By David DeRocco
There’s a rarified air that exists when you’re sitting on top of the mountain, viewing the world from a position of fame and fortune. As the lyricist, musical arranger, vocalist and de facto leader of Texas blues-rock superstars ZZ Top, Billy Gibbons has been breathing that beard-filtered air since the band’s 1971 debut album signaled the arrival of one of the best-selling musical acts in history. Surviving and thriving for more than 45 years in an industry littered with the corpses of fallen heirs to the rock and roll mountaintop, Gibbons is in a position to enjoy moments of appreciative reflection. And it`s fitting that in one such moment during our chat, Gibbons’ thoughts turn to a memory made sweeter by the presence of another guitarist, a legend whose penchant for survival is equally revered.
“It was a thrill, indeed, to be among the first group of artists who were awarded a diamond album,” says Gibbons, in reference to 1983’s Eliminator, the band’s most commercially successful album with sales exceeding 10 million. “And one of the biggest kicks was induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Keith Richards! No way to “Top” that.”
The band’s 2004 induction into the Hall was certainly deserved, given the fact that ZZ Top – Gibbons, bassist and co-lead vocalist Dusty Hill and drummer Frank Beard – are one of the few recording acts to have survived with original line-up intact for more than four decades. Longevity is no guarantee of success, however, and ZZ Top have earned their reputation with fans, critics and fellow musicians for their technical mastery and blues-influenced rock, a sound that has earned them 11 gold and 7 platinum records.
More impressive is the fact that these bearded bluesmen have over their career willfully strayed from their Houston-honed blues roots to incorporate dance rhythms, new wave, punk and even synthesizers into their biggest hits. Given the current fickle nature of the radio and recording industry, the question arises: how difficult would it be for ZZ Top is they were just starting out as a blues band in 2015?
“Not really sure,” pondered Gibbons, whose gritty, growling guitar work in the band’s early days helped forge the distinct feel of classic LPs like Trez Hombres, Fandango and Duguello. “However, if that inner feeling is moved toward playing then it’s get on it, go ahead and play. Industry conditions, whatever that shakes out as, may just well stimulate some rewarding creative impulses. Time does tell. As more than one blues song goes, “if it’s in’im, it gotta come out.” And if that ain’t whistlin’ Dixie or that elusive, sometime-surefire way to fame and fortune, it’s certainly a surefire way to have some fun.”
With the band rolling into Fallsview Casino’s Avalon Ballroom August 20th, the boys in ZZ Top are clearly still having fun performing to fans both new and old. And despite 21st century critics best attempts at convincing us rock is dead, Gibbons and his bandmates help dispute the notion by encouraging fans to see and enjoy live music by rock bands still making it.
“Well, the saying’s been said since the mid-’50s,” says Gibbons. “However there’s always an intriguing, lingering, undeniable discernible pulse. Can’t really leave out the impulse of gettin’ out to bash and thrash and turn it up loud. What’s right is maintaining an open mind; always a good idea, coming up with good ideas that keep things fresh. Experience any number of contemporary so-called “rock bands,” including ZZ Top, is “living proof.” Come out anytime and catch the show!”
The secret to survival, of course, is making music that’s designed to last and firmly rooted in tradition. The best rock of the last 50 years has always had its roots buried deep in the blues, a genre of music created by legendary figures that, thanks to homogenized radio formats, fewer young musicians are being exposed. One of the positive things Gibbons sees about the Internet is that all forms of music are equally represented and available to be explored by curious new fans.
“ZZ Top’s tried and true saying remains, “You can’t lose with the stuff we use and that be the blues.” Seems that blues remains the most rooted music on the planet — all based on those rhythms within the human body. So, in a way, it’s always there. Good news is the Internet’s one more convenient avenue offering an instant touch with blues of all sorts and from all points of origin — deep stuff that’s the real thing.”
After nearly half a century on the road, Gibbons is still enjoying playing “the real thing” to the legions of ZZ Top fans who regularly flock to shows, some there to hear 70s classics like “Tush,” “Jesus Just Left Chicago,” “Heard It On The X” and “Cheap Sunglasses,” and those who prefer the polished sound of their 80s hits “Sharp Dressed Man,” “Legs,” and “Gimme All Your Lovin’.” Despite the fame and fortune, the musician in Gibbons still derives the greatest joy from simply playing to an audience.
“It’s always a fascinating moment when folks appreciate what you’re doing. A chef who cooks for himself — is he really a chef? When an audience digs what this band does it really moves things up a notch or two. There’s a wide difference following sound checks when the real thing ignites – as we trust you’ll see and hear front and centre.”
As for Gibbons the music fan, listening to new artists is definitely something he still enjoys; however, the tapestry of sound in his world is always painted with a hint of colour you expect an old Texas bluesman to enjoy the most.
“Shades of blue, of course, with contemporary twists toward modern bands to boot. J.D. McPherson, Black Keys, some Surprise Vacation’s punk stuff from LA as well as desert island essentials of course: Muddy, Wolf, Jimmy Reed and B.B., Albert and Freddy — the three Kings — it’s all go.”
For tickets to ZZ Top August 20th at the Avalon Ballroom, visit http://www.fallsviewcasinoresort.com/entertainment/event/zz-top.