Billy Gibbons: Life Beyond ZZ Top
Stepping away from ZZ Top for the first time in 46 years, Billy Gibbons’ solo debut throws Texan blues and Cuban beats into the culture-mulcher.
You can’t miss Billy Gibbons. When ZZ Top broke through in the late 70s – the frontman sporting a beard so grizzly it could have been coughed up by Chewbacca – he instantly became the most iconic and oft-caricatured guitarist of the era. And since the millennium, when Gibbons cranked up his paparazzi appeal with a sideline as a TV actor, even a stroll down the street has become a negotiation of high-fives and camera phones. Naturally, as a serious, high-minded journalist, I tell myself to avoid the subject of the beard, but within seconds, I’ve caved in. “This set of chin whiskers has become pretty much a running advertisement,” chuckles Gibbons. “It’s fun to see that what started off as a disguise has become a trademark. There’s a turn of events for you.
“It’s part of the job, man,” he adds of the furore, “and we certainly enjoy it. The good news is that we’ve yet to encounter anything other than enthusiasm. Everybody’s like, ‘Hey now! You’re that ZZ Top guy!’ There’s a TV show that broadcasts here in the States called Bones. It’s one of these forensic whodunnit kinda programmes. It’s very popular, just now entering its 10th season, and they tagged me to play a part. So with all that exposure, I can’t go 10 blocks without someone saying, ‘Hey, what’s going on, man?’”
Texas’ favourite son, it’s fair to say, doesn’t do incognito. As such, it’s hard to imagine this 65-year-old superstar playing the part of a nonentity in a new band, road-dogging between ratholes and humping kick drums up urine-streaked stairwells. Gibbons feels otherwise. He’s relishing the chance to start over on the bottom rung with his new side-venture, The BFG’s, and hawk their debut album, *Perfectamundo**.* “It’s back to sleeping in the van,” he insists, with a laugh that sounds like someone shucking gravel. “I guarantee ya, we’re gonna have to get real chummy, real quick. Will I enjoy being back playing in small venues? Yeah, I think so. I believe this assembly is gonna become very adept in the smoky room, as opposed to the airy arena.”
You’d never guess it from his verbose drawl, but Gibbons is a little nervous. Since ZZ Top formed in Houston, Texas, back in 1969, he’s always been flanked by bassist/co-vocalist Dusty Hill (who deserves an honorary mention for his own facial fuzz) and drummer Frank Beard (who, ironically, doesn’t). The frontman has ducked out for frequent one-off collaborations – with everyone from Queens Of The Stone Age to BB King – and has fingers in various business pies. “I got involved with an old buddy of mine in the launch of a tequila brand called Pura Vida. He’s just announced that he has intentions of expanding into a couple of other expressions, one of them being a rum. If I see you in a short while, we may sit down and throw one back…”
Unusually for such a big name, though, Gibbons has never before recorded a full-length solo album under his own banner. “There’s enough unreleased tracks from the last five or six years to constitute a proper release,” he calculates. “Y’know, material that has yet to see the light of day. But it was either just an extension of ZZ Top, or a proper blues record. Nothing was so ground-shaking that it demanded a release, at least at the time. “But this record took on a colour that was just different enough to legitimise taking a stab. It’s probably safer that I take the risk, because my two partners would probably say, ‘I don’t want any part of this.’ It was uncertain, having spent four decades trying to interpret blues and rock’n’roll in the ZZ Top fashion, what this sudden turn of the corner was going to present. But we pressed onward, throughout a bit of furious trepidation. Towards Cuba…” You heard him right – Cuba. If the recent thaw in historic political tensions between the US and its hard-left neighbour seemed unthinkable, Gibbons’ splicing of blues riffs and Latin rhythms on Perfectamundo is just as unexpected. “Will ZZ Top fans be surprised by this new album?” he ponders. “Definitely. I hope, when the sun rises, that we’ll see smiling faces. It’ll bum a few people out, though. They’ll ask, ‘What in the hell are they thinking?’ Let’s take a guess and say that it might take a true blues purist a bit off-guard, but I don’t think it’s gonna throw a wrench into the works.”