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! 

LP Review: Billy F Gibbons, ‘The Big Bad Blues’ – Blooze Rock As Greasy As A Bacon Sandwich On Wonder Bread!

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The blues have always been my Alpha and Omega… the beginning and the end. Even in the early days of my record collecting, when I didn’t know what the blues were, they were always in the background, driving my vinyl purchases. I started off, as I’ve often said, with the Stones LP Some Girls. Soon I was working my way backwards into their catalog and I realized early on I liked some of the slower tunes, with big guitar solos. I was finding my way to the roots of rock and roll… the blues. There’s a guy online whose link my brother sent me, who thinks that rock has died because it got too far away from the blues… who knows? Anyway, everything that came after that first Stones album, unwittingly, had it’s basis in the blues. I branched out to Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith. Pretty soon I picked up an album by that “Little Ol’ Band from Texas,” power-trio ZZ Top, Deguello. “Fool For Your Stockings” remains a favorite of mine. The guitar on that album is amazing. It’s Billy Gibbons, a man whose playing, none other than Jimi Hendrix said he admired.

From Deguello I plunged into the ZZ Top back catalog. There are so many great albums, but my favorites were Fandango! and of course, Tres Hombres. Those are essential listening for any fan of blues or rock or blues rock. I even liked Rio Grand Mud. As the 70s transitioned into the 80s, a lot of bands struggled to make the turn. I was surprised that ZZ Top was able to do so. El Loco was a solid transition album that brought that old blooze rock into the 80s with big anthems like “Party On the Patio,” and “Pearl Necklace.” But it was their smash-hit, aided by a series of videos on MTV, 1983’s Eliminator that broke ZZ Top into a world wide phenomenon. Every frat house and dive bar was blaring “Gimme All Your Lovin'” and “Sharp Dressed Man.” I remember being on a dance floor at a wedding and there was a guy on crutches using one to air guitar to the latter song. Ah, youth.

I had that album on cassette, I’m embarrassed to say… In my college town, Manhattan, Kansas, the radio was so bad you had to have cassettes in the car to avoid Michael Jackson and Madonna. They were tough years. After Eliminator, I sort of got off the ZZ bandwagon. The synthesizers and gimmicky effects that Gibbons had used to make Eliminator sound cool in ’83 went a little overboard on ’85’s Afterburner. So much accursed drum machine I couldn’t even listen to it. I completely lost track of them after 1994’s Antenna, which actually had two of my favorite ZZ Top tracks, “Breakaway” and “Pincushion.” It wasn’t until the Rick Rubin produced comeback album, La Futura that I found my way back to ZZ Top. It got them back to that basic, bloozey sound they’d gotten away from. It’s great listening and I would say essential to any ZZ Top fan. It’s the type of album this blog was founded on…

Since then it seems Billy Gibbons has decided to leave behind the confines of the power-trio format and has gone solo. His first album Perfectamundo was steeped in Cuban and Latin rhythms and frankly, left me a little cold. It seemed like the patented Billy Gibbons’ sense of humor had gotten the best of him. I had heard he had another album coming out but I really hadn’t paid attention. I thought, based on the title it was a blues covers album, but I quickly realized that was wrong. I was not prepared for the smile that broke across my face the first time I heard The Big Bad Blues. I haven’t had this much fun listening to Billy Gibbons play guitar since side two of Fandango!

Billy is joined on The Big Bad Blues by Matt Sorum, of GnR and the Cult fame, on drums; Joe Hardy on bass; Austin Hanks on rhythm guitar; and most importantly James Harman on harmonica. I have to say this is as loose as I’ve heard Gibbons in years. This is the sound of a group of men in a small room, having a blast with their instruments. On first listen, I had flashbacks of walking into the old Grand Emporium, past the Amazing Grace BBQ stand, under the big picture of Belushi as Joliet Jake, to find the dance floor full and the joint hoppin’. This record has the feel of a great roadhouse on a Saturday night. This is bloozey music, as greasy as a bacon sandwich with too much mayo on wonder bread. I need a napkin to listen.

While this is not a blues cover album, there are 7 originals, Gibbons does do some old blues standards. Two of the tracks are associated with Muddy Waters. Gibbons crushes “Standing Around Crying.” It’s my favorite blues tune here. He also does “Rollin’ and Tumblin'” which, when compared to the version Rod Stewart just released on Blood Red Roses, it can illustrate to you what real blues is vs overproduced schlock. Gibbons also does two Bo Diddley tracks here – which is perfect. I’ve always thought that Bo Diddley was one of those great artists who bridged blues and early rock and roll, which is kind of what this album is about. “Bring It to Jermone” is the first Bo track and it’s got that Bo Diddley-beat and is probably the best of the two. “Crackin’ Up” is one of those odd tunes, it almost sounds reggae, and while not my favorite, it’s been covered by the Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney so it has street cred. It ends the album here.

The originals here are all classic Gibbons. The opening track, “Missin’ Your Kissin'” sets the tone. It was written by Gilly Stillwater, Gibbons’ main squeeze. Actually she’s his wife, but I just feel like Billy  is the type of guy who would describe his wife as his main squeeze… it’s kind of a Telly Savalas thing. Anyway, from the first chord and Billy’s raspy “Hey” you know you’re in for a good bluesy rock time. Gibbons rapsy, growling vocals coupled with his hay-in-a-windstorm beard gives one the impression that Howlin Wolf and a hay bail had a child… Gibbons’ playing is loose and fierce on this record. What I like is that he has a foil in James Harman on harmonica. Often the first solo break in a track they throw it to Harman on harmonica and Gibbons follows on guitar. I love the way they play off each other. That dynamic fuels many of the tunes. I was really blown away by the harmonica on “Bring It To Jermone,” Harman is an amazing blues harp player.

“Second Line” is a great rock tune that wouldn’t have been out of place on Deguello. “That’s What She Said,” also with a great harmonica solo, also evokes the sound of old ZZ Top for me. “My Baby She Rocks” is a great, rockin’ Gibbons original. All of this music makes me want to order a Bulleit Rye and take my shoes off. “Mo’ Slower Blues” lives up to it’s title, but has an almost funky beat. “Hollywood 151” features some wonderful, intricate guitar work. Gibbons has rediscovered his blues roots, but in doing so, he’s also rediscovered that old ZZ Top sound as well. It’s all tied together.

This is simply, one of the best albums of the year. B&V highly recommends this good time of an album. This is rock n roll and blues that’ll put hair on your chest! Turn this one up loud and strap in for some chooglin’ music!