In Advance of His Upcoming Show at the Agora, ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons Talks About Making a '21st Century Blues Album'

click to enlarge In Advance of His Upcoming Show at the Agora, ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons Talks About Making a '21st Century Blues Album'
Blain Clausen
If time travel was a real thing, we’d go back in a second to catch the Worldwide Texas tour, which ZZ Top mounted initially in support of 1975’s Fandango! album. They hit the road under that banner for the shows they played in 1976 and 1977. The concept was pretty simple — they wanted to take the Texas experience on the road with them and they spared no expense, fleshing the idea out in an elaborate fashion to the point that they brought a menagerie of live animals with them on the tour. Reportedly, they spent 140 thousand dollars traveling with the proper specialists to ensure that the animals were treated ethically and remained healthy.

“That one known as the Worldwide Texas romp was a truly ambitious undertaking to be sure. Of course, the requisite road crew, guitar techs, drivers, sound people, were all aboard not to leave out our fave-rave animal wranglers and a snake sitter,” Billy Gibbons recalls now in an email interview. “The amazing thing is nobody — people and beasts alike — sustained any lasting damage. We reconnected with the guy who handled the buzzard quite recently and, yes, the bird is still the word. That old vulture is still hanging in!”

To stick with the “old vulture” concept for a moment, Gibbons himself is still moving ahead full throttle, even as the “Little Ol’ Band from Texas” moves closer to celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2019. He continues to work on a flurry of projects and is consistently on a concert stage somewhere. Recently releasing The Big Bad Blues, his second solo album, Gibbons plays at 6:30 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 21, at the Agora Theatre.

True to the title, the album is big, bad and chock full of the blues.

“We wanted to make a 21st century blues album, and yet we didn’t really know initially what that meant,” Gibbons says. “Let’s face it — Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf can hardly be replicated. The path we took, thereafter, was one where we adhered — more or less — to the formatted constraints of the blues and settled into the resources at hand to explore new sonic vistas. So, it sums up as ‘something old, something borrowed and something most definitely blue.’”

Producer Joe Hardy has been working with Gibbons and the members of ZZ Top since 1986’s Afterburner. He co-produced Perfectamundo, the initial solo excursion from Gibbons, which came out in 2015, and returns to reprise that role as co-producer on The Big Bad Blues while also playing bass on the new album.

He paints a colorful picture of the Foam Box, the band’s longtime studio in Houston, where he and Gibbons recorded the new solo album. He first worked there during the pre-production sessions for Afterburner.

“It’s in an office park that if you saw it, it’s a trailer trash office park. I mean, it’s like metal buildings, but then once you walk inside, it’s like, holy moly, because it’s full of African art,” he says in a separate phone interview. “Billy is quite a fan of art in general, especially African art, but also local artists and all of that stuff. We’ve actually built more of a studio out of it. Back then, it was probably more like a rehearsal joint, shag carpet and just beer cans and cigarette ashes on the floor. But now, it’s more like a proper studio, although still, from the outside, you know, nobody would think to rob it, because it just looks sad. But inside, it’s great.”

The album is a perfect mix of both blues standards and Gibbons originals. While it can sometimes feel like an awkward shoehorn job when artists try to mix the two, the songs from Gibbons fit seamlessly alongside the legendary covers. As Hardy reveals, and as one might expect, they put a lot of thought into the song choices.

“Billy is encyclopaedic in his knowledge of, especially blues music. I mean, he can talk for two hours and I’ve heard him do it before. Two hours without an uh, or a hmmm, or an anything. It just sounds like he’s reading from an encyclopedia entry, but he’s not,” Hardy says. “That’s just what’s in his brain. We both are especially big fans of Bo Diddley. That’s our main go-to. But it’s hard, because he’s done so much stuff. I mean, he’s been covered so many times. George Thorogood kind of made a career out of doing that sort of stuff. And you know, you want to get obscure enough that it hadn’t been covered to death, but not so obscure that people don’t recognize who the original artist was.”

The weary sigh that Gibbons lets out after the initial vocal line on Muddy Waters’ “Standing Around Crying” is an important accent point that underlines the mood of what he’s trying to get across. There are lots of these little moments of emotion scattered across our favorite albums that make the songs feel more real.

“It’s just the sound of humanity. I guess we could program machines to do it but they don’t exhale except when code tells them to do so,” Gibbons says. “Those exclamations between verses, like with Otis Redding or when Keith sings endearingly on ‘Happy’ are those special moments that bind us as human consumers of sounds.”

One thing that comes across quite clearly, is the reverence that Gibbons has for the material. When he’s testing out a vocal sound or a guitar line in the studio, he goes straight to the standards.

“We truly enjoy those numbers and play 'em for recreation. Joe Hardy, being the sly, shy guy he is, encouraged this kind of in-studio jamming and, unbeknownst to me, was rolling tape. Again, we just do a kind of adaptation of songs we interpreted early on; it would be, ahem, “fool-Hardy” to try to recreate them,” Gibbons says. “Bo Diddley and Muddy Waters were our singular sonic souls; we’re just glad they’re still with us in more than just spirit.”

“Second Line,” one of the originals on the album, as Gibbons details, draws inspiration from a location that remains near and dear to his heart.

“The ZZ recording studio down in Houston always remained quite close to New Orleans," he says. "The Crescent City has long been a destination for everybody wanting to groove and let loose. As a kid, the goal was to: a. get a license; b. get a car; and c. drive that car to New Orleans and drop into some music. We recorded Fandango! there, and I took up an extended residency a while back so it’s like home, albeit a funky and kinda strange home,” he explains. “It just seemed like the NOLA second line thing belonged on an album titled The Big Bad Blues."

The passion that Gibbons still has for what he does is very evident. And just in case it’s not clear, he’s doing this because he wants to. He certainly doesn’t have to, brushing away any insinuations that what he’s doing here is work.

“We don’t call it ‘work’ per se as we’re still very much in it toward sonic explorations and side trips,” he says. “Some might call this a busman’s holiday, but we dig riding the bus and going to the usual and not-so usual spots down and around. If we learn something along the way, it’s a definite bonus to the ongoing experience.”

Hardy agrees.

“You know, he’s pushing 70. I think he sings better now than he did when he was 30 or 40 or 50,” Hardy adds. “He’s at the top of his form, which is unusual. My voice has gotten more wavery as I get older, and that happens to a lot of people. There is no autotune. And we will use distortion as an effect, like in a breakdown or something. But in general, it’s just Billy singing. There’s no reverb; there’s no nothing.”

Besides the current tour, you’ll find Gibbons making a guest appearance on William Shatner’s forthcoming Christmas album, Shatner Claus — The Christmas Album. The two pair up for a memorable rendition of “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer.”

“Hanging out with Captain Kirk is still quite surreal,” Gibbons says. “[My] next move is to request the opportunity get beamed up or beamed down…the question is, ‘Where to?” That will certainly be a memorable experience. As far as the Star Trek series goes, I liked those furry and mischievous Tribbles. Hey, that’s ZZ!”

Billy Gibbons, 6:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 21, Agora Theatre, 5000 Euclid Ave., 216-881-2221. Tickets: $31-$53,
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