November 24, 2019

FTV: Tuff Enuff


     The year 2019 marks the 40th anniversary of the release of The Fabulous Thunderbirds’ first album.  The self-title record has become a cult classic and as cofounder Kim Wilson recalls, “Things were wide open back then.  There were hundreds of stages where bands could show what they had.” If one remembers the days when MTV actually programmed music videos and featured VJs, then one probably also remembers The T-Birds hitching their wagon to that (then) trend setting, career boosting music machine.  They parlayed this exposure into at least three crossover Top 40 hits that made them the best known cultural touchstone for the vibrant Texas music scene at that time. Things changed. By the dawn of the new millennium, MTV’s ability to break new bands into the mainstream began to wane significantly.  DJs survived, but when was the last time you heard about a ‘VJ’ beyond the odd ‘where are they now?’ magazine features? Artists who had ridden the early video culture wave to success fell by the wayside. Venues frequented by bands struggling to make it became fewer in number. The Fabulous Thunderbirds, however, never really went away.  They continued to record and perform with vocalist / harmonica player Kim Wilson being the only constant thread right up to their performance at the Calumet Theater in September of 2019.  

     Tribute bands have their place in the entertainment world (especially if one lives in a more remote section of the country far from normal tour routing), but it was nice to see an ‘original’ band come through the Upper Peninsula.  Wilson may be the only remaining original T-Bird, but he has surrounded himself with some outstanding musicians who have been with him longer than the original lineup was together. I won’t put them in the same category as say, The Coasters (among many other touring bands) that have had multiple groups touring under the same name at the same time.  Sometimes these bands will feature one singer who may have played with one of the original band members or at least may have bought one of their records. In this case, even with only one original member in the band, the T-Birds are still the real deal.

     Wilson picked up the harmonica as a 17 year old California kid.  His playing was deeply influenced by the likes of Little Walter, James Cotton, and George “Harmonica” Smith.  His vocal inspirations were Bobby “Blue” Bland, B.B.King, Otis Rush, Jimmy Rodgers and Muddy Waters. He decided to seek out other blues loving musicians so he set off for that hot bed of mid-western blues. . . Minneapolis?  A year and a half later, he landed in the slightly more fertile blues scene in Austin, Texas where he met guitarist Jimmie Vaughn (brother of Stevie Ray). They formed the T-Birds in 1974 and entered the fray. Their reputation as a killer live act got them signed to CBS/Epic Records.  More albums would follow their debut and as they incorporated more styles in their sound (Cajun, Rock ‘n Roll, and Soul), the T-Birds made a breakthrough with the Nick Lowe produced T-Bird Rhythm album.  Their success peaked in 1986 with the release of Tuff Enuff (the title track was featured in Michael Keaton’s movie Gung Ho).  When Jimmie Vaughn left in 1989, the band added keyboards to augment the band’s guitar driven sound.  Wilson landed back in California in 1996, and even as he branched out with his own solo records, he kept the T-Birds alive.

     WOAS-FM has aired a lot of Kim Wilson’s music both in and out of the T-Birds, but I found that I was not on a first name basis with most of the songs they performed in Calumet.  One can’t hardly say ‘Kim Wilson’ without conjuring up his reputation as a harp player extraordinaire, but the first three tunes on this night featured Wilson only as the lead vocalist.  Wilson’s comment about skipping the sound check (along the lines of, “Who needs to do a sound check? Heck, I know what I sound like!)” was made to jokingly explain their rough start. The vocals and instrument  balance weren’t right for the first couple of songs. The vocals were rather buried in the mix and the lead guitar had a thin sound to it. Fortunately, things were better balanced by the time the band hit their stride and on the fourth tune, Wilson picked up one of his many harmonicas and blew a few notes into his vocal mic (not a handheld harp mic favored by most blues players).  He then did something else unusual: as the band brought the volume down, he stepped to the side and played some really high harmonica notes with no mic at all. A small smile spread across his face as he wandered to the other side of the stage. There, he proceeded to descend the steps to the main floor, stopping every couple of steps to play a few more unamplified notes. The band continued to play quietly on stage as he wandered up the aisle, ending up only five rows away from our seats in Row L.  Wilson proceeded to play a really, really long note that literally had beads of sweat breaking out on his brow. Now that he had the crowd fully engaged, he made his way back to the stage to wrap up the first of many numbers that would feature his excellent harp playing.

     The first tune I was able to put a name on was Wrap It Up which he had forwarned us about (“You might recognize this one,” he said by way of an introduction).  The rhythm section of Steve Gomes on bass and Nico Leophonter on drums was solid throughout the night and their rendition of Wrap It Up sounded spot on.  Keyboardist Keven Anker added his share of interesting sounds with his B-3 organ and electronic keyboard.  When they turned him loose, he played some inspired boogie piano, leaning into his instrument like a Weather Channel reporter into a hurricane.  I was initially a little disappointed in guitarist Johnny Moeller’s tone, but like the vocal mix, it improved greatly as the evening progressed. After teasing the audience with this more recognizable hit, Wilson began employing the harmonica chops he is known for.  When they inserted Look At Her into the set, Wilson did his trademark chuckle during the verse-chorus break (“heh heh heh . . . she’s tough enough”), eliciting shouts of approval from the crowd.  

     A long romping instrumental really got the house rocking.  When they set up the finale, the title track of 1986’s Tuff Enuff was greeted with an even more raucous crowd reaction.  By far the T-Birds most well known number, Tuff Enuff sounds as fresh today as it did when it first came out.  Tuff Enuff segued into a call and answer vocal between Wilson and the audience as he encouraged everyone to Rock the House.  The band returned to the stage for a brief encore, but nobody went away feeling they had been shorted in any way, shape or form.  The Fabulous Thunderbirds are still a dynamite live act and while no one will mistake him for Mick Jagger and his animated stage presence with the Stones, Kim Wilson presents the professional aura of a seasoned road dog who still loves to get on stage and perform.

     Marquette’s own Flat Broke Blues Band were tabbed as the opener for this Calumet Theater show.  I last heard them live at the Porcupine Mountain Music Festival several years ago. I have crossed paths with leader/guitarist Walt Lindala every few years (he is a Chassell native who has a day job at Sunny 107 radio in Marquette) and it always amazes me that he remembers WOAS.  When I picked up a copy of their 2010 CD FB3 from the merch table, Walt said, “Hey, WOAS, right?”.

     During the intermission, I also had a chance to have a short chat with another Marquette music scene fixture, Jerry Kippola.  When I was playing in bands in Marquette more than 45 years ago, we all looked up to Jerry because A) he was a great guitar player, B) he had his own recording studio, and C) he bore a striking resemblance to Kerry Livgren of the band Kansas.  I can’t say that I even talked to Jerry back in the day as we were doing our own band gigs and not socializing. We have crossed paths a few times in the last decade and always end up having a laugh or two about the old days.

     I went to college with Jerry’s brother Jim as an undergrad at NMU.  When I went back to campus in 1979-80 to finish my Master’s degree, I did a semester long internship under East of Orange and Conga Se Mena drummer Les Ross Jr. at the Marquette County Planning Commission.  Jim Kippola worked in the same department at that time. Since then, I haven’t actually talked to him personally, but we do exchange greetings through others. It is kind of a tangled web that requires a little explanation.

     I had invited my brother Ron to an Ontonagon Historical Society program at the Algoma Honey House in Greenland several years ago.  Ron has always been an aviation buff and I knew the program commemorating Medal of Honor winner – WWII Ace Richard Ira Bong of Superior, WI would be in his sphere of interest.  Apparently he had run into Jim Kippola a few weeks later and mentioned the program. It turns out that Jim has similar interests in military aviation and asked Ron to ask me for contact info so he could arrange a similar program.  It was subsequently held in Michigamme where Kippola currently lives now that he is retired. Jim passed along his thanks for the information and I returned the thank you, both messages via brother Ron.

     When I stopped to talk to Jerry Kippola and asked him how Jimmy was doing, he looked kind of surprised and asked, “Jimmy who?”  “Your brother, Jimmy.” “Oh,” Jerry said, “Remind me who you are again.” I explained that we had the same conversation at the Porkiefest a few years ago and he said, ‘Oh yeah, Raisanen, right?” only he pronounced it ‘RAY sah nen’.  I always have to explain that when my dad was a state trooper, those unfamiliar with Finnish names would always say it with the ‘RAY’ inflection which became the version I grew up using. Before my wife and I were married, she informed me that in Ontonagon and the western UP, the proper pronunciation would be ‘RYE sah nen’ and she wouldn’t marry me if I didn’t say it right (perhaps she was kidding, but that is what we go by).  Jerry and I had a good laugh over the regional differences that are apparent in this little name game: ‘AH-ho’ vs ‘A-hoe’, ‘SOW-na’ vs ‘SAW-na’ and so on.

     Jerry promised to (again) pass along my greetings to Jim who was out east somewhere attending a military exposition of some sort.  I complimented him on the great job he had done running the sound for the Flat Broke Blues Band. The balance in their sound and the clarity of the vocals through out their opening set was outstanding.  Even with their equipment set up in front of The T-Birds backline, they had obviously taken the time to mic and sound check everything properly. Their line up was the same as I had introduced on the Singing Hills Stage at PMMF some years ago, but I had forgotten what a great front woman Lori Hayes is.  Her harmonica playing was also top notch and if being on stage blowing harp ahead of a more famous harp slinger like Wilson made her nervous, she sure didn’t show it.  

     While we have seen blues groups like Measured Chaos and The Rusty Wright Band at the Ontonagon Theater over the past fifteen years, we haven’t had a steady stream of blues based artists come through Calumet recently.   I am already looking forward to the next legendary blues band that comes to the western U.P. and I would not be at all disappointed if they brought along the Flat Broke Blues Band to open!

Top Piece Video:  The 2019 T-Birds pretty much as they appeared at the Calumet Theater!