Billy F Gibbons Latest, ‘Hardware’ – A Straight Up Rocker From ZZ Top’s Front Man

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I’ve been bouncing all around musically this week. I’ve been deeply into the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young Deja Vu: 50th Anniversary Edition for a couple of weeks now and that continued this week. I found myself going from that to Dylan’s Another Self Portrait (1969-1971): The Bootleg Series Vol 10 for no other reason than I saw it was the anniversary of the original Self Portrait recently… I seemed to be stuck in a late 1969, early 1970 groove…maybe I should get a leather fringe jacket and some beads. To shake it up I bounced to the Black Crowes’ Warpaint. That southern rock got me thinking about ZZ Top and that’s when it hit me that Billy F. Gibbons (or just Billy Gibbons as I’ve always known him) had just put out a new solo record, Hardware. The next thing I knew I was cranking that and of course, his original band, ZZ Top. I went back and listened to ZZ’s La Futura. I can’t believe it’s been almost 10 years since that album was released (in 2012). That was a great, Rick Rubin-produced comeback album. Rubin always seems to find a way to get a band to do what they do best. “I Gotsta Get Paid” is a true ZZ Top highlight. I need to do one of my “Lookback” posts about that one… 

My love of ZZ Top goes back as far as my love of rock n roll. As I’ve shared often on this site, my first LP purchase was the Stones’ Some Girls. After that, I was hooked, my life forever changed. I was a music collector. It was late ’78, maybe early ’79. There was so much rock and roll to choose from…I was so far behind. I wanted to collect all of this great music released in the 60s and 70s but like anybody I was drawn to what was then current. I remember I only owned maybe half a dozen records and my dad asking me, “Do you really need all of these albums?” Famously a smart ass, I asked my father in response, “You realize there’s different music on each album, right?” We didn’t talk much after that until I was 30 but I digress. I remember my burgeoning record collection consisted of: The Stones’ Some Girls, Van Halen, Supertramp’s Breakfast In America (which I eventually traded to my brother for Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours), Steve Miller Band’s Greatest Hits 1974-1978, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon (which was a must have album, if just as a badge of “coolness”), Led Zeppelin (I still have a soft spot for that debut) and believe it or not – the Blues Brothers, Briefcase Full of Blues. My friend’s “hot” sister, Stacy owned that record and since she was a few years older I figured it was cool. Actually that record is how I started to realize that most the bands and music I was into was based on the blues. So good on you Messrs. Belushi and Aykroyd. 

In 1979, ZZ Top had been away on hiatus. The last ZZ Top LP, at the time, had been Tejas in 1976. They had been gone for three years, a lifetime back then. My friend Brewster always said the hiatus was because bass player Dusty Hill had been taking off his cowboy boots and a revolver had tumbled out and shot him in the leg. Having seen the documentary ‘ZZ Top: That Little Ol’ Band From Texas,’ I’m not sure that Brewster story is true, funny though it is… As an aside, I did see ZZ Top open up for the Stones in Houston a couple of years later. The show was in the Astrodome. This biker I ended up standing next to, on the floor in the crush in front of the stage, said to me after ZZ Top had played and the roadies were sweeping off the stage, “The roadies have to sweep up all the mud that came off those guys’ cowboy boots,” like they’d been rustling cattle or something. Again, I’m not sure that’s true either but I’m getting distracted again… So many ZZ Top stories. Having been dormant since 1976, I’m not sure that I was aware that all those great southern rock, boogie blues tunes were the same band, let alone knew it was ZZ Top. I’d heard tracks like “Tush,” and “La Grange” but I’m not sure I’d put it together those were all from the same band… I was truly a novice. Hey, I always thought Genesis’ “Misunderstanding” was Journey with Gregg Rollie on lead vocals. That wasn’t cleared up for me until college. 

So, in 1979 I started hearing this great new song on KY102, the local rock station, “I Thank You.” I dug the music but the lyrics sounded like they were slyly vulgar, which was a plus. Beyond thanking a woman for loving him… this line pops up, “You didn’t have to squeeze it but you did, but you did, but you did, and I thank you.” That line had me thinking there was more to this story… there were just too many “but you did(s)” in the song. It was only later that I found out it was a cover tune written in part by Isaac Hayes. I dug the song and I was interested in this ZZ Top, but with only 6 or 7 albums to my name and a salary derived from mowing lawns, I had to be very careful about which LPs I purchased. I quickly determined the new LP was called Deguello, but I still hesitated. I had this 3 song rule… if I heard three tracks I dug, I bought the record. That was my ROI, three songs. Sigh. After hearing “Cheap Sunglasses” I was almost ready to jump in… Finally I heard “I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide,” and that settled it, I had to have this album. I purchased it the next time I could convince my mom to drive me to the mall… Yes, I was still in junior high. Needless to say, that album started a life long connection between ZZ Top and myself. Gibbons had spent his 3 years away absorbing punk rock and psychedelic influences and it paid off. Although even I’ll admit that it was hit and miss after Eliminator all the way to La Futura. I still consider Antenna a great record. 

I had actually heard that ZZ Top was working on a new band LP. I had heard drummer Frank Beard and the aforementioned, Brewster slandered, bass player Dusty Hill were excited about going back into the studio. I was down for another ZZ Top LP after the great La Futura. So I was a bit surprise that guitarist/vocalist Billy Gibbons had decided to do another solo record. Maybe it was a COVID issue. I remember back in 2000, being in Denver at a Rush cover-band show in a bar up in the mountains. Geddy Lee had just put out his first and only solo record. A friend of mine said to me, “Who needs a Geddy Lee solo record?” Harsh, indeed. Musicians likely get tired of working with the same guys and need a break – especially in the case of someone like Gibbons whose band has been together 50+ years. Sometimes they have material that’s just too personal or they just wanna record different types of music. I never fault a guy for going solo. I will admit, Billy’s first solo LP, 2015’s Latin-tinged Perfectamundo was not my cup of tea. I loved his 2018 LP, The Big Bad BluesI saw that album described as “covers heavy” but there were a lot of Gibbons’ originals. His wife even wrote a tune, “Missin’ Yo Kissin’.” Say what you want about the Rock Chick, she’s never tried to muscle in on the publishing… 

For Hardware, Billy assembled much of the same crew from the last record. He produced the record with Mike Fiorentino and Matt Sorum of GnR and the Cult fame, who also plays drums. I know rhythm guitarist Austin Hawks is also on this record too. Alas, long time ZZ Top engineer Joe Hardy who played bass on Gibbons’ previous two solo records passed away. While Perfectamundo was a Latin, percussive record and The Big Bad Blues was steeped in, yes, the blues – both records could perhaps be seen as genre exercise – Hardware is a straight up rock record. Well, as straight up as Billy F Gibbons is capable of. Gibbons put out a single last year, “Hot Rod” that could have been a bonus track on Eliminator, but it is not on this album. Hardware is the most “ZZ Top” sounding solo record Gibbons has done. 

Hardware is what you would expect in a Billy Gibbons record: lots of guitar, big riffs, bluesy solos, and sly (and sometimes not so sly) humor. Parts of this record remind me of Deguello. The first single was “West Coast Junkie” and it gives me a California vibe that pervades this entire record. It’s a surf rock tune punctuated by Billy doing his “Reverend Billy F Gibbons” schtick. The final track, a spoken word thing not unlike “Heaven Hell Or Houston,” also conjures a California, hot desert wind. You can feel dust on your skin… The first four or five tracks have a seriousness that Billy usually doesn’t evince. It almost starts to feel humorless, but that’s just because it’s missing Gibbons’ trademark humor which comes in later. The opener, “Lucky Card” reminds me of “Just Got Paid,” all funky blues rock. It may be my favorite. “She’s on Fire” is one of those, race to the finish line, fast, balls to the wall rocker. “More More More” has some of Gibbons’ most gravely vocals to date. “Shuffle Step & Slide” is just as advertised, a blues shuffle turned up to 10. It’s got a big, big riff. 

“Vagabond Man” is an affecting bluesy ballad, the guitar solo practically weeps. Make no mistake though, “Vagabond Man” is more ballad than blues. It’s not “Fool For Your Stockings.” “I Was A Highway” is a classic rock song with a chugging riff. It’s almost a sing along. I love the line, “You’d think I was a highway, the way she hit the road.” Gibbons is a deceptively clever songwriter and could always turn a phrase. The only track that really fell flat for me was “Hey Baby, Que Paso” which I think is a cover. “Spanish Fly” is a big riff rocker with almost metallic sounding drums and it is slightly plodding. The music – especially the guitars aren’t as loud as the usual ZZ Top or Gibbons record. They’re down in the mix and the vocals are up a little higher which also surprised me. 

Overall I really do like this record. Much like I said about Cheap Trick’s latest album, this is a solid, straight up rock record. It may not be Tres Hombres but its a damn fine guitar riff record. I’ll be honest, I probably liked The Big Bad Blues a little better but I’m an admitted blues fetishist. Everyone should check this album out. In 2021 its just nice to hear some great, guitar rock. 

Cheers! 

Lookback: The “Peak” of Bob Seger, The Rodney Dangerfield of Rock – 1976 to 1981, From ‘Live Bullet’ to ‘Nine Tonight (Live)’

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I thought for certain by now, almost midway through 2021, we’d be awash in a flood of new music. While 2020 was an awful year it was actually a pretty damn good year for music. Even so, I know there were a lot of bands who had stuff recorded and ready to release last year who ended up delaying since they couldn’t tour. I know Cheap Trick’s latest LP, In Another World was recorded and ready to go last year but not released until this spring. I know I described that album as merely “solid,” but it has really grown on me. I would have guessed that all of those great musicians out there, unable to tour, would turn to writing and recording new stuff. I had expected with all that “pent-up supply” of music we’d see new albums from beloved bands every week. And in truth we have seen some good music this year from Dirty Honey and the Black Keys, to name but a few. If I’m being honest however, I’ve been a little disappointed with the small number of new albums that have dropped this year. While things are rapidly improving out there I’m guessing that booking a tour right now might be slightly premature, a word I studiously try to avoid. And without being able to tour – which is where the real money is anymore – I’m sure that bands are waiting until the latter half of 2021 to put out the new stuff. At least there’s been some amazing archival stuff this year from the Black Crowes, Neil Young and CSNY.

While I’ve been fairly immersed lately in Neil Young’s Archives Vol. 2, CSNY’s great Deja Vu: 50th Anniversary, and frankly a lot of blues, with the small amount of new music coming out I do what I’ve always done… I’ve wandered back through my music collection to stuff I haven’t heard in a while. You can only research new stuff for so long before you have to return to the music that turned you onto rock and roll in the first place. For some reason this week I found myself obsessively (the only way I know how to do anything) listening to a guy who I’ve loved for as long as I can remember, Bob Seger.  I’m from Kansas City, the center of the country in the glorious midwest. In the late 70s, we kind of knew who Springsteen was, especially after The River. We kind of dug Tom Petty after Damn the Torpedoes. But in the midwest, Bob Seger was King. Everybody loved Bob Seger. I’m surprised the guy’s face wasn’t on our currency back then. He could sell out two nights at Kemper Arena in under an hour. They say that your musical tastes are ingrained during your formative, high school years. There was no one bigger during that time of my life than Bob Seger. The first Seger album I ever owned was a gift from my Sainted Grandmother (on my mother’s side) who knew I’d gotten into music. She bought Stranger In Town for me because she felt Seger “had nice eyes.” I loved the tune “Still The Same.”

While Seger was huge back then, for some reason he seems to have fallen out of favor. Most people only seem to know him from his greatest hits. I’m not sure the guy really ever got the respect he deserved. He’s like the Rodney Dangerfield of rock n roll, “I can’t get no respect…” It took until 2004 for the guy to be inducted into the Rock Hall of Fame despite being eligible for it years before that. He said Detroit radio and gads, Kid Rock helped spearhead his induction. Seger is from the midwest and most of the rock intelligentsia are on the East Coast which might explain why Seger’s name isn’t uttered with the same whispered reverence as Springsteen. I like what Dylan said about Springsteen/Seger on his Theme Time Radio Show, “Some say Bob Seger is a poor man’s Bruce Springsteen. I like to think of Springsteen as a rich man’s Seger.” Seger has a lot in common with CCR… meat and potatoes rock n roll. “Maybe not the coolest band but certainly the best,” as Springsteen said of them. Seger’s rock n roll was simple, straight-forward, barrel house rock, based on a Chuck Berry ethos. When he rocked he was amazing. When he did the acoustic ballad stuff, well, yes, he was still amazing. Who doesn’t know and can sing along with “Mainstreet,” or “Fire Down Below” with equal gusto.

When I was trying to frame this article on Seger, I began to ponder what his “peak” period would be. I don’t think there is a musician with worse luck than Seger. He always struggled with decent studio production. Once, when I was in college with nothing better to do, I went to the library to do some rock n roll spelunking. I was surprised to learn that Seger is the exact same age as Pete Townshend. Pete and the Who’s road to fame and fortune was clearly a lot shorter than Bob’s. I decided to focus on what I consider to be Seger’s commercial peak. The albums that came out between his two landmark live albums. Those are likely the albums everybody is familiar with, which is actually too bad. Because out of Seger’s first 7 or 8 albums I’d say over half are classics. Unfortunately you can’t buy or stream any of his early LPs save for 1969’s Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man and 1975’s Beautiful Loser. I have mused in these pages before about who is holding his early stuff hostage. Jack White, another Detroit native, has even offered to go in and remaster Seger’s early LPs but Seger turned him down. I blame his longtime manager, Punch. Although Punch just passed away, sadly… but maybe this means new management might get this essential rock n roll released.

That lack of availability of a lot of Seger’s early music is what led me to pare this post down to that albums that are considered his “commercial peak.” Ideally, I’d be telling you that around the time Seger did his all covers LP, Smokin’ O.P.s he started to hit his stride. I’ve already posted about Smokin’ O.P.s in the best albums featuring all cover tunes…His early stuff, if available is all worthy of being considered a part of his peak but alas it’s not out there. Back In ’72 (recorded in ’72, released ’73) is a  lost masterpiece and if you ever see a copy in a used vinyl shop, grab it up. You can’t find this thing. The original version of “Turn the Page,” So I Wrote You a Song,” and “Rosalie” later covered by Thin Lizzy are all on this album. He covers Van Morrison (“I’ve Been Workin'”), and the Allman Brothers (“Midnight Rider”) to stunning effect. Seger always had a uncanny ability to “smoke other people’s songs”… Seven, his creatively titled seventh album doesn’t have big hits but is my all time favorite Seger album. “Get Out of Denver” from that album is the best Chuck Berry inspired number that Chuck didn’t do himself. Seven is the LP that saw the debut of the Silver Bullet Band. And finally, Beautiful Loser is damn close to perfect. Since none of these records (save the last one) are readily available, I’m sticking to my premise and merely recommending Seger’s “commercial peak” LPs, from his first live LP Live Bullet (an LP that made our best Live LPs list), to his second live LP, Nine Tonight. These are the albums that every rock n roll fan should own.

Live Bullet, 1976

After my grandmother gave me Stranger In Town, which I realize isn’t the coolest origin story, this was the second Seger album I purchased which was quite a financial outlay in junior high. This landmark live LP was largely ignored when it first came out but finally began to sell and get airplay after Night Moves broke Seger. Recorded at Detroit’s historic Cobo Hall this is the sound of the world’s most overachieving bar band, the Silver Bullet Band, on perhaps their best night. Twelve of the fourteen tracks are from the LPs mentioned in the paragraph above. This plays like an early Seger greatest hits (that weren’t hits) album. They say Seger could play Cobo Hall in Detroit and drive to the nearest city, Chicago, Des Moines or Kansas City and couldn’t sell out a theater. “Beautiful Loser/Travelin’ Man,” “Turn the Page,” and “Katmandu” were all staples of Kansas City rock n roll radio. But if you ask me, the opening track, “Nutbush City,” an Ike & Tina Turner track should have been a hit…

Night Moves, 1976

I heard Seger say in a radio interview that the title track of this LP, the one that finally broke him nationally, was somewhat inspired by Springsteen’s “Jungleland.” It’s an epic track. I was a pre-teen when this track came out but I still got goosebumps and could relate to the line, “woke last night to the sound of thunder, how far off I sat and wondered… started humming a song from 1962…ain’t it funny how the night moves?” There isn’t a bad song on this album. OK, maybe “Sunburst” is a little weak. Other than that, this is all killer, no filler. While the LP is billed to the Silver Bullet Band, half the album was recorded with the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section – a habit that Seger had begun when recording Back In ’72, recording select tracks with his backing band and select tracks at Muscle Shoals. Tracks many casual fans will recognize from his greatest hits albums are here: “Fire Down Below,” “Mainstreet,” and “Rock N Roll Never Forgets.” But the deeper tracks are some of his best, like “Come To Poppa” a line that never worked for me… “Sunspot Baby,” and the rocker “Mary Lou.” This is close to midwest rock n roll heaven as you’re gonna get folks.

Stranger In Town, 1978

This was the album where I got on the bandwagon. The track that drew me in, oddly, was “Still the Same.” It still makes me think of a fickle friend of mine from those days. “Hollywood Nights” has some of the most propulsive drumming I’ve ever heard, especially when driving down the highway at 90 miles per hour… ahem. If I ever have a heart attack, put this on the stereo, turn it up loud and throw me on the biggest speaker in the room. It should revive me. “Feel Like A Number” is a tune I relate to even more now… although being a faceless member of the crowd in a high school of 1800 students certainly made it relatable. “Brave Strangers” was relatable on a completely different level. Again, a lot of these tracks, like “Old Time Rock n Roll” and the treacle “We’ve Got Tonight” are on the greatest hits but its the deeper tracks that I dig. “Ain’t Got No Money” is just a great rocker. “Till It Shines” boasts a great guitar solo from none other than Glen Frey.

Against The Wind, 1980

I will always have a soft spot for this album, as this is the first tour I actually got to see Seger. That’s why I’ve probably always been fond of his second live LP, Nine Tonight. That show was the famous night my mother blew out her knee doing “jazzercise” in the living room. The neighbor called 911… cops and ambulance showed up. I had a bottle of Jack Daniels in my pants and my friends almost drove past my house… I love this album but I have to admit, this is where I began to see the cracks in the Seger veneer. It has the sound of an album that was crafted to sound like his previous two. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a fabulous album that everyone should hear. “Betty Lou’s Gettin’ Out Tonight” and “Horizontal Bop” were great tunes but they felt like we’d heard them before. I did particularly like “Her Strut.” The first single was “Fire Lake” which asked the musical question, “who wants to go to Fire Lake?” sung by back up singers Don Henley/Timothy B. Schmit/Glenn Frey. With the “bronze beauties, lying in the sun,” I think we all would go to “Fire Lake” given the opportunity. The real question in that song was… why was Uncle Joe “afraid to cut the cake.” I mean, I get why he ran off to “Fire Lake” but I’m getting off topic here. “Long Twin Silver Line” is a great song about a train and made our train songs playlist. My favorite track here is the acoustic ender, “Shinin’ Brightly.” It was the perfect bright note to end the album on.

All of those albums are must haves for fans of rock n roll. I do like this second live LP, Nine Tonight, but I’m not sure it’s essential. It covers the three studio LPs above and only shares “Let It Rock” with Live Bullet which is a testament to how many great tunes were on those 3 albums. His next studio album, 1982’s The Distance was another solid album but I loathed the first single, “Shame On the Moon.” I loved “Even Now” and “Roll Me Away” but the cracks I started to see became more visible for me on this album. I’m still not sure what “House Behind A House” was about. But “Makin’ Thunderbirds” kicked ass… I will admit, after The Distance I really couldn’t connect with much of Seger’s more sporadic output until I Knew You WhenMaybe that’s why Seger has fallen out of favor… too many late-period, weak LPs. Although that doesn’t seem to hurt most bands these days.

I urge anyone who hasn’t gotten deeper than Seger’s Greatest Hits to check out these albums in full. There is a host of great music in these deep tracks. “Like a guest who stayed too long, its finally time to leave,” indeed.

Cheers!