With his signature beard and African headgear, Billy F Gibbons is instantly recognisable. He’s best known as the centerpiece and one third of ZZ Top, the band that came together in 1969 and has stayed part of the American musical landscape ever since – the longest running major rock band still composed of its original members.
In 2015, Concord Records released Billy’s debut solo album, the Afro-Cuban flavoured ‘Perfectamundo’, which was followed by performances at the Havana Jazz Festival. Now, its follow-up comes in the shape of ‘The Big Bad Blues’, released September 21st via Snakefarm Records.
Co-produced by Billy and Joe Hardy, and put to tape at Foam Box Recordings in the former’s hometown of Houston, it is just as the title suggests – a lovingly crafted collection fuelled by Billys’ lifelong love of the blues and rock ‘n’ roll, showcasing the unique vocals and guitar licks that have together informed his numerous hits over the past five decades.
The record features 11 tracks balancing classic covers, like Muddy Waters’ ‘Rollin’ and Tumblin’’ and ‘Standing Around Crying’, with some of Billy’s signature new blues originals, all recorded by a stellar line-up of musicians including Hardy on bass, Matt Sorum (Guns N’ Roses/Velvet Revolver/The Cult) and Nashville session great Greg Morrow on drums, and Austin stalwart Mike ‘The Drifter’ Flanigin on keyboards; blues harp (harmonica) duties are handled by James Harmon as well as Billy who, of course, is the album’s vocalist and guitar slinger nonpareil.
“We successfully made our way through those uncharted waters with the Cubano flavour of ‘Perfectamundo’ and completed the journey,” says Billy in distinguishing ‘The Big Bad Blues’ from its predecessor. “The shift back to the blues is a natural. It’s something which our followers can enjoy with the satisfaction of experiencing the roots tradition and, at the same time, feeling the richness of stretching the art form.”
Billy, of course, has long been one of the most important and influential artists to emerge from the blues tradition; a wellspring of what he likes to refer to as the “three Ts”: tone, taste and tenacity. In 2004, he was inducted, along with ZZ Top, into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but his deep love of the blues was there long before that, “right from the beginning – and it’s never let up.
“There’s something very primordial within the art form,” he continues. “Nobody gets away from the infectious allure of those straight-ahead licks!”
He notes it would take many hours just to scratch the surface surrounding this enduring love affair…
“I suspect Jimmy Reed did me in early on. The inventiveness of that high and lonesome sound remains solid and stridently strong to this day. We could go on to mention the line-up of usual suspects, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy, all three Kings (B.B., Albert and Freddie). The lengthy list of champions is forever carved in stone.”
After the success of ‘Perfectamundo’, Concord Records president John Burk expressed his intent on following up with another artistic offering with a more familiar, bluesy kind of content…
“Billy has an incredibly deep knowledge of the great blues tradition and has carried that tradition forward in his music throughout his incredible career,” Burk reflects. “Therefore, it seemed natural to do a project that centred on his musical roots, and the music that so inspired him from the very beginning.”
“And we were delighted to follow suit,” responds Billy. “This album is steeped in the tradition of ‘BFG meets blues giants’ with an adventurous expression to keep it fresh.”
BFG and Burk met in the underground parking garage of a favourite Hollywood bistro; from the comforts of JB’s top-down ride, they played some tracks, LOUD, with the music bouncing off the walls beneath a couple of floors of raw concrete…
Gibbons and his “greasy” gang of unbridled players were delivering the goods.
“From deep in the heart of Texas, our Hammond organ specialist, Mr. Mike Flanigin, stepped forward and accepted the invitation to move from the B3 bench to take on the task of pounding the ivory 88s,” says Billy, adding, “Great piano stuff from Mike ‘The Drifter’ Flanigin.
“Master of the Fender Bass-guitar, Joe Hardy, lent his low-down sound with his fearless funkiness, SO fine!
“Also, in the mash-up mix, the man-with-the-backbeat-plan, Greg Morrow. G keeps the skins alive and kickin’. And while we’re on that backbeat thang…
“Matt Sorum steps forward with his super-syncopation, thrashing the skins like nobody’s business.
“Alabama-come-California soulster Austin Hanks roughs up the riffs with his left-handed six-string electric. Have mercy!”
“Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue,” he says. “It’s no secret there are several favourites from the way-back starting with not one, but two, from the Bo Diddley catalogue (‘Bring It to Jerome’ and ‘Crackin’ Up’). We dusted off an old Gretsch Duo-Jet guitar which put it squarely with that infamous Bo Diddley sound. Once covered, we made way into another side—a much earlier number from Muddy Waters, ‘Standing Around Crying’. The ragged edges with the meanness of James’ bad self on harp seemed to fit the bill to enter the line-up.”
As for favourites, Billy notes, “‘Missin’ Yo’ Kissin’’ is a gift from Miz Gibbons. She knows what girls want and laid it out cold. And ‘Second Line’ is a definite throwback to many good days and nights down New Orleans way.
“Other tracks on ‘The Big Bad Blues’ are easy pickin’, sayin’ it all. It’s a street affair.”