THE FABULOUS THUNDERBIRDS
For over 30 years, The Fabulous Thunderbirds have been the quintessential American band. The group’s distinctive and powerful sound, influenced by a diversity of musical styles, manifested itself into a unique musical hybrid via such barnburners as “Tuff Enuff” and “Wrap It Up”. Co-founder Kim Wilson, the sole original member, still spearheads the group as it evolves into its newest incarnation.
“We started as a straight blues band”, vocalist and harmonica player Wilson says. “We now incorporate a mixture of a lot of different styles. We’re an American music band and we’re much higher energy than we were before.”
In addition to Wilson, the current Thunderbirds line-up features Jay Moeller on drums, Johnny Moeller and Mike Keller on guitar, and Randy Bermudes on bass.
“To be in the T-Birds, you need to understand the different styles of music and different ways of playing,” Wilson comments. “You have to be willing to adopt a more contemporary style. The guys we have now are able to do that.”
The band continues to tour extensively, in both the U.S. and Europe. Wilson is currently writing songs on his own, with band members and other writers.
“I’ve primarily been a solo songwriter, but I’m looking forward to experimenting with the guys in the band,” Wilson says.
The thread throughout the T-Birds career has been the respect the group commanded for its peerless musicianship and devotion to the sounds of blues, R & B and rock ‘n roll. In fact, Muddy Waters called Wilson his favorite harmonica player and vocalist. “Muddy Waters was very good to me,” Wilson says. “He almost adopted me. I’ll never forget him.”
For Kim Wilson, the musical journey started in Goleta, California. At 17 he began playing the harmonica. His influences included Little Walter, George “Harmonica” Smith, Lazy Lester and James Cotton. At the same time, Wilson began singing and was deeply impacted by Bobby “Blue” Bland, B.B. King, Otis Rush, Jimmy Rodgers and Muddy Waters. In search of other musicians who shared his love of the blues, Wilson headed to Minneapolis. He stayed there for a year and a half, playing locally, before moving to the burgeoning music scene of Austin, Texas. It was there that he met Jimmie Vaughan and they founded the T-Birds in 1974. The band developed a reputation as a compelling live act and subsequently signed a record deal with CBS/Epic Records.
In 1979, The Fabulous Thunderbirds released their first self-titled album. Primarily blues influenced, it became a cult classic. “Things were wide open back then,” Wilson recalls. “There were hundreds of stages where bands could show what they had.”
In subsequent releases, the band started to incorporate more Cajun, rock ‘n roll and soul influences. The album “T-Bird Rhythm” marked a creative turning point for the group as it collaborated with noted producer Nick Lowe. In 1986, The Fabulous Thunderbirds reached a commercial peak with the album, “Tuff Enuff”. The single of the same title as well as the singles “Wrap It Up” and “Look At That”, all went top 40. The song, “Tuff Enuff” was featured in the film “Gung Ho” starring Michael Keaton.
For the remainder of the ’80s, the band continued to record and tour, and released the album, “Powerful Stuff”. Jimmie Vaughn left in 1989 but Wilson kept the group going, incorporating keyboards into the guitar-driven sound. Kim moved back to California in 1996, continuing to cultivate the T-Birds music.
“The thing about the T-Birds is that we can play both blues festival and rock venues,” Wilson comments. “We’re a diversified band now and everybody’s on the same page.”
As a side project Wilson formed Kim Wilson’s Blues Revue, a traditional blues band. He also owns a blues label, Blue Collar Music, that has released three albums – one by Kim, one by “Big Al” Blake and one by Fred Kaplan. Wilson has also recorded and written with noted session guitarist Danny Kortchmar and drummer Steve Jordan and may tour with them at some point. However his current focus remains The Fabulous Thunderbirds. “This is a great time for this band,” he says. “We’re looking forward to the future.”
THE BLIND BOYS OF ALABAMA
The Blind Boys of Alabama have the rare distinction of being recognized around the world as both living legends and modern-day innovators. They are not just gospel singers borrowing from old traditions; the group helped to define those traditions in 20th century and to almost single-handedly create a new gospel sound for the 21st. Since the original members first sang together as kids at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind in the late 1930s (including Jimmy Carter, who leads the group today), the band has perserved through seven decades to become one of the most recognized and decorated gospel groups in the world.
Touring throughout the South during the Jim Crow era of the 1940s and 1950s, the Blind Boys flourished thanks to their unique sound, which blended the close harmonies of early jubilee gospel with the more fervent improvisations of hard gospel. In the early 1960s, the band sang at benefits for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and were a part of the soundtrack to the Civil Rights movement. But as the years passed many singers who had originated in the church began recording secular music and fans followed them, and the Blind Boys saw their audiences dwindle. However, the Blind Boys persevered and their time came again, starting in the 1980s with their starring role in the Obie Award-winning musical “The Gospel at Colonus,” which began a new chapter in their incredible history. It’s almost unbelievable that a group of blind, African-American singers, who started out touring during a time of of whites-only bathrooms, restaurants and hotels, went on to win five Grammy Awards, appear on Broadway, and perform at the White House for three different presidents.
Few would have expected them to still be going strong—stronger than ever, even—so many years after they first joined voices, but they’ve proved as productive and as musically ambitious in recent years as they did in the beginning. In 2001, they released Spirit of the Century on Peter Gabriel’s Real World label, mixing traditional church tunes with songs by Tom Waits and the Rolling Stones, and won the first of their Grammy Awards. The next year they backed Gabriel on his album Up and joined him on a world tour, although a bigger break may have come when David Simon chose their cover of Waits’ ‘Way Down in the Hole’ as the theme song for the first season of HBO’s acclaimed series The Wire. Subsequent Grammy-winning albums have found them working with Robert Randolph & the Family Band (2002’s Higher Ground), special guests including Aaron Neville and Mavis Staples (2003’s Go Tell It On The Mountain), Ben Harper (2004’s There Will Be a Light), and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band (2007’s Down in New Orleans).
In 2013 the band worked with Justin Vernon (of Bon Iver) to release I’ll Find A Way, a powerful collection of gospel and spiritual songs new and old, featuring some of the Blind Boys’ most fervent vocals as well as contributions by a new generation of Blind Boys fans, including Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs, Patty Griffin, and Justin Vernon himself.
Their most recent album, Talkin’ Christmas!, a collaboration with Taj Mahal, continues the band’s streak of creating original and interesting work. It includes new versions of Christmas standards, covers of hidden gospel gems, and seven brand-new holiday songs – six of which are the first Christmas songs ever penned by the Blind Boys themselves. The new original songs include the title track ‘Talkin’ Christmas!,’ a funky tribute to the power of Christmas featuring Money Mark on keyboards, and the compassionate ‘What Can I Do?,’ which features Taj Mahal on vocals and is one of two songwriting collaborations with Stax Records soul legend William Bell. The album also features a hand-clapping rearrangement of the usually-slower classic ‘Do You Hear What I Hear?’ and a refreshingly intimate, acoustic version of ‘Silent Night.’
The Blind Boys’ live shows are roof-raising musical events that appeal to audiences of all cultures, as evidenced by an international itinerary that has taken them to virtually every continent. The Blind Boys of Alabama have attained the highest levels of achievement in a career that spans over 75 years and shows no signs of diminishing. “We appreciate the accolades and we thank God for them,” says Jimmy Carter, a founding member and the Blind Boys’ current leader. “But we’re not interested in money or anything other than singing gospel. We had no idea when we started that we would make it this far. The secret to our longevity is, we love what we do. And when you love what you do, that keeps you motivated. That keeps you alive.”
For over eight years, the name MonkeyJunk has been synonymous with the emergence of a new kind of blues on the Canadian and international scenes. Continually pushing boundaries and blurring genre lines, the Ottawa Ontario-based trio has added an edge to their music by incorporating swampy blues & rock with thoughtful and intelligent lyrics. Their fifth Stony Plain Records release, Time To Roll is unique in that it incorporates elements of all four of their previous recordings with added maturity in songwriting and instrumentation, cementing MonkeyJunk’s originality and sound as its own.
As one of the hardest working bands on the scene today, these Canadian ambassadors of blues/rock are constantly working to up their game in terms of songwriting and musicianship, with the results being evident on Time To Roll. In just over a year since the release of their seminal recording Mood Turn Red, MonkeyJunk has delivered 10 top-notch tracks that are consistent with the quality and passionate delivery they are known for. “We wanted to push ourselves to work hard and to work efficiently and focused – to see what we could come up with in a shorter period of time. The result is a brash, groovy as always collection of songs that show where the band has been and where we have arrived in eight and a half years of writing, recording and touring”, says drummer Matt Sobb.
Time To Roll was recorded at Signal Path Studios in Almonte, Ontario and mixed and mastered in just over two weeks spanning across two months. On the writing and recording process, Steve Marriner comments, “I believe we captured a more raw side of MonkeyJunk. We wrote the tunes pretty quickly and didn’t do a lot of second-guessing.”
Heading back to their blues roots and drawing on inspiration that runs from John Lee Hooker and Lightnin’ Hopkins to J.J. Grey & Mofo and The Meters, Time To Roll is heavy on groovy riffs, solid backbeat & topped with Marriner’s soulful and fervent vocals. Time To Roll is also unique and progressive for the band, as they’ve added electric bass on most of the songs. No MonkeyJunk recording to date has included bass, but they felt that it would be a welcome addition to MonkeyJunk’s sound.
From flat-out blues-infused rockers such as “Best Kept Secret”, “The Hunter” (a cover of the classic by Albert King), and “Undertaker Blues”, to the moody and melodic “Blue Lights Go Down” (co-written by Tom Wilson of Blackie & The Rodeo Kings, Lee Harvey Osmond) and raucous Southern rock inspired “Time To Roll”, “Can’t Call You Baby” & “Gone” to the funky and soulful “Pray For Rain” & instrumental “Fuzzy Poodle”.
Steve Marriner, the trio’s vocalist, baritone guitarist, harmonica and organ player, was well known as the ‘go-to’ guy as a producer, sideman and session player. He’s also toured the world performing alongside Harry Manx. Steve is also the consummate musical networker and stage guest having been invited to join many artists in concert such as Randy Bachman, Colin James and Big Sugar. At the age of nineteen, lead guitarist Tony D performed for three nights in Buddy Guy’s band. In 1982, he opened for Stevie Ray Vaughn. These events helped propel him into a long-standing career with his own popular project, The Tony D Band. He has also toured with some of this country’s greatest musicians, including the late Dutch Mason. Before MonkeyJunk, drummer and percussionist Matt Sobb was a very busy session drummer around Ottawa and has backed up several regional, national and international artists live on stage, touring and in studio over the last 25 years such as Kim Wilson (Fabulous Thunderbirds), Jeff Healey and Tom Wilson (Blackie & The Rodeo Kings, Junkhouse, Lee Harvey Osmond), The Tony D Band, his brother’s band Marty Sobb and The Mobb among many others. MonkeyJunk has won a collective 20 Maple Blues Awards, two Canadian Independent Music Awards, a Blues Music Award (USA), and have been nominated twice for a JUNO Award, winning the award for Blues Album of the Year in 2012.