Classic Rock

Billy F Gibbons

Away from the arenas of ZZ Top, Billy F Gibbons and his band are taking it back to small clubs where they can see the audience’s eyes. And they’re absolutely loving it.

- Words: David Sinclair Photos: Justin Borucki

Away from the arenas of ZZ Top, Billy and his band are taking it back to small clubs where they can see the audience’s eyes. And they’re absolutely loving it.

Billy F Gibbons is winding up a long year with a US tour to promote his second solo album, The Big Bad Blues. The record has already had an impressive reception, especially in the UK, where it landed in the Top 20 on its release in September. But it is on the road that this new project is now truly taking wing. Accompanie­d by drummer Matt Sorum (ex-Guns N’ Roses, Velvet Revolver, Hollywood Vampires et al) and guitarist/singer Austin Hanks (a songwritin­g collaborat­or and long-time touring buddy of ZZ Top), Gibbons is now taking his favourite music – old, new, borrowed and decidedly blue – to small and often off-piste venues across the American heartland.

It is a little after four o’clock in the afternoon on the day before Halloween when the three musicians walk into the Iridium, a snug, 150-capacity basement jazz club in the middle of Manhattan. Chairs and tables are pushed together and pressed up close against the compact stage. Indicating the close quarters in which the band will shortly be performing, Gibbons issues instructio­ns for setting the sound level. “Let’s not kill the audience, tonight,” he says in a deep, dry drawl. “Let’s entertain them instead.”

Places like the Honeywell Centre, Wabash, Indiana (capacity 1,500), the Tupelo Music Hall, Derry, New Hampshire (700) and the Belly Up Tavern, Solana Beach, California (600) have returned Gibbons and Sorum to a touring circuit that is a long way removed from the arenas and stadiums that they have inhabited for long stretches of their careers. “It’s certainly different,” Gibbons says, reclining in a small dressing room ahead of the sound-check.

“The refreshmen­t is being in such close proximity to the audience.”

“To be honest, I get more nervous on gigs like this than

I do playing somewhere like

Wembley Stadium,” Sorum says.

“This is the smallest gig of them all on this run. But it is also a prestigiou­s place in the centre of New York. There’s gonna be musician-types and a few journalist­s and all these blues cats, you know. I wouldn’t consider myself a blues drummer. I’m a rock drummer. So for me it’s been another bit of education on my musical journey. I’m playing a lot more shuffles – the Texas shuffle. I didn’t use the Texas shuffle at all with Guns N’

Roses, The Cult or Velvet Revolver, so it’s a case of re-educating myself.”

For Gibbons, playing these small shows in his own right gives him the chance to cover a lot of different musical bases. “When it’s a ZZ Top show it’s ZZ Top recordings,” he says. “Very few covers. But we’ve been able to dig deep into the bucket of favourites and select a few out-of-theway numbers.”

He’s as good as his word, and the show is a splendidly relaxed and wide-ranging trawl through the blues world that he inhabits with such unique panache. Kicking off with a weaponised version of the Muddy Waters standard Rollin’ And Tumblin’ the band strike an immediate rapport with the audience in the packed supper club.

Gibbons cuts a familiar figure, resplenden­t in a black, sparkly leather jacket, midnight-black shades and a 10-gallon hat plonked on top of the squiggly African Bamileke Nudu beanie hat where his hair should be. To his right, the clean-ish shaven Hanks plays guitar left-handed and upside down – somewhat in the manner of the late blues statesman Albert King. “I can’t even look at him, the way he plays that thing,” Gibbons jokes. While with ZZ Top Gibbons’s comrade Dusty Hill

provides a mirror image with his matching beard and stage costumes, Hanks gives this new trio a pleasingly symmetrica­l look with the two guitar necks pointing outwards in either direction either side of Sorum, perched behind his kit.

There is no bass player. In a somewhat revolution­ary move, Gibbons and Hanks are both playing guitars customised with A Little Thunder pickups, designed by guitarist Andy Alt at his workshop in Silverlake, LA. These devices detect the lowest frequency of the guitar strings as they are being struck and, when activated, automatica­lly drop the lowest string by an octave – or even two octaves. The result is an extraordin­arily uncluttere­d sound, with no bass lines as such, but a range of deep, rich tones at the bottom end. “We have not one but two guitar players and two bass players as well,” Gibbons says. “It’s become a low-end freight train!”

The effect is galvanisin­g on old ZZ Top favourites including I Thank You (the Sam And Dave cover), Jesus Just Left Chicago, a transcende­nt Blue Jean Blues and a bumping, thumping version of Just Got Paid on which Gibbons plays some badass slide.

Highlights from The Big Bad Blues album include a sprightly Hollywood 151 and an unbelievab­ly sleazy version of Bo Diddley’s Bring It To Jerome, during which the band are joined on stage by Gibbons’s spiky-haired guitar tech Elwood Francis on harmonica. Meanwhile, the visual accompanim­ent on the TV screens beside the stage shows some 1940s film footage of alligators

“It’s very different [from ZZ Top]. The refreshmen­t is being in such close proximity to the audience.”

Billy Gibbons

sliding in and out of the dirtiest of southern swamps.

Other covers range from I Like It Like That, a doowop-styled song from 1954 by the “5” Royales, to a stonking version of the Bobby Troup standard Route 66 in the style of the version on the first Rolling Stones album. Another highlight is Let’s Go, Let’s Go, Let’s Go, a country swing number written by Hank Ballard in 1960, which finds the tres hombres singing harmony vocals with surprising agility.

“Some of these songs are old enough to be invisible,” Gibbons says. “But the other night we had a couple of elderly folks right in the front. They were watching us like hawks all night, and when we did the old numbers, they knew. They were grinning. So it’s a well-rounded night of antics.”

The sound of the ‘double trouble’ guitar/bass, guitar/bass line-up is a revelation. So much so that Gibbons has to stop and explain to the audience that they can indeed believe what their ears are telling them. No less inspiring is the drumming of Matt Sorum. In stark contrast to the deadpan approach of ZZ’s Frank Beard, Sorum is a livewire behind the kit. He punches out the drum parts with a sure touch and a manic, flamboyant energy. When they close the show with Sharp Dressed Man it sounds like a new song. And for an encore Sorum gets to sing (and play) a cover of Led Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love – an incredible performanc­e. Never mind any pre-show nerves, you get the sense that the guy is simply thrilled to be on the stage.

“When Billy Gibbons calls and invites you to come and tour it’s just a straight-up honour, at the highest level,” Sorum says. “I grew up with ZZ. I saw ZZ when I was fifteen years old. Rio Grande Mud. I saw Alice Cooper Welcome To My Nightmare, and I remember seeing Joe Perry in a stadium. So to be in a band with any of those guys is pretty cool. But for me Billy is top of the list. He’s iconic. So to be out here for me is like being a fan too. It’s a rock’n’roll dream.”

Hanks also gets to sing one of his own compositio­ns, Rising Water Blues, a poignant song that was included on the soundtrack to the 2017 film Only The Brave. His connection with Gibbons goes back to when they started songwritin­g together about 15 years ago. He co-wrote Flyin’ High, a song on the last ZZ Top album, La Futura. “We’ve got a whole stack of songs that have been cut but haven’t been released yet,” Hanks says. “And then he helped me out on my album [Alabastard] – played on it and helped produce it. We even share the same birthday. December sixteen. So we’re pretty intertwine­d.”

As well as being an inductee of the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame, Gibbons was, more to the point, officially declared a Living Legend at the 2012 Classic Rock Awards. He greets the news that

Classic Rock has reached it’s 20th Anniversar­y with a wry smile. “That’s quite a milestone. If you really dig sounds of all kinds, dig no further. Just turn the pages of Classic Rock.”

As 2018 draws to a close, Gibbons has an anniversar­y of his own very much in mind. In 2019 it will be 50 years since the release of the first ZZ Top single, Salt Lick. “Is that even possible?” he says with an incredulou­s shrug. “We’ve got the wheels turning to prepare for something special for that one. Even Frank [Beard] has gotten fired up about it. I challenged Dusty to figure out how we could put on a show that combines elements of all the shows we’ve put on over the years.”

Would that include the live animals that they took out on the legendary Worldwide Texas Tour of 1976-7?

“They’re still out there. I’ve kept in touch with Ralph Fisher [animal handler]. All the stage and all of that stuff is still in storage. We’ve still got those moving sidewalks which we used to glide around the stage. I remember we stepped up on them one night, and the operator who was in charge of the conveyor got it wrong with the speed control. And both of us went tumbling like ninepins… Anyhow, barring mishaps I think we can probably piece together a representa­tion of the best bits for a show. So 2018 has been rather rewarding in igniting the dream machine to advance to 2019.”

Meanwhile, Gibbons continues to follow his dream with his own group, who have forged an extraordin­ary bond both musically and spirituall­y. The three of them travel together (with a driver) in a single tour bus. “We sit up all night and watch Katharine Hepburn movies in our pyjamas and play 31 [card game],” Hanks says. “It’s the most un-rock’n’roll thing ever.”

“Billy is like an eighteen-year-old. His energy is incredible,” Sorum says. “And he’s a true entertaine­r in every sense of the word. From what we’ve been feeling about the tour, people have been leaving very happy. Obviously it’s the blues, but it’s got a rock’n’roll element, it’s got a punky element to it, it’s got a good-time feel. Everyone leaves smiling. It’s a party.”

“I grew up with ZZ. So to be out here for me is like being a fan too. It’s

a rock’n’roll dream.”

Matt Sorum

The Big Bad Blues is out now via Snakefarm.

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 ??  ?? L-r: Billy F Gibbons, AustinHank­s and Matt Sorum, shot exclusivel­y for CR in NYC, October 30, 2018 .
L-r: Billy F Gibbons, AustinHank­s and Matt Sorum, shot exclusivel­y for CR in NYC, October 30, 2018 .
 ??  ?? Red-hot blues and more: Austin Hanks, Matt Sorum and BillyGibbo­ns at the Iridium in Manhattan, October 2018.
Red-hot blues and more: Austin Hanks, Matt Sorum and BillyGibbo­ns at the Iridium in Manhattan, October 2018.

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