Su­per­sonic Blues Ma­chine

A fluid, ever-chang­ing line-up that brings to­gether A-lis­ters and heavy­weight mu­si­cians, Su­per­sonic Blues Ma­chine are tak­ing the blues where it has never set foot be­fore…

Classic Rock - - Contents - Words: David Sin­clair

A fluid line-up of A-lis­ters and heavy­weight mu­sos, they’re tak­ing the blues where it has never set foot be­fore.

Is it a su­per­group? A blues band? A mu­si­cal jet plane? What­ever it is, Su­per­sonic Blues Ma­chine is not a group that stands still or stands on cer­e­mony. A mot­ley crew of rock’n’roll heavy­weights, all moon­light­ing from their day jobs, they take over the back­stage area of Shepherd’s Bush Em­pire at lunchtime with the en­thu­si­asm of a gang of teenagers given the house keys for the week­end.

Dur­ing a break while set­ting up for tonight’s show, the four prin­ci­pals gather for a pho­to­graph in the al­ley­way out­side. Lined up along the wall are Kris Bar­ras, 31, singer/gui­tarist from Torquay; Fabrizio Grossi, 51, singer/bass player from Mi­lan; Kenny Aronoff, 65, drum­mer out of Bloom­ing­ton, In­di­ana; and Billy F. Gibbons, 68, singer/gui­tarist from Hous­ton, Texas.

There are no man­agers or min­ders around as a ragged-look­ing dude comes shuf­fling to­wards them, stops in his tracks and yells at Gibbons: “ZZ Top! Man, are you play­ing here tonight?!” Gibbons greets him cor­dially, and poses for a photo with him. But it is not a photo the guy wants. “Can you give me some money for a drink, please?” Tricky mo­ment. Gibbons reaches in his pocket for some change, equably enough. Then Aronoff gives him some more. These guys are jet-set stars, and Gibbons is about as recog­nis­able as a rock’n’roll icon can be, but they are cool and com­fort­able out on the street. Re­spect.

Su­per­sonic Blues Ma­chine are in town at the start of a string of Euro­pean dates to pro­mote the band’s sec­ond al­bum, Cal­i­for­nisoul. Like their de­but West Of Flush­ing, South Of Frisco, re­leased in 2016, it’s a top-notch col­lec­tion of new blues-rock songs in­clud­ing cameos from the cream of the lat­ter-day gui­tar-hero fra­ter­nity: Robben Ford, Eric Gales, Wal­ter Trout, Steve Lukather and, of course, the man Gibbons.

The core of the band is the rhythm sec­tion of Grossi and leg­endary ses­sion drum­mer Aronoff. Both of these larger-than-life char­ac­ters have CVs

that look like tele­phone di­rec­to­ries and en­ergy lev­els that are off-the-scale. Aronoff is known in the first in­stance for his work with John Mel­len­camp, but he’s played with ev­ery­one: Iggy Pop, Ce­line Dion, Smash­ing Pump­kins, El­ton John, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Ala­nis Moris­sette… the list is end­less. If he’s sleep­ing, it’s likely that he’s on a plane. Bas­sist Grossi has like­wise played with stars, rang­ing from Steve Vai and Neal Schon to Tina Arena and Cy­press Hill, while his long list of pro­duc­tion cred­its stretches from Alice Cooper to ZZ Top.

What makes Su­per­sonic Blues Ma­chine dif­fer­ent for Grossi and Aronoff is that in­stead of be­ing guns for hire, it’s their own group and they get to call the shots. And rather than have a fixed line-up, they’ve built up a pool of star singer/gui­tarists that they can call on to con­trib­ute songs to the al­bums and to play live with them. Grossi likes to think of the ever-chang­ing na­ture of SBM as some­how akin to the free­wheel­ing ex­am­ple of bands in the 1960s.

“I think it was the best decade ever in mu­sic,” he says. “Back then you would have a con­gre­ga­tion of stars who were friends; Mick Jag­ger and Keith Richards and Pete Town­shend and John Len­non all play­ing on one show. That’s the ap­proach we wanted to have. Al­ways have one or two guys, my­self and Kenny, at the core, but ev­ery­thing else ro­tates. And play­ing each other’s songs. By switch­ing peo­ple all the time, that keeps it fresh.”

“Mind you,” Aronoff says thought­fully, “You’ve got to have some­one who stays put.”

The lat­est spin of the re­volv­ing door has seen the exit of Texan singer and gui­tarist Lance Lopez, who played on the new al­bum but couldn’t make it for the shows. Far from fret­ting about this lo­gis­ti­cal headache, Grossi re­gards it as a tri­umph (of sorts). “Lance was do­ing well as a solo act ten or twelve years ago, then he fell into trou­ble and he needed a res­cue,” Grossi says. “I guess that is what Su­per­sonic pro­vided for him, and we wish him all the best.”

Re­plac­ing Lopez for the fore­see­able fu­ture is the ex­trav­a­gantly tat­tooed Kris Bar­ras. In­tro­duced to mu­sic by his fa­ther, who bought him his first gui­tar at the age of six, Bar­ras de­vel­oped par­al­lel ca­reers as he grew up in mu­sic and as a Mixed Mar­tial Arts cage fighter. “Af­ter a while, the fight­ing was bring­ing me much more suc­cess than the gui­tar play­ing,” he says. “I didn’t worry about dam­ag­ing my hands. I en­joyed fight­ing, to be hon­est. I took it as far as I could, and fought in front of some big crowds.”

Hav­ing re­tired from the cage, Bar­ras re­vived his mu­sic ca­reer and re­leased his al­bum The Di­vine And Dirty this year. His la­bel ap­proached Su­per­sonic Blues Ma­chine to see if he could sup­port them on some of their shows. When Grossi heard the record, he flipped. “This guy wants to open our show? No way. I want him to tour with us as part of the band!” Grossi says.

For Bar­ras, the in­vi­ta­tion to join SBM was the call of des­tiny. In the space of a few months he has gone from play­ing pubs to singing and play­ing along­side Billy Gibbons. Bar­ras is to­tally un­fazed by this sud­den, dizzy­ing change of for­tune, and ra­di­ates a Zen-like air of calm en­ti­tle­ment as he sits next to the Texan leg­end in the Em­pire’s dress­ing room. Later, when the band play their first gig with Bar­ras as, ef­fec­tively, the main voice and gui­tar player for much of the show, he ex­udes raw charisma and an easy author­ity. In­deed his stage pres­ence is eclipsed by only one man in the starstud­ded troupe.

Billy Gibbons is a force of na­ture. Even spend­ing a few min­utes in his com­pany is an ed­u­ca­tion in the me­chan­ics of star power. He says fewer words than any of the oth­ers, but, rather like his gui­tar play­ing at the end of the SBM show, when he leads the way through a bunch of favourites in­clud­ing ZZ’s La Grange and Sharp Dressed Man, his care­fully mea­sured phrases are the ones that count. The band may be a col­lec­tive, pro­duced and run by Grossi and Aronoff, but, as Grossi puts it: “No­body tells Billy what to do.”

“Fabrizio and I met on a project fifteen years ago,” says Gibbons. “And I re­ally liked the way he worked as a pro­ducer. Then I dis­cov­ered he was a bass player. This is my guy! He’s got the ears, but he’s also got the hands.”

Gibbons is short-sighted, and to be­gin with he’s wear­ing a pair of (not sun, prob­a­bly not cheap) glasses, which give him a pro­fes­so­rial look. These days the beard is the colour of fine sand­stone. On the sec­ond fin­ger of each hand he wears enor­mous grin­ning-skull rings de­signed by Los An­ge­les jeweller Ryk Mav­er­ick.

Gibbons cred­its Grossi with awak­en­ing a broader de­sire in him to ex­per­i­ment and ex­pand away from the con­fines of ZZ Top. “From Fabrizio we went to Queens Of The Stone Age,” he says, speak­ing in the royal plu­ral. “Very dif­fer­ent. Then on to Depeche Mode. Okay, let’s get wired! The draw was the chal­lenge of go­ing to un­fa­mil­iar places. And it’s been pretty wide-rang­ing.”

In what kind of way is all this still con­nected to the blues?

“I think the word is ‘in­ter­pre­ta­tion’,” Gibbons says. “We didn’t grow up pick­ing cot­ton on a field in Mis­sis­sippi, so now it’s all a mat­ter of in­ter­pre­ta­tion. Keith Richards said: ‘It’s only three chords, but it’s how you put them to­gether.’ There’s some­thing in this art of sim­plic­ity that has con­tin­ued to ex­pand and res­onate. Add ‘Su­per­sonic’ to the mix and it al­lows us to take the blues into places that are so non-tra­di­tional. Ge­o­graph­i­cally, we’ve found blues fans in Ice­land, Ja­pan, Nor­way, In­dia. But also philo­soph­i­cally… My friend Jimmy Vaughan [of the Fab­u­lous Thun­der­birds, and brother of the late Ste­vie Ray] calls that tra­di­tional blues-shuf­fle 12-bar thing the ‘dunta-dunta’. Well, with this band we’re step­ping well out­side of the Dunta-Dunta.”

ZZ Top will be tour­ing next year to cel­e­brate the trio’s 50th an­niver­sary, and like the vin­tage hot rods he keeps and adores, Gibbons is fir­ing on all cylin­ders. How long can this all go on?

“Well, again, Keith Richards said: ‘Fol­low the steps of Muddy Wa­ters. Do it un­til it’s done.’”

“We al­ways have one or two guys, my­self and Kenny, at the core, but ev­ery­thing else ro­tates.”

Bas­sist Fabrizio Grossi

Cal­i­for­nisoul is out now via Mas­cot.

Photo: Will Ire­land

Sonic boomers: (l to r) Fabrizio Grossi, Kris Bar­ras, Billy Gibbons, Kenny Aronoff.

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