ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons talks losing Dusty Hill, making new music and a runaway buffalo – Daily News
ZZ Top’s “Raw” is as close to being an accidental album as it gets.
The album, slated for release this summer, is taken from a session at Gruene Hall in New Braunfels, Texas, in which vocalist/guitarist Billy Gibbons, bassist Dusty Hill and drummer Frank Beard created and played versions of familiar songs such as “La Grange”, “Tush”, “I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide”, “Gimme All Your Lovin'” and “Legs” in the most direct, spontaneous and possible basic.
The performances were filmed for use in the recent ZZ Top documentary celebrating the band’s 50-year history with its original lineup, “That Little Ol’ Band from Texas.” When the trio unplugged and left Gruene Hall that day, they thought it was mission accomplished. The footage was shot and recorded, end of story.
“The tunes on this occasion went pretty quickly,” Gibbons said, recalling the session in a new email interview before the band brought their Raw Whiskey tour to Humphrey’s Concerts by the Bay in San Diego on the 27th. May, which is currently sold out, and the LA County Fair in Pomona on May 28.
“Our director, Sam (Dunn), wanted a sequence where we played in the present day as a balance with the historical narrative of the film,” he continued. “We got in there and did what we did and later, much later, we realized we had an album.”
As Gibbons noted, upon closer examination, the performances captured something worth hearing in its entirety – ZZ Top’s unmistakable Texas blues-rock boogie in its most authentic state. And the “Raw” album became a reality.
The album is expected to take on some prominence as one of ZZ Top’s last live records with Hill, who passed away last July. A hip injury kept Hill from joining Gibbons and Beard on tour last summer, and longtime guitarist Elwood Francis stepped in on bass. Upon Hill’s death, the band barely took time to resume touring, knowing that was what Hill would have wanted.
Nonetheless, Hill’s death came as a shock.
“It was quite sudden and we stayed on the assumption that he would rally, recover and join us,” Gibbons said. “There was no mental or other anticipation. We just had to deal with the reality of the start and the speed of execution helped to reinforce the “show must go on” philosophy. Our team, our friends, our fans and our followers have been a huge source of comfort.
Now ZZ Top, with Francis considered a long-term third member, is back on tour this summer to promote the “Raw” album with what promises to be a show that touches on the 50+ year history. of the group.
“We know we’ll go as far back as possible… maybe ‘Brown Sugar’ or ‘Just Got Back From Baby’s’ from the aptly titled ‘ZZ Top’s First Album’ or even Willie Brown’s ‘Future Blues’ which precedes us by more than 40. years,” Gibbons said. “Of course, (we’ll include) some of the better known ones like ‘The Grange’ and ‘Legacy’. What is certain is the famous adage of “something old, something borrowed and most definitely something blue” (will apply).
ZZ Top’s longevity is quite remarkable, but the fact that the classic range has remained intact for over 50 years makes ZZ Top a rare example of sustained stability, creativity and quality in what is often a volatile reality of be a rock band.
The sonic and personal chemistry is something Gibbons, Hill and Beard literally experienced from the very first notes they played together.
“Funny thing, our first, I’ll call it a jam session together, Dusty was in line to pick up the bass guitar and throw his hat into the ring. And what was going to start as a three-minute shuffle in C turned out to be a three-hour jam session,” Gibbons recalled. “We knew something was brewing.”
That initial jam session is recalled quite colorfully in “That Little Ol’ Band from Texas,” in which Gibbons, Hill, and Beard take viewers on a journey through ZZ Top’s 50-year history. The film hits on a lot of highlights, including how Gibbons, who had come to Houston’s vibrant music scene and had some success in the band Moving Sidewalks, met Beard, who then hooked him up with Hill (both from Dallas) to form ZZ Top, how the group achieved their distinctive power sound and first commercial breakthrough. From there, the film visits a period of the late 70s that included a hiatus and Beard’s battle with addictions and cuts to the 80s, when ZZ Top incorporated synthesizers and sequencers into their sound and hit a commercial grand slam with the 1983 album, “Eliminator,” before reaching the present.
In ZZ Top’s early years, much of a mystique developed around the band, in part because the band’s manager, Bill Ham, limited the band’s number of interviews and television appearances.
There were those who weren’t quite sure what to make of the blues-inspired, Texas-infused style of rock. It’s one of the main reasons the band decided to bring a bit of the Lone Star State to the rest of the country in the mid-1970s on the “Worldwide Texas” tour. On the famous outing, the band were joined on stage by live animals including a buffalo, steer and buzzard, the latter hanging out near Beard’s drums.
“The only time he got sticky was when the buffalo got away,” Gibbons recalled. “One afternoon we were, actually, we played at Three Rivers Stadium (in Pittsburgh), and I’ll never forget seeing the coach in a golf cart trying to catch up with the buffaloes rushing and zigzagging from the third base at home plate.”
ZZ Top remained popular until the early 1980s when a confluence of factors – the advent of sequencers and other recording tools, the debut of MTV (which aired the breakthrough videos of the hit songs “Legacy “, “Gimme All Your Lovin'” and “Sharp Dressed Man”) and inspired songwriting – made ZZ Top mega-platinum superstars (with Gibbons and Hill debuting their newly grown outsized beards).
The ZZ Top sound makeover was not planned. Arriving at Ardent Studios in Memphis to record “Eliminator”, the trio encountered sequencers and synthesizers for the first time and quickly understood how to use them to modernize their bluesy sound.
“We stumbled into the control room, and here are these new contraptions,” Gibbons said. “We used to ignore the user manual. We just started twisting the knobs and that’s kind of what worked.
Indeed, after reaching their commercial peak with “Eliminator” and the similar sounding “Afterburner” (1985) and “Recycler” (1990), ZZ Top returned to a more stripped down bluesy guitar sound on their more recent albums – “La Futura” (2012), “Mescalero” (2003)” and “XXX” (1999). Sales of these albums have plummeted, but ZZ Top remains a touring powerhouse.
And Francis makes his presence felt in the live shows.
“Elwood’s instrumental presentation is solid. Elwood’s sound is down,” Gibbons said. “Vocally, of course, it’s surprisingly different. Elwood is great with harmonies and backup stuff, so we’ll leave it at that.
And with Francis on board, Gibbons sees ZZ Top as a band that still has a lot to say musically. Speaking of which, prior to Hill’s death, the trio were in the studio working on some songs Gibbons brought from the sessions for his 2021 solo album, “Hardware,” as well as other material with the idea that it could turn into a ZZ Top album of new material.
“Elwood is definitely with us for the long haul,” Gibbons said. “It’s still ZZ Top, not ZZ Top 2 or ZZ Top with an asterisk. Genuine item remains!
ZZ Top Raw Whiskey Tour
When: 7:30 p.m. May 28
Or: LA County Fair at Pomona Fairplex, 1101 W. McKinley Ave., Pomona
Tickets: $46 to $167 at Ticketmaster.com