, including classic blues composers like Willie Dixon and Jimmy Reed. WIlson, who is generally on the road for about 200 nights a year, is in fine form on both of the gigs represented on this CD. There's something about a live blues performance, especially with a sympathetic band, that can sometimes transcend even the best studio recordings. Smokin' Joint captures a live ambience well, with little touches like the inclusion of the sound of the band getting ready to play each tune. With both personnel lineups in excellent form, that liveness definitely makes the CD a highlight of Wilson's recording career.

Things begin one of the tunes from the 1999 Phoenix performance with guitarists Zinn and Flynn. Ain't Gonna Do It, is an irresistible jump-band-swing style tune, though Wilson does not play his harmonica. Rusty Zinn, also from the Austin music scene, puts in some good, classic-style playing. <<>>

The first of the tracks from the Hermosa Beach performance is the Willie Dixon song Oh Baby. Dixon wrote some of the best of the Chicago blues classics, and naturally, Wilson and band, including guitarists Fletcher and Gonyea, take up the style, complete with Wilson's strong amplified harmonica work. <<>>

It's back to the Phoenix performance for an architypical slow blues, Early in the Morning, an original piece by Wilson, with lyrics that are a kind of compendium of classic blues phrases. <<>> It provides a chance for some good solos by Wilson and guitarist Billy Flynn. <<>>

It's usually the slow blues songs that comprise the longest tracks on a blues album, but clocking in at over nine minutes is another Wilson original Got to Let You Go, a fast shuffle which provides some more opportunities for instrumental workouts from Wilson's harmonica and both Fletcher and Gonyea's guitars. <<>>

The first of the intrumentals is the hard driving title track Smokin' Joint from the 1999 Arizona performance, on which Wilson's harmonica takes center stage, serving as a reminder of why Wilson is considered one of the best in the business. His solo manages to combine the classic blues sound with some imaginative improvisation. <<>>

One of the CD's most musically infectious tunes is I Stay in the Mood, done as jazzy shuffle. It features the California band with Fletcher and Gonyea. <<>>

Wilson's groups emphasize the guitar and harmonica work, but pianist Mark Stevens from the California performance gets a chance to do his stuff on a tune influenced by Memphis soul, I Can Tell, on which other members of the group also get a chance to stretch out instrumentally. <<>>

Wilson is known for using his harmonica amplifer to get almost an organ-like sound. The showcase for his harmonica style is the original tune The Lighthouse is Gone, which closes out the CD, and proves to be another highlight of the album. <<>>

Bluesman Kim Wilson has been going back and forth between solo projects and recordings with the Fabulous Thunderbirds. Since the T-Birds achieved a measure of commercial success, when Wilson wants to stretch out, he releases a solo recording, and they have tended to better in recent years from a musical and blues integrity standpoint than the T-Birds' releases. His new CD Smokin' Joint not only features first-rate playing and a good collection of different material, but the live recording environment raises the level even more.

Our sound quality grade is almost an "A." The two different performances recorded with different bands in different locations, means that there is less uniformity than many albums from track to track. And there are a couple of technical foibles, such as the odd way the channel balance shifts momentarily to the right when Wilson hits his strong vocal notes in the California session, though the drums sound better on the California show. But there is a decent dynamic range and no attempts were made to sound retro with lo-fi sound, as has often been the case on recent blues albums.

The current blues revival shows no signs of abating. It's nice to hear a fine new recording by one of the people who helped popularize the form among the general public. Smokin' Joint is one of Kim Wilson's best, served live, the way the blues thrives.

(c) Copyright 2001 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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