Founder Confident He Has T-Birds Back on Wing : Pop music: The Fabulous Thunderbirds will play tonight for free in Irvine.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Uncertainty, trepidation, bitterness, even grief: This is the common emotional residue of a split between longtime musical collaborators.

Two months ago, Jimmie Vaughan, one of the most distinctive, hardest-hitting guitar players to mingle blues and rock, quit the Fabulous Thunderbirds. That left singer Kim Wilson as the last founding member of the band that he and Vaughan had started in 1974.

But Wilson isn't crying over the loss of a valuable partner, even though Vaughan's uncommonly forceful, economical playing was a signature of the T-Birds' sound. In fact, Wilson couldn't stop from chuckling during a recent phone interview as he reflected on his noticeable lack of consternation about a transition that one might expect would at least make him a little nervous.

"I hate to sound so positive," said Wilson, who will front the revamped Fabulous Thunderbirds in a free concert tonight at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre. "I wish there was something bad I could say."

Wilson has nothing bad to say about Vaughan, whose fans will be able to hear him on "Family Style," an upcoming duo-guitar album with his famous younger brother, Stevie Ray.

For one thing, Wilson said, there was no animosity behind his split with Vaughan. "When you've been with somebody for almost 16 years, it's like family. You're in a little bit of a shock at first. But it's not like we split up because we'd become enemies. It was a lot of factors--a big one being that he couldn't deal with the road any more, and he wanted to rearrange his life."

If Vaughan's departure was a blow to the Austin, Tex., band--whose 1986 hit, "Tuff Enuff," transformed it from a cult act admired by blues fans to a mainstream rock contender--Wilson started getting over it with his first phone calls in search of a replacement. Wilson had two New England-based players in mind: Duke Robillard, an old friend and frequent jamming partner for the Thunderbirds, who has long been esteemed among blues aficionados; and a younger, up-and-coming player, Doug (The Kid) Bangham.

"I immediately got on the horn to Duke and the Kid," Wilson said, "and I got 'em both. I figured if I could get just one of these guys, I'd be happy."

After years of playing with just one guitarist, the T-Birds had added a young second guitarist to play behind Vaughan about a year ago. Wilson wanted two more experienced players who could interchange lead roles.

"I didn't want a second guitarist," he said. "I wanted a couple of seasoned people, two guys who could take the reins when called upon."

Robillard, 41, was an especially logical choice. As a Thunderbird, he is reunited with drummer Fran Christina and bassist Preston Hubbard. Both got their start with Roomful of Blues, the versatile blues, swing and R&B; band that Robillard founded and fronted from the late '60s until 1980, when he left for a solo career.

Wilson's invitation wasn't really a surprise, Robillard said in a separate interview: "We've talked about this for years. If Kim and Jimmie ever split up (Robillard would join). It was almost a joke because there was no reason to believe they would ever stop playing together."

After releasing four solo albums on Rounder Records, a well-regarded, independent, roots-music label, joining the T-Bird promises to give Robillard his first exposure to a mass pop audience.

"Obviously, it's a good career move all the way around," said Robillard, who has two more solo albums already recorded for release by Rounder--a rock 'n' roll record this fall, to be followed by a swing-oriented album next year.

"As a solo artist," he said, his following "was continually growing, but still at that cult, club level because I'm not on a major label. I've never had the luxury of really being promoted."

The new Thunderbirds, who tour with a hired-hand keyboards player, Austin Delone, plan to record their first post-Vaughan album in October.

"There's nothing bad," Wilson said, laughing again at the T-Birds' ability to keep cruising without one of the band's familiar main wheels. "It's just life goes on as usual. We kept it in the family, really. We didn't break stride."

The Fabulous Thunderbirds and the Paladins play a free concert tonight at 8 at Irvine Meadows, 8800 Irvine Center Drive, Irvine. Information: (714) 855-8096.

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