June 14, 2019

FTV: BFG Zen

 

    We always heard bass player Mike arrive at our Sledgehammer rehearsals before we saw him.  Our basement on Summit Street was exposed on the east side of our one story home making that side of our house two stories.  The driveway dipped down from the street to the garage on the lower level that was bordered by the creek that separates the city of Marquette from the township of Trowbridge Park.  In fact, the area where we set up the band equipment was originally a one car stall in the basement before my folks decided to put up a detached two car garage at the north end of the house.  They converted the old basement parking spot into a recreation room replete with a fireplace and add-on sauna. Nine times out of ten, we heard ZZ Top blasting inside of Mike’s van as he wheeled into the driveway before band practice.  Occasionally we would hear something by the Grateful Dead, but we heard enough ZZ Top tunes for us to suggest to Mike that perhaps he should write out one or two for us to learn. Mike took the hint and dutifully arrived with Beer Drinkers and Hell Raisers worked up and once it showed up on our set list, there were few songs we played at frat parties that got a better reaction (hmmm, I wonder why?).  As the band thundered along, Mike would take the Billy Gibbons’ verses and I sang the Dusty Hill answering verses.

    Along the way, I picked up ZZ’s Fandango album and thought it would have been fun to learn Tush, but that was after we disbanded in the summer of 1975.  ZZ Top didn’t occupy my thoughts much after that until they became a staple of MTV where their iconic beard / dark shades look (coupled with their red hot ZZ Top roadster and a cast of young ladies along for the ride) made them hard to miss.  Had we told Mike back in 1974 that ZZ Top would be selling top forty records (remember, this was pre-MTV) and become household a name in the last twenty years of the millennium, he would have mustered one of his mock, ‘I am horrified that you said that’ looks that he used to pull out when making a point (a facial expression he used quite often).  Billy, Dusty, and drummer Frank Beard sold a lot of records, but were still ‘that little old band from Texas’ during their prime MTV days. They may have utilized synthesizers on their biggest MTV hits, but in their live shows they were still a Texas boogie band. The raw sounds Billy Gibbons would pull out of his signature Les Paul, Pearly Gates (and the myriad of matching axes employed by Billy and Dusty) gave their music an unmistakable signature sound.  Beardless drummer Beard (yes, it seems ironic) is a solid a time keeper who isn’t overly flashy, but he does fill out the trio’s sound a lot (somewhat of a necessity in a three piece band as I learned while playing in two different trios).

    As ZZ Top’s  50th Anniversary approached, Billy took an unexpected detour when he put together a solo project called Perfectamundo in 2017.  Many wondered why it took so long for Gibbons to put out a solo album, but it wasn’t like he had a lot of spare time on his hands.  When he finally decided to record with his BFGs line up (the name is a tip of the hat to his initials), he threw everyone a curve ball by recording an album heavy with a Latin vibe in the vein of Tito Puente.  Gibbons made the conscious effort to push the guitars to the back on Perfectamundo with more emphasis on the percussion.  As he told Don Wilcock in Blues Blast Magazine in March of 2019, “The Cubano thing we came up with included enough bits with that ZZ Top approach to round up [and make] Perfectamundo a success.”  It was an unexpected move but it worked.

    Word leaked out soon after Perfectamundo was released that Gibbons was already working on a second solo release.  He assured fans that ZZ Top was hard at work planning their 50th Anniversary celebration, but the fun he had making his first solo record inspired him to do another.  Everyone kind of assumed that the BFGs would dig further into the Latin genre but Billy threw them a change-up this time when he released The Big Bad Blues in 2018.  BBBs features six Gibbons originals, one track written by his wife Gilly Stillwater (Missin’ Yo’ Kissin’), and four blues covers (two by McKinley Morganfield (aka:  Muddy Waters), one by Jerome Green and

one by Elias McDaniel (perhaps better known as Bo Diddley).  Touring after the Perfectamundo album was released was a little more complicated because it required a larger band to recreate the Cubano vibe of that record.  For Big Bad Blues, Gibbons was able to strip the band down to drummer Matt Sorum (Guns ‘N’ Roses, Hollywood Vampires), and guitarist Elwood Francis.  Recording sessions for BBBs had also included drummer Greg Morrow (Joe Bonamassa), harmonica legend James Harman, bassist Joe Hardy and keyboardist Mike Flanigin.  It is a testament to Gibbons guitar style that they could translate the songs live with only three pieces (and no bass guitar).

    By now, you might be wondering where the Billy Zen title of this FTV fits in.  Billy Gibbons was raised in a fertile Houston music scene where he was exposed to many of the blues greats like Bobby Bland, B.B.King, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Jimmy Reed.  As Billy told Don Wilcocks, “When you hear these guys, you know they were advanced, almost other worldly.” The reverence Gibbons has for the blues makes him a voice for those who paved the way for ZZ Top but were not nearly as commercially successful as ZZT were.  While some view ZZ Tops’ success as ‘ripping off the early blues guys’ (similar to Pat Boone making a career by recording black artist’s music for the white radio market), it is clear that they have used their career to expand the audience for the old guard. BFG speaks in riddles at times as he attempts to portray the almost mystical way the old blues guy’s methods have infiltrated his life and music.  To me, Gibbons sounds like a Zen Master of the Blues. Following are some examples of BFG’s statements that I now refer to as the ‘Tao of Billy Zen’.

    Discussing the ‘ZZ Top’ look that evolved in their early days, Gibbons describes it, “as if we stepped out of the pages of some strange spin-off of the Katzenjammer Kids.”  As far as ZZ Top ‘stealing’ black music, BFG explains that their version of the blues comes from carefully studying the old masters: “Relax and take time to decipher the elements that make a certain delivery exceptional.  The element of flow is key to finding one’s way. Sometimes, it’s the empty spaces between the phrases that are as mesmerizing as anything else.” Gibbons calls the old blues masters ‘geniuses’ for what they created. “Let’s take Bo Diddley’s Crackin’ Up included on The Big Bad Blues album,” he says, “That up-side down and backwards guitar intro seems simple – until attempting to reproduce it – and then it becomes an analytical challenge to delve into what Bo might of had in mind.  Delivering that figure was the definative science experiment.”

    Gibbons credits artists like Lightin’ Hopkins and Bo Diddley for creating solely original music without following a ‘how to’ manual, or for that matter, without using predictable guitar scales:  “[Lightnin’] and Bo were free from the constraints of accepted norms, yet everything they did was accepted! They invented what they did out of thin air. That’s a reflection that they reserved an open mind and a vivid imagination.  There’s not necessarily any particular ‘right way’… Sometimes a so-called ‘wrong way’ is so, so right.”

    To explain the switch up in style from Perfectamundo to the BBBs, Gibbons’ press release said, “We successfully made our way through those uncharted waters with the Cubano flavor of Perfectamundo and completed the journey.  The shift back to the blues (in The Big Bad Blues) is a natural.  It’s something that our followers can enjoy with the satisfaction of experiencing the roots tradition, and at the same time, feeling the richness of stretching the art form.  There’s a certain similar element of spontaneity recording outside the (very loose) confines of the group, yet the song selection with The Big Bad Blues band is far more out of left field than ZZ Top.”

    When asked a question about a guitarist’s need to use effects pedals and other gadgets, Billy’s answer found him straddling the fence between those who prefer a simple ‘guitar to amp’ signal path vs those who travel with multiple effects chained to their guitar:  “They’re more accomplices toward creating interest in the sonic spectrum . . . The vast range of effects demands a genuine evaluation of what works within the frame of expression.” He did give credit to, “One dramatic entry into the field of effective devices – a wild guitar pickup known as ‘The Little Thunder.’  That’s the singular effect which supported the outing with The Big Bad Blues show (where they performed with two guitars and drums but no bass).  It was the effect which added a serious bass-line to the Spanish electric 6-string guitar.  A killer effect. It was a lo-fi freight-train effect driving the band night to night.”

    Does ZZ Top ever have trouble translating their studio work to the stage?  “The studio is an adjunct to what we do and something of a tool shed for us.  There’s not much we’ve done in the studio that we haven’t been able to do on stage and that’s quite intentional.  We aim to sound like ourselves, it’s much more comfortable that way. Then again, we do enjoy going about figuring how to replicate the exotic when contemporary tech is in the blend.”

    Known for infusing their songs with a certain amount of humor and double (or triple) entendres, Gibbons opines that, ‘Somewhere therein lies rhythmic gold for one’s imagination.  We figured early on that we’re closer to Howlin’ Wolf and that secret language of the blues. It’s a genuine American art form loaded with some twists and turns worded into the blues subterfuge.  I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide, Arrested For Driving While Blind and Cheap Sunglasses spring to mind.  An entertaining turn of phrase, an inside happenstance among us band members most likely gives us a jump start for a song.  [On] One of the favored numbers from ZZ Top’s La Futura album, ‘chartreuse’ is rhymed with the seldom used term, ‘caboose’… both a color and a class of liqueur.”

    Billy wrapped up his session with Wilcocks by again giving Texas credit for the ‘blues music mojo’ that has stayed with the band.  Fittingly, we will let BFG offer one more piece of Zen-like wisdom on his chosen path: “We rarely think of the blues as something immutable.  It’s ever evolving so there is scant reason to be too doctrinaire about such an art form. The blues really is a living organism on so many levels which leads us to just do what we do and let it flourish.  The bottom line is ZZ sounds like ZZ which is that of interpretation rather than a slave to form. It’s what keeps it funky.” So sayeth the Zen Master BFG. Elsewhere, Mike the bass player is making his mock horror stricken face, exclaiming, “ZZ Top was selling Top 40 singles and was the darling of MTV?  My ZZ Top?”

Top Piece Video – Miss Yo’ Kissin’ Live from Houston in November of 2018