DARS DEMAND a music that thrives in a close-up, boisteous atmosphere. Old-fashioned blues 'n' boogie thrives in this hothouse environment. Washington's own bars have nutured the Nighthawks and Catfish Hodge as they've matured into top-flight recording artists. Nearby Virginia has produced Bill Blue and the Charlottesville Allstars.
The same process has bee repeated in cities all over North America. Austin, Texas, has given birth to the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Omar & Howlers and Double Trouble. In Canada, Vancouver has produced the Powder Blues and Toronto the Down-child Blues Band. Out of Boston came George Leh and James Montgomery; from Delaware came George Thorogood; from Rhodes Island, Roomful of Blues.
What started out as a dozen local movements has now united into a national phenomenon that the Nighthawks' Mark Wenner calls "blue wave" music. We nor have new records by Omar & the Howlers, Powder Blues and the Fabulous Thunderbirds, who will visit the Bayou in person this Tuesday.
The Thunderbirds are probably the best of these blues revivalists. This quartet doesn't treat the blues as a history lesson but as music for drinking, kissing and dancing. There are compelling invitations to do all three on the quartet's third album, "Butt Rockin'" (Chrysalis CHR 1319).
As the title implies, the boogie backbeat carries the record. The rhythms are so sure that the beat seems to come from a single throb rather than from four different musicians. For a young blues guitarist with so much talent, Jimmie Vaughan shows rare restraint. His impressive phrasing never tries to overwhelm the song; even his solos reinforce the beat.
Leading the band on harmonica and vocals is Kim Wilson, who wrote or co-wrote six of the album's 11 songs. Wilson has a deep, broad voice that seems to swallow troubles in its surging confidence. Wilson leads a glowing, glorious tribute to his harmonica hero, Slim Harpo on Harpo's "Tip On In."
"Butt Rockin'" is at once the most consistent and versatile of the Thunderbirds' three records. Every song benefits from the band's 11 years of ever-increasing rapport. Furthermore, the band reaches out from its blues base into related fields. Some friendly saxophonists turn "Roll, Roll, Roll" and "Mathilda" into swinging rhythm and blues numbers. Wilson's "I Believe I'm in Love" has an infectious rockability eagerness.
After several East Coast tours, the Omar & the Howlers quintet has finally released its debut album: "Big Leg Beat" (Amazing AM 1003). It's a likable record, but it falls far short of the "blue wave" standards set by the Nighthawks and Thunderbirds. The rhythm is solid but not powerful; the song selection is entertaining but not original; the solos show good taste but no special talent.
Keith "Omar" Dykes fronts the Howlers as lead singer, lead guitarist, harmonica player and chief songwriter. He's competent at all four tasks but not irreplaceable at any. The gravel tone in his voice interferes with the melodies without the necesasary compensation in drama. The four Dykes originals do not stand out, and the cover versions of Johnny Jones' "Hoy, Hoy, Hoy" and Louis Jordan's "Caledonia" add little to these familiar tunes.
Much better is the Powder Blues' "Uncut" (Liberty LI-1078), which was released on the band's own label in 1979. It went on to sell 200,000 copies in Canada, thus earning a double-platinum award. Liberty has just released it here. Though six of the nine songs are originals, the album recalls that era right after World War II when singers like Big Joe Turner, Louis Jordan and Wynonie Harris combined big-band swing jazz with boogie-woogie rhythm and blues.
The leader of the Vancouver septet is singer and guitarist Tom Lavin, who wrote or co-wrote five songs. "Hear That Guitar Ring" is a brightly lit showcase for Lavin's bell-toned and slippery quick guitar work. Though his voice isn't as deep as Joe Turner's or Kim Wilson's, Lavin does have a bouncy, melodic voice that leads the pack of horns like an eager hound.
Moreover, he's an imaginative arranger who combines the hypnotic swing of multiple horns with the momentum of modern rock. His tribute to Joe Turner, "Boppin' the Blues," swings ferociously. "Doin' It Right" expands the Chuck Berry sound into a swing jazz format. "What Have I Been Drinking" does the same for the Jerry Lee Lewis sound. A hilarious mock lament, "Buzzard Luck" is a welcome reminder of Synonie Harris' composing skills.
Lavin, however, must share the credit with saxophonist and horn arranger Wayne Kozak. The four horns join such full tones into such unified harmonies that when they swell up through the guitar and piano it's as if the singer has the whole world on his side. If Lavin gives the Powder Blues a hungry momentum, Kozak's horns give each song satisfying fulfillment. It's a perfect match.