Kim Wilson is on a roll. The Fabulous Thunderbirds frontman was a key player in the Radio City "Salute to the Blues" concert that brought some of the brightest lights in blues to the stage in celebration of The Year of the Blues.
A perfect master of the art of blues harmonica playing, Wilson went on to rock the Legendary Rhythm and Blues Cruise in February with some of the most memorable performances on that floating musical extravaganza. Most recently Wilson brought down the house at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival with one of the top sets at the Blues Tent.
Wilson has grown to the point where his soulful vocals are as effective as his playing. In addition to fronting the T-Birds, he has a band under his own name, and his latest album, "Lookin' For Trouble," demonstrates he's become an accomplished bandleader, adept at discovering and nurturing players to fit his style of "contemporary traditional" blues.
"Every time I pick up my instrument I make it modern even though I'm playing traditional music," Wilson said. "It's off the top of my head. I never play the same thing twice. It never gets boring if you play it that way, you're always trying to top yourself, always trying to reach for that carrot.
"I'm not trying to be retro," Wilson explained. "There are a lot of original songs here. It's mixed more like a modern record in the spirit of the older stuff. People try to take it to another plane but we don't want to do that. This is timeless American music, like jazz, like bluegrass. You can push the envelope, but you really have to make sure you do this music justice. You don't need gimmicks -- a guitar and an amplifier are gimmicks enough for this music."
It all works like a charm on "Lookin' For Trouble," an outstanding set that manages to top Wilson's legendary "Tiger Man" album.
"I love it," Wilson admitted. "This is my best work ever. You have all the different styles of harmonica covered -- third position, like 'Hurt On Me,' first position on 'You Tried To Ruin Me,' a lot of cross harp on instrumentals like 'Love Attack.' This record is a rebirth for me. I think I've just now got it and now I can run with it and it makes me feel like a kid. Muddy Waters was a kid right up to the day he died. I just finished reading his biography and Big Bill Broonzy told him 'Just keep doing what you're doing.' That's my motto. If I'm the last person out there making records like this, so be it."
Wilson's outstanding vocals on the album have a spooky, timeless sound, particularly on songs like "Hand To Mouth" and "Cadillac."
"That's all room," Wilson said. "I always try to keep a live vocal. I used two mikes, an old RCA rhythm mike just to get the rich sound, then another one about 4 or 5 feet away from me. We kind of combined the two for a nice effect."
Though Wilson's harp and vocals are featured, the rest of the band is given ample space to show its stuff. Guitarist Troy Gonyea, keyboardist Mark Stevens and Jon Ross on bass all do tremendous jobs. The album was recorded in two different sessions at the beginning and the end of 2002, one with drummer Steve Ramsey, the other with Richard Innes. The arrangements are laced with honey-dripping horn charts played by "Sax" Gordon Beadle on tenor, Doug "Mr. Low" James on baritone sax and Scott Aruda on trumpet.
Gonyea in particular sounds like a star in the making, with a thorough understanding of driving rhythm patterns, meticulous accompaniment skills and a knack for gorgeous fills and understated leads. Gonyea really shines on the Willie Dixon classic "Love My Baby."
"He's a force to be reckoned with in blues," Wilson vowed. "He plays all the styles and he's only gonna get better. He sounds a lot like Luther Tucker on 'Tortured,' he does a T-Bone Walker thing on 'Down With It,' uses a Varitone guitar for a big, fat sound on some of the tracks, sometimes he does a little Otis Rush thing, he combines a lot of different styles."
Wilson's tense "Hand To Mouth" is a highlight of the album, with its Howlin' Wolf-style dramatic force and its topical theme.
"I think that song is the sleeper on this record," Wilson said. "It uses a kind of Memphis approach with a modern day subject. Especially with the economy the way it is it's probably a saying that's going around a lot."