Graded on a Curve:
ZZ Top,
Tres Hombres

Celebrating Billy Gibbons on his 71st birthday.Ed.

Everybody knows the polished latter-day ZZ Top, the power trio that gave us “Legs,” “Sharp Dressed Man,” and “Cheap Sunglasses.” I don’t much care for them—too slick by a Texas mile, and too enamored of synthesizers, new wave, and punk flourishes for my liking. But the early ZZ Top? A whole different story. They’re meaner, cleaner (no annoying synths), and tell better stories. Has there ever been a tale as downright weird as “Master of Sparks”? Or a boogie as fetching as “La Grange”? Throw in the raging “Heard It on the X,” and you’ve got as vivid a portrait of the goings on in the badass state of Texas as you’re ever likely to hear.

ZZ Top has boasted the same line-up for over four decades: Billy Gibbons (the band’s guitarist, lead vocalist, and main lyricist); Dusty Hill (who handles bass, keyboards, and co-lead vocals); and Frank Beard (who drums, duh). Gibbons is an amazing guitarist, and a rebuke to all those critics who wrote ZZ Top off as derivative and unoriginal; whether he’s playing the Texas blues or laying down some hard-driving boogie, his playing is rarely short of miraculous.

His solos are mean, mean, mean, as he demonstrates on “Waitin’ for the Bus,” the opening track of ZZ Top’s third LP, 1973’s Tres Hombres. The song features one cool guitar riff, frequent calls of “Have mercy,” and a brown paper bag with a bottle in it to help spend the time before the bus shows up. Throw in a great harmonica solo, and this is one bus stop you want to find yourself waiting at. The opener segues into “Jesus Just Left Chicago,” a big bad blues in which Jesus is heading for New Orleans, and then on to California before Gibbons serves up one hellacious solo backed by a bass that throbs like a very bad toothache.

“Beer Drinkers & Hell Raisers” features both Gibbons and Hill sharing vocals and moves along at a healthy clip until Gibbons dishes up one hell of a solo, while Beard provides a ferocious backbeat. Then he follows solo one with solo two, and it’s even better, meaner, more badass. As for “Master of Sparks,” it’s a supposedly true story of a good old boy (aka Gibbons, who swears to its veracity) who rides in a round metal ball with a VW seat and shock absorbers chained to the back of a pickup truck going sixty mph, shooting sparks a hundred feet into the air. Billy lived and the tune is tres cool, a redneck legend better even than the time my brother, wasted on a country road, saw a creature, half bat and half Chihuahua, rise from the woods. And Gibbons totally kicks out the jams on this one, his guitar shooting sparks just as high as the ones produced by that metal cage.

“Hot, Blue and Righteous” is a slow blues and not my favorite, despite Gibbons’ soulful vocals and the tasty guitar solo he lays down. Meanwhile, “Move Me on Down the Line” reminds me of a Rolling Stones song, and in fact may be a rip of a Rolling Stones song, I just can’t tell which one. Gibbons’ vocalizing is very very Jagger, and his guitar work is far more angular and pop-oriented than usual, but I like it anyway because, well, it has spunk.

“Precious and Grace” boasts a hard rock riff and Gibbons singing at his funkiest, and while it’s not the greatest boogie tune you’ll ever hear it holds its own, especially when Gibbons lets loose on guitar, playing it until it squeals. As for “La Grange,” I don’t care if it came to ZZ Top by way of Slim Harpo and the Rolling Stones; all I care about is that primordially funky guitar riff, Billy Gibbons’ mumbled vocals, Beard’s incredible drum work, and the song’s sheer velocity. It’s their greatest tune, in my opinion, better than “Tush,” better even than “Heard It on the X,” and if you have any doubts about the matter just listen to Gibbons take it out on guitar.

At first I found “Sheik” an okay number, mid-tempo but nothing special, except for the great syncopation and Gibbons’ tentative and probing guitar work. But it grew on me, it did, and I’ve just decided right now that it is something special, packing as it does one funky punch. Finally, closer “Have You Heard?” is a soulful blues, and boasts lots of stabbing guitar and a big old beat. As for Gibbons’ solo, it’s righteous, as are the group vocals. This isn’t the best song on the LP by a long shot, but you won’t want to turn it off, which is more than can be said for virtually the entire songbook of a fellow arena band they were often unfairly compared to in the seventies, Grand Funk Railroad.

ZZ Top were never a critic’s band. The power trio got hauled over the ashes for being a sort of Texas Kiss, slandered for their lack of subtlety, and branded as simplistic and formulaic. I think that’s unfair. Their blend of the blues and boogie was formulaic to an extent, but never anywhere near as cave man dumb as Kiss’ brand of rock’n’roll, and unlike Grand Funk they recorded more than just one great song. And Gibbons was both an excellent singer and guitar player, as well as an inventive lyricist, writing great songs about upscale whore houses, pirate radio stations, Jesus turning muddy water into wine, and a metallic ball that shot sparks a hundred feet into the air. He didn’t write songs back then; he wrote myths, and if I’ve never managed to reconcile myself to the latter day ZZ Top and their new wave antics, I should be careful not to write them off; as Gibbons sings in “La Grange,” “I might just be mistaken.”

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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