In the credits for every song on the new ZZ Top album La Futura — listed before everything, in fact, save for the title and running time — are these words: “Performed by Billy F. Gibbons, Dusty Hill, Frank Beard.”
If you are even a casual fan of this veteran Texas trio, the repetition of such info might seem an epic overstatement of the obvious. From its early 1970s beginnings as a champion roadhouse blues and boogie combo to its wildly unexpected reincarnation in the ’80s as bearded music video celebs to its present day title of elder Lone Star hipsters, the music and mystique of ZZ Top remain the creation of its founding three members. And if takes a gentle reminder in the credits to all of the La Futura songs, so be it.
For über-bearded guitarist and principal vocalist Gibbons, the mentions are like affirmations of the credo the band has long lived by: “Same three guys, same three chords.”
“Exactly,” Gibbons remarked during a recent email interview. “What you see is what you get, so we’re just keeping expectations in line with reality. The trio format, as espoused by the Jimi Hendrix Experience and Cream, keeps things very elemental, basic and vital. That’s been our corner since the beginning.”
At the heart of the elemental sound has always been the blues. The boogie charge of La Grange and the synth-drive rhythms of Legs might have guided ZZ Top through separate waves of stardom during the ’70s and ’80s, but underneath it all has been a lean and powerfully emotive guitar sound rooted in the blues. Gibbons was witness to the sound while growing up in Houston by way of performance exposure to the blues’ most prestigious ambassadors. Deciding which of those inspirations played the most pivotal role in shaping his own guitar abilities, Gibbons said, is a mighty task
“Hard to pick just one. But if I had to, I guess it would be B.B. King. I got to see him record when I was a youngster — maybe seven years old. My dad had an ‘in’ at the studio in Houston where B.B. and company preferred to record. That experience made a tremendous impression on me and, obviously, it’s stayed on all these years.”B.B. King is now in year 63 or 64 of his career, and I’ve only been at it for maybe 45 years, so there’s a whole lot of catching up to do.”
But along with the blues came a kind of Texan/Mexicali mystique that has come to underscore the band’s image. Some of it is reflected in its appearance — specifically, the sunglasses and majestic facial hair Gibbons and bassist Hill have sported for 34 of the band’s 44-year history. Ironically, drummer Beard is the only member without the waist-length whiskers. The mystique also permeates the music — from the swagger of hits like Cheap Sunglasses and Sharp Dressed Man to the deliciously twisted twang in such overlooked gems as the title tunes to 1996’s Rhythmeen and 2003’s Mescalero albums.
“We have a long standing familiarity with the border and the denizens who live on it and below it,” Gibbons said. “All three of us listened to those powerhouse million-watt AM radio stations that blasted the blues out of Mexico directly into our brains. And of course without las comidas Mexicanas (Mexican food), we’d waste away. Muy sabroso (very tasty).”
But the key to ZZ Top’s remarkable staying power is something much simpler. The band is nearly halfway through its fifth decade without a personnel change, thanks to a chemistry that has become as resilient as the music.
“This is a band that simply likes to play together,” Gibbons said. “Of course, standing as a trio, an odd number helps as there can’t be any ties when a group decision is made. So, if one of us isn’t in accord with the other two, odd man out just goes with the flow. And, since it’s so in fashion to ‘break up’ and then ‘get back together,’ one can think of ZZ Top as being on an infinite tour that just skipped the part where you split. However, we’re really good at getting back together.”
ZZ Top’s visibility also has provided Gibbons with a few side projects, including a recurring role in the TV series Bones, in which he essentially plays himself (“The cast and crew are like an extended family. Gets me out of work for a day, too. Rock on.”) and a recent reunion with his psychedelic pre-ZZ band, Moving Sidewalks (“Going back and experiencing what went down at 16 or 17 years old is a huge kick”).
But life on the road, playing La Grange, Give Me All Your Lovin’ and newer works from the Rick Rubin- produced La Futura is what Gibbons’ performance world orbits around. By all appearances, onstage and off, the ride seems to be as cool as ever.
“It’s a dream job to get out there and play La Grange every night, singing ‘haw, haw, haw,'” Gibbons says. “Don’t get much better.”
ZZ Top performs at 7:30 tonight at the EKU Center for the Arts, 521 Lancaster Ave. in Richmond. Tickets are $63.50-$93.50. Call (859) 622-7469 or go to http://ekucenter.com.