Aftermath: The Fabulous Thunderbirds Warm Up The Rodeo BBQ Cookoff

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Photos by Jason Wolter

It never fails to amaze Aftermath that what little real spring Houston actually gets usually happens during the three weeks the rodeo is in town. If the city is in the grip of winter when the cookoff crews fire up their BBQ pits, you can bet AC units across town will be going full-blast by the time the final "Xtreme Bull" has bucked its last rider. It's like Houston's own mesquite-flavored extended version of Groundhog Day.

So get ready to put those winter coats away, because so far things seem to be going according to plan. Friday night at the cookoff, the wind came whipping out of the north as if to demonstrate that winter isn't going away without a fight, and the Fabulous Thunderbirds replied with more than an hour of Texas blues as tangy as the smoke drifting out of the many pits and food concessions ringing the Miller Lite stage.

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The T-Birds' 1986 smash "Tuff Enuff" shot the band out of the orbit of Antone's, the Austin blues institution that incubated the group and its late-'70s cohorts such as Storm, Paul Ray & the Cobras and the Nightcrawlers. As hit songs often do, it gave many people a fleeting (and not altogether correct) impression of a band that had worked for years to enjoy those 15 minutes in the sun.

In other words, in the week or two before the T-Birds played the rodeo, we were a little surprised that whenever the subject came up, how many people thought Jimmie Vaughan was still in the band. He hasn't been since the very early '90s, but he was when "Tuff Enuff" came out, which is good enough to freeze the T-Birds in people's minds.

Freeze them both fairly and unfairly.

Ever since Vaughan left, the Thunderbirds have more or less been Kim Wilson and whichever hired guns he's got on board at the moment, but some of those guns have some pretty serious firepower themselves.

Friday's T-Birds featured guitarist Mike Keller and a couple of the Moeller Brothers, all of whom also cut their teeth at Antone's - only about 20 years after Wilson and the original T-Birds were hanging around hoping Muddy Waters would let them open a gig.

Instead, Keller and the Moellers hung around hoping that maybe Wilson would show up to one of Antone's legendary Blue Monday jam sessions if he was in town; regardless, early T-birds records such as 1980's What's the Word? and 1981's Butt Rockin' figured the same in their musical development as Waters had for Wilson and his co-founders.

That's why, although the T-Birds' set Friday was stuffed with older material such as "Wait On Time," "She's Tuff," "Wrap It Up" - before they really wrapped it up with "Tuff Enuff," of course - they didn't come across as a nostalgia act. There was enough newer material, and although none of it strayed very far from the roadhouse-meets-swamp feel that has defined the T-Birds since day one, it didn't need to.

Wilson and the T-Birds' brief flirtation with big-time Top 10 success did two things: It gave the T-Birds enough recognition that invitations to play events like the rodeo cookoff will never be very far away. And although it stamped a very particular sound into a lot of people's minds and memories - a sound that, to give the band its propers, was theirs long before "Tuff Enuff" - it also gave Wilson and his hired hands almost unlimited license to tinker with and refine that sound at their leisure, which from all appearances Friday night, they continue to do with relish.

The freeze, and then the thaw. If winter comes, can spring be far behind?

For more photos, check out our slideshow.

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