ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons and Blackberry Smoke’s Charlie Starr Talk About Their Upcoming Grooves and Gravy Tour

Concert Preview

click to enlarge ZZ Top performing in Akron in 2012. - JOE KLEON
Joe Kleon
ZZ Top performing in Akron in 2012.
When we told Blackberry Smoke singer-guitarist Charlie Starr that we intended to ask both him and ZZ Top singer-guitarist Billy Gibbons the same set of questions about their upcoming Grooves and Gravy tour, he joked that he would give us ZZ Top answers and that we could ask Gibbons to give us Blackberry Smoke answers. His smart ass response suggests the way in which these two acts are well-suited to hit the road together. While Blackberry Smoke comes from a Southern rock/country tradition and ZZ Top plays straight-up Texas blues, both bands have a certain swagger to them. And both Starr and Gibbons have great senses of humor. And both bands can, as ZZ Top puts it in one tune, “boogie woogie all night long.” Here's what Starr and Gibbons had to say about the tour that includes an Aug. 25 date at Hard Rock Live.

Talk about the current tour how excited you are for it?
We are very excited. We’ve toured with [ZZ Top] before so we know what’s in store. It’s great. I would say it’s a good fit musically. That sounds like a funny thing to say when you’re talking about ZZ Top but we knew them and their crew and everybody is great. We work together well.
Gibbons: Grooves and Gravy promises to be a great outing. This tour brings both bands to one of our favorite venues which makes it a real homecoming. We'll also get to see Blackberry Smoke do their thing making this particular stop like a working vacation.

Who came up with the name Grooves and Gravy for the tour and what does it mean to you?
I’m pretty sure Billy Gibbons. I think it means how it reads: grooves and graaavy. That’s how Billy would say it too. I think we’ll both be bringing the grooves and they’ll be dripping with gravy.
Gibbons: The groove is the down-home thing for both bands, no doubt. The name does indeed impart that blues-based resonance. And the gravy is what will make it all a little messy in a very tasty way.

What’s the connection between Southern rock and Texas blues?
I don’t know. All of that music is born of the blues. With Southern rock, there’s a larger dose of country music influence, going back to Hank Williams or even Bill Monroe before him, that Appalachian thing got mixed up. As far as rock ’n’ roll goes, what’s considered to be the first rock session was Elvis at Sun Studios. The first song he recorded was “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” I love to talk about blues with Billy, not just Texas blues but blues in general. I think he actually knew Lightnin’ Hopkins, which is just incredible. I think they’re closely related, like a lot of other offshoots of the genre.
Gibbons: It’s fairly direct. The boogie is downright elemental…the genuine pump-up. A superb sonic circulater!

Do you think the two bands share any musical inspirations?
Of course. With us, ZZ Top is a huge influence. Anyone who has ever picked up a rock ’n’ roll guitar is influenced by Billy. When we were a younger band that played in bars, there were several ZZ Top songs in our cover canon. I’ve spoken with Billy about that and asked him, “How do you play ‘Just Got Paid’ and sing it at the same time. It’s so difficult.” He says he still can’t after all these years, which is not true, of course. The majority of the people in Blackberry Smoke are musical students. We didn’t get into this music to pick up chicks. We got into it because we love music so much. I just consume it and soak up as much as I can. I’m rabid with it and always have been. The one constant in my life is music.
Gibbons: We all dig on the blues: Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Jimmy Reed and, of course, the three kings: B.B., Albert and Freddie. Some of the more contemporary stuff falls in like the Allman Brothers and a very influential Jimmie Vaughan. Just a great wide range of super stylists.

Your music has been described as “boogie rock.” Is that apt?
We don’t mind what it's called... boogie, blues, rock.. just not late for supper.

I would think growing up where you grew up has influenced your music. Can you talk about that a bit?
I grew up about 85 miles south of Atlanta, just across the Alabama state line, just north of Montgomery. My dad was a bluegrass guitarist and singer. He still is. I learned to love it from watching him and his mother played mandolin and sang. We all sang in church. My dad would have friends over and they would play traditional songs. That started the love for the guitar. My mother’s brothers were professional musicians. They were a gospel quartet that started in the ’40s. They retired in 1971. They travelled the world. I got it from both sides.
Gibbons: Houston was a special place where greats like Bobby Bland and B.B. King recorded, where Lightnin’ Hopkins was a fixture on the coffee house circuit and the psychedelic scene was happening with the 13th Floor Elevators and folk by Townes Van Zandt. We got the idea from those cats that doing what felt comfortable is all right and that’s just what happened.

Talk about the first song you ever wrote.
It was horrible. I won’t even tell you the name of it. I think I was about 16. The first song I wrote for Blackberry Smoke is “Sanctified Woman.” We still play it in our shows to this day.
Gibbons: "99th Floor" for [the blues band] the Moving Sidewalks. The irony is that is was the British cats that came to the rescue reminding the planet what was at the start of it all. Everybody wins.

How have you evolved as a songwriter?
I hope I’ve gotten better. I love it so much. I love the process. It never ceases to be exciting when you write something you’re excited about and you can’t wait for the fans and the band to hear it. It’s such a fulfilling thing to do. You can say that about any other type of art. If you paint your masterpiece, so to speak.
Gibbons: More like “devolved” — many times, that energy which ignites a song presents itself in the most unanticipated manner. And when it’s just not happening, the best course of action more often is the opposite, inaction — and when it’s ready, it'll jump up a get'cha.

How have you evolved as a musician?
Guitar is my first love. I learned to play a little bit on a lot of instruments over the years. I play banjo, mandolin, pedal steel and piano. The guitar is always the constant. One of these days, I’ll get damn good at it and then I can feel like I can stop. I’ve been playing the guitar so long it feels like an extension of my body. It’s home.
Gibbons: With more than four decades of practice we’re starting to get pretty good at this. Seriously, we’ve learned that what you don’t play is almost as important as what you do play — space is the place!

You’ve assembled a good catalog of songs at this point in your career. How do you decide what to play on this particular tour?
I don’t necessarily write a setlist for an audience. There will be times during the show when we call an audible if people are fired up and don’t need to hear a ballad. It all has to do with what we played in the city the last time we were there. That has a lot to do with it. And because of the power of social media, our fans let us know what they want to hear. That’s great. We’ll change it up nightly. We have set lists that are similar. This guy in the meet and greet the other night said he saw us 26 times and said we always played something he hadn’t heard. That’s cool. That meant a lot to me.
Gibbons: We like to mix things up and go back to very early stuff (even before our first album sometimes) and bring it up to "La Futura".

The band seems to be peaking, creatively speaking. To what do you attribute that?
it’s been a nice slow build as far as the fanbase and evolution of the music. You play together for as long as a band like ours has, you’re bond to really start cooking. The shows start to get really good and you get in a groove.
Gibbons: Just keeping on keeping on. As long as you keep it with the “ing” and not the “ed”... we’re alright.

You’re known for attracting some rowdy fans. What is it about your band that appeals to them?
Alcohol. In the middle of the tour as far as spring goes this year, we had a ton of fist fights. It was a big brawl at every show. Somebody said they didn’t know what had gotten into the fans. People are getting as hammered as they can get. It’s not like we’re playing a song called “Beat Up Your Buddy.” They get drunk and they get rowdy. That’s the nature of the gig. Lately, they’ve been behaving more like adults.
Gibbons: You do know we have a song entitled “Beer Drinkers and Hell Raisers.” It’s kind of a “baked in” situation as far as getting an audience that’s — how shall we put this? — “enthusiastic."

We regularly hear that rock and roll is dead. Is it?
Oh, rock ’n’ roll will never die. Just ask Rainbow. I’ve talked about this a lot of times about that specific question. Every time it starts to feel complacent or tired, something comes along and rattles its cage. Aerosmith did it and the Sex Pistols did it and then Guns N Roses did it and Nirvana did it. There’s always something in the cycle that comes along and makes it cool again.
Gibbons: You want “living proof”? Come on out and see us! Rock on…!

ZZ Top/Blackberry Smoke, 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 25, Hard Rock Live, 10777 Northfield Rd., Northfield, 330-908-7625. Tickets: $75-$99.50, hrrocksinonorthfieldpark.com.

About The Author

Jeff Niesel

Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected]
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