Cover photo © 2018 Arnie Goodman
In This Issue
Don Wilcock has our feature interview with legendary ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons. We have 6 Blues reviews for you this week including a new book from Jas Obrecht plus new music from Lon Eldridge and Steven Troch, Detonics, Dale Bandy, Ms Zeno The Mojo Queen and Mr. Shingles.
Our video of the week is Billy Gibbons.
We have the latest in Blues society news. All this and MORE! SCROLL DOWN!!!
Blues Blast Music Award submissions
The 2019 Blues Blast Music Award submissions are now open. There are 12 categories. Eligibility dates and all submission details are at: www.bluesblastmagazine.com/bbma-submission-information
Submissions remain open until April 15th. Nominees are announced in June. Voting begins in July.
SAVE THE DATE – September 13, 2019 for the Blues Blast Music Awards at Tebala Event Center in Rockford, IL. More details of the 2019 BBMAs coming soon!
Video Of The Week – Billy Gibbons
This is a video of Billy Gibbons giving a “Private Lesson” on guitar using licks from the early Blues artists such as Jimmy Reed, Eddie Taylor, Robert Johnson, Elmore James and BB King to show how he gets his bluesy rockin’ sound. (Click image to watch!)
It is part of the “Private Lessons” series by Guitar World. If you want to try out these guitar licks yourself, you can see and print the music and guitar tablature that goes with what Billy is playing in the video at the Guitar World website by clicking HERE.
Featured Blues Review – 1 of 6
Lon Eldridge and Steven Troch – Cool Iron
10 tracks / 40:48
You can meet some of the nicest people at a blues gig, and this is where Lon Eldridge and Steven Troch found each other. In their case it was at the N9 club in Eeklo, Belgium, where both of these fellows were on the bill one night in 2015. The really interesting part of the story is that Steven is a local guy from Mechelen, Belgium and Lon hails from Chattanooga, Tennessee. They admired each other’s work and passion for American blues, and a few years later Lon returned to Belgium. This time they did more than talk, as the duo knocked out a 15-performance tour in 17 days and had enough spare time to put together Cool Iron, their first album.
The listener will recognize many of the tunes on this disc, as it includes a neat slice of classic blues tunes along with a couple of originals that fit in nicely. Most of the tracks were recorded by Bird Stevens at Tub Thumper Records Studio in the Netherlands, plus there are a pair of live tracks that were captured at Kafee Zapoi in Mechelen. For this release Eldridge sang the lead vocals and played the resonator guitar, and Troch picked up the backing vocals and played the harp. These guys have a killer chemistry, and their instruments and vocals complement each other well!
This 40-minute set leads off with Tampa Red’s “You Can’t Get That Stuff No More,” a jaunty tune that features clean picking, a neat slide break, and melodic accompaniment from Troch’s harp. These guys use a lot of tenor vocal harmonies, and Steve’s sweet smooth sound is an apt contrast to Lon’s slightly weathered delivery. The opener is followed up by the only new piece on the disc, “Sunday Morning Waltz,” which was written by Troch. This is also the only track where Steven brings out a chromatic harmonica, which helps give this instrumental the mysterious quality of a Gypsy tune. The other original song they recorded for this project is “Leavin’ My Blues With You,” which originally appeared on Lon’s third studio album, Long Gone.
The rest of the content is a collection of vintage blues, including three Robert Johnson tracks. As Johnson has such a small catalog of published work and everybody covers these songs, there is the risk that these songs might come off as tired. Fortunately, Eldridge and Troch give a first-rate interpretation of these classics, which is certainly helped along by the addition of the harp. The first of these songs is “Kind Hearted Woman Blues,” which is presented twice on Cool Iron. The first version is presented with modern production techniques, and the bonus track is mono with added static to give it more of the feel of the original (except for the harmonica parts, of course). There is also the duo’s version of “Traveling Riverside Blues,” which was performed live at Kafee Zapoi, and this one has a nice edge to it thanks to Troch’s aggressive harp playing and Eldridge’s tricky resonator guitar work.
The other song that was cut at the club is the traditional “Jack of Diamonds,” and this song features some wonderfully restrained slide work from Lon. Another traditional on this record is “Wished I Was in Heaven Sitting Down,” where Eldridge proves that he can go to a lower register on the vocals when he needs to. Rounding out this project are a lovely version of Bessie Smith’s “Oh Daddy Blues,” and a playful trip into the jazz world with Fats Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’.”
Cool Iron is a wonderful album from Lon Eldridge and Steven Troch, and their efforts paid off with a worthy tribute to the golden age of blues. Both of these gentlemen have immense talent and a unique voice that enables them to take familiar material and make it new again. Fans of classic blues and harmonica should definitely check this one out, as they will not be disappointed with what they hear!
Reviewer Rex Bartholomew is a Los Angeles-based writer and musician; his blog can be found at rexbass.blogspot.com.
Featured Blues Review – 2 of 6
Detonics – Raise Your Bet
Right out of the gate, the Detonics make it clear that they are going to jump, swing, and honor the West Coast blues style that inspired the five piece band from the Netherlands. Leading off their second release, “Swing King” is a slice of retro cool that could have been borrowed from a Stray Cats record. Instead, it is one of eleven originals written by collaborations between various band members. Guitarist Jeremy Aussems composed the electrifying music while drummer Mathijs Roks and lead singer Kars van Nus wrote the lyrics celebrating a master of the dance floor. The pace accelerates on “Butter Side Up,” as Raimond de Nijs’s hands flow across the piano keyboard, leading to an Aussems’ solo that elevates the proceedings to a higher plane.
“My Dad Taught Me To Rock” adds some New Orleans R&B influence as van Nus pays homage to his father for installing a love of music in his son, particularly the importance of swing. New Orleans is the final destination for a man looking to be reunited with the woman he loves on “Route 101,” with Aussems laying down twangy guitar licks that create a “Ghost Riders In The Sky” vibe. The jump & jive reappear on “The Rat,” with a nimble vocal turn from van Nus, who also blows a brief harmonica solo before turning Aussems loose for another fiery guitar excursion. Clocking in just over the two minute mark, “She Is In Command” finds de Nijs switching to the Hammond organ while Roks and Rene Leijtens on upright bass set up a convincing rumba rhythm, as van Nus can’t quite bring himself to stand up to a woman who is the boss at all times.
The band breaks it down to just de Nijs playing some sprightly piano lines in support of a strong vocal from van Nus on “Can’t Get Enough”. Once the rest of the band joins in, the track is off to the races with some full-tone harp blowing from the singer. “Mr. Barber” is pure rockabilly until van Nus turns it around with more hard-edged tones from his harp. There are two performances that illustrate that the band is equally effective at slowing tempos. “Out Of Sight” brings out the gritty side of van Nus’s voice, softened by several sections where the band briefly elevates the mood. The longest cut, “Bullet Through My Heart,” is a dark, minor key highlight. Normally, these types of songs end up being a showcase moment for the guitar player. In this case, de Nijs on electric piano delivers a striking solo passage that favors real feelings instead of a furious display of instrumental prowess. The closing tune, “I Still Remember,” is a weaker track that does not mesh well with the singer’s voice.
For the most part, the Detonics play feel-good music that would certainly inspire the the ranks of dancers around the world. While a bit light on the lyrical content, they prove to be well-versed on the various musical styles that are the bedrock of their sound. And as the lead singer, van Nus brings it all together with seasoned vocals that fit the textures of the material. The combination makes this a blues record worth a listen.
Reviewer Mark Thompson lives in Florida, where he is enjoying the sun and retirement. He is the President of the Board of Directors for the Suncoast Blues Society and a member of the Board of Directors for the Blues Foundation. Music has been a huge part of his life for the past fifty years – just ask his wife!
Featured Blues Review – 3 of 6
Dale Bandy – blue.
9 songs – 31 minutes
Dale Bandy is a singer, guitarist, songwriter and producer based out of Orlando, Florida and blue., his debut solo release, is about as close as reasonably possible to being a genuine solo album. Bandy wrote five of the nine songs on the album, sang, played (or programmed) nearly all the instrumentation and also produced, engineered and mixed the album. The only additional contributors are Gary Thompson (bass on seven of the songs), Joe Bolero (tenor saxophone on “Big Legged Woman”) and Goran Eric (trombone on “Get It On”). And the result is a very enjoyable album of modern electric blues.
blue. opens with the slow funky blues of “My Bad Reputation”, which has some cool, retro, echoing backing vocals. This is quickly followed by the minor key soul ballad “If I Could Only Take It Back” and the loping shuffle of “Get It On” (where Eric’s trombone solo perfectly fits the lazy groove of the song). The drums may be programmed, but there is a nice flow to the tracks. “Big Legged Woman” is played at a much faster clip than the Freddie King original, and contains a great solo from Bolero. Hearing the song anew however does emphasize the antiquated lyrical content as Bandy pleads with his “Big Legged Woman, in a short, short mini-skirt. Promise me darling, you’ll never make me feel like dirt.”
The bouncing shuffle of “Country Star” has the interesting juxtaposition of the protagonist declaiming that he wants to be a country star over the top of a crisp blues-rock backing track (with a neat piano solo), while “Comin’ Down” has echoes of 1970s’ soul-infused blues-rock, both in structure and vocal performance.
Bandy is an impressive musician, laying down a series of nicely melodic guitar solos, but he may be an even better singer, at times displaying a Freddie King-esque influence. His performance on “If I Could Only Take It Back” in particular is top drawer. In addition, the contributions of Thompson, Bolero and Eric add depth and dynamics to the songs.
Apart from “Big Legged Women”, the other covers on the album are “The Thrill Is Gone”, Keb’ Mo’s “I’m On Your Side” and the traditional “Trouble In Mind”. Bandy sings “Trouble In Mind” with a simple guitar shuffle backing only (interestingly, he uses a I-IV-V structure rather than the more traditional I-V-I-IV structure).
The press release accompanying the CD does not explain the intention behind the use of the lower case initial letter and the period in the album title. In the absence of any explanation, one might infer a parallel with the hyphen in the title to “Moby-Dick” although, while the album’s lyrics certainly address common blues themes of love, loss, hope and despair, it would be something of stretch to suggest they carry the same symbolism or meaning as Melville’s magnum opus. Either way, however, blue. is a short but very impressive release from Dale Bandy. Well worth checking out.
Reviewer Rhys Williams lives in Cambridge, England, where he plays blues guitar when not holding down a day job as a technology lawyer or running around after his children. He is married to an American, and speaks the language fluently, if with an accent.
Featured Blues Review – 4 of 6
Jas Obrecht – Stone Free
Jimi Hendrix In London September, 1966 – June, 1967
244 pages Hardcover
Readers of Guitar Player magazine will recognize the name Jas Obrecht, who served as Editor of the publication for twenty years. During that time, Obrecht authored numerous cover articles on some of the best known guitarists on the planet. His work has also appeared in other publications like Rolling Stone and Living Blues magazines. Additionally, he has a handful of books on the market, several that compile material from Guitar Player, others that focus on ground-breaking blues guitar players.
With his extensive background in the world of guitar, it would be hard to find a more appropriate person to author a book on Jimi Hendrix, who left a legacy that still reverberates on stages throughout the world every day. Instead of doing another overview of the Hendrix career, Obrecht chronicles a ten month period that saw Hendrix seemingly transform overnight from a shy sideman to acclaimed star status.
In the mid-1960s, Hendrix had been working in bands backing the Isley Brothers, Little Richard, King Curtis, and Curtis Knight. He was also playing in Greenwich Villages clubs in New York City in order to be able to eat, fronting the Blue Flames under the “Jimmy James” stage name. The arc of history began to change the night Chas Chandler, producer and former bass player for the Animals, heard Hendrix perform at the Cafe Wha? Hearing the guitarist do “Hey Joe,” Chandler was stunned by what he heard, and later was even more surprised to learn that no one had yet signed Hendrix to a record deal. In short order, Chandler convinces the guitarist to join him in London and the flight into history leaves on September 23, 1966.
Over the next nine chapters, each one covering a month, Obrecht chronicles the process that turned an unknown musician into an international rock star, starting with the auditions that lead to Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell becoming the Experience. Under Chandler’s guidance, Hendrix begins playing London clubs, generating plenty of buzz. Soon the audiences at his shows are populated by a who’s-who of the British rock scene, with Eric Clapton as well as members of the Rolling Stones, Beatles, and the Who checking out the flamboyont guitarist. The author takes you through a frantic pace that found the band driving hundreds of miles to the next show if they weren’t spending hours waiting to tape another appearance on British radio & TV shows, or holed up in a recording studio trying to capture the magic of the Hendrix live show on tape. There are also points where Obrecht covers the onerous details of the contracts Hendrix signed with his managers, often without legal representation.
The final chapter documents Hendrix’s triumphant return to the USA and the band’s legendary appearance at the Monterey International Pop Festival that moved him into the top rank of stardom. It is a fascinating tale that holds your interest due to Obrecht’s in-depth research and his deep understanding of his subject. At various points, he describes details that made the Hendrix guitar style unique and innovative, even to modern times In less than a year, Jimi Hendrix conquered the world. Thanks to Jas Obrecht, readers can revel in the story-line of who, what, and how that transformation occurred. An amazing story, expertly told, and highly recommended!
Reviewer Mark Thompson lives in Florida, where he is enjoying the sun and retirement. He is the President of the Board of Directors for the Suncoast Blues Society and a member of the Board of Directors for the Blues Foundation. Music has been a huge part of his life for the past fifty years – just ask his wife!
Featured Blues Review – 5 of 6
Ms Zeno The Mojo Queen – Back In Love
Ms Zeno The Mojo Queen is Verlinda Zeno, a Memphis staple for the last 30 years. Discovered by Little Milton in Natchioches, Louisiana in 1989, she joined him in Memphis as a backup singer. Albert King introduced her to Beale Street. She was the first house band when BB King’s club opened on Beale. 2,000 shows and 26 years later she is still going strong.
Producer Paul Niehaus IV plays bass, guitar, drums, keys, tenor sax, mandolin and French Horn and also sings background. Kevin O’Connor is also on drums, guitar, keys, baritone & tenor sax, and trumpet. Little G Weevil appears on guitar on 4 tracks and Brandon Santini is on harp for a pair of cuts. Gene Jackson does some vocals on a half dozen songs and Roland Johnson does so on a pair of tunes, too. Dustin Shrum plays trumpet, Andy Hainze cello, Mark Hochberg viola, and Abbie Steiling violin. Tom Martin is on accordion on one cut.
The title track opens the CD. Ms Zeno lets it all hang out with some stellar work on her vocals. She sings with emotion and authority, grabbing the listener and not letting go. The horns and strings here and on the next cut make for a nice mix. “In My Shoes” takes the tempo down and Ms Zeno gives us a pretty soul ballad. Restrained guitar by G Weevil and other support make this a soulful and pleasant ride. Things build to a nice finish to lead into the forthright “That’s How I Know.” Ms Zeno testifies to us and again builds the song to an enthusiastic climax. “Willie Brown” gives us some harp in the mix from Brandon Santini. Zeno shows us she is comfortable with slow blues as she emotes and gives us a treat. G Weevil is on guitar again pick out some cool stuff, too. Ms Zeno the Mojo Queen next gives us “Mojo Queen,” with some accordion mojo to add to the mix. Zeno again lets it hang loose and gives us a great song with some Cajun influence. “Rise Up” is another beautiful ballad. The pacing is precise, the vocals superb and the sound sultry and just great.
“Love Is Like A Flower” features cool trumpet/horns, French horn, and is another fine blues ballad. Zeno shows restraint and occasionally belts out a powerful vocal riff when appropriate. She finishes strong and exuding emotion. Santini returns for a swinging cut entitled ‘Call My Name.” Zeno and Santini share the spot light as both give their all. Harp and vocals both shine an make statements as does Little G Weevil on guitar. Backing vocals are strong and varied here, too, with Gene Jackson making an appearance. “Gotta Get Paid” gets a nice funky groove going. The guitars are cool, the horns are hot and Zeno struts her stuff nicely.
“Mistress” gives us the strings for the third and final time, winding a web of intrigue. Slow, sultry and restrained, Zeno’s restraint is superb. Horns and strings make for added emotion and, well, as I said a feeling of intrigue. “The spicy cut “Hot Sauce” is next. Zeno struts her stuff again, giving us a performance filled with confidence and sass. The trumpet plays a big part with the horns making for a saucy and sassy sound. The CD ends with “Father Time,” a slow and lament-filled blues song. Lap/pedal steel adds to the flavor but it’s Zeno letting loose a bit here and there and ending with a big finish, a great conclusion to a great album.
A dozen new cuts penned by Zeno and/or members of the band really show well. The songs have slick arrangements and Zeno, her band and guests all excel. Soul and blues lovers get a lot to savor here; well worth getting and listening too! I really enjoyed this one!
Reviewer Steve Jones is president of the Crossroads Blues Society and is a long standing blues lover. He is a retired Navy commander who served his entire career in nuclear submarines. In addition to working in his civilian career since 1996, he writes for and publishes the bi-monthly newsletter for Crossroads, chairs their music festival and works with their Blues In The Schools program. He resides in Byron, IL.
Featured Blues Review – 6 of 6
Mr. Shingles – Green in Blue
CD: 12 Songs, 41:00 Minutes
Styles: Blues Covers, Ensemble Blues, Jazz-and-Soul-Influenced Blues
The cover art of Green in Blue, the debut studio album of Barcelona blues band Mr. Shingles, features a series of black-and-white snapshots laid out, as it were, in vertical shingles. As expected, one of the shingles is tinted green, and the next one blue. Artsy? Yes. Eclectic? Definitely. Mr. Shingles has a lot of flair, especially on instrumentation, but it may be too jazzy for some. Also, its perky mishmash of genres, although entertaining, doesn’t bode well for meat-and-potatoes purists. This is coffeehouse blues, nightclub blues, pleasing to the ear in a low-key atmosphere. Lead vocalist and guitar player Brian O’Mahony ) may not be Michael Bublé, but then again, MB doesn’t sing the blues. There’s no denying the passion in either musician – one a relative newcomer, one a veteran. Both are wholly dedicated to their art. On five straight covers, four traditional tunes with new arrangements by the band, and three originals, they present a mixed bag. Not bad for their first studio album; they mostly tour.
Mr. Shingles was founded in 2015 with the purpose of covering legendary blues artists such as B.B. King, Otis Rush, Magic Sam, Howlin’ Wolf and John Mayall. From this classic blues base, they have developed their sound, mixing blues and swing with Latin beats and touches of jazz and gospel, such as on the opening track, “When Love Comes to Town.” The band defines Green in Blue as a coming together of African-American and Irish cultures, a compilation of songs by Irish artists and arrangements of folk and blues classics with some fresh compositions thrown in, played in the electric blues style of the 1960’s. Mr. Shingles has played at Barcelona’s most renowned venues: Harlem Jazz Club, El Paraigua, Sala Monasterio or the MEAM as well as festivals such as Ahalia Festival de Igualada, Inauditus Festival, Ciclo Blues and Sons and Figueres Summer Festival.
The lineup of Mr. Shingles consists of Brian O’Mahony on guitar and lead vocals; Dara Luskin on bass and vocals; Xavi Tomás on drums and vocals, and Stephanie Jaïs on keys and vocals.
The closing track of the album is the best one, far and away, and might make one reminisce.
Track 12: “Being Green” – Frank Sinatra, Kermit the Frog and Big Bird may have done it best, but this colorful classic is just as vivid from Mr. Shingles. My favorite part? “When green is all there is to be, it could make you wonder why. But why wonder, why wonder? I am green and it’ll do fine. It’s beautiful. And I think it’s what I want to be.” Smooth vocals, smooth instruments.
In terms of “being green” on the studio scene, Mr. Shingles shines bright, and with refinement, they’ll be as lush as emeralds. Green in Blue is a commendable effort from a quirky quartet.
Reviewer Rainey Wetnight is a 38 year old female Blues fan. She brings the perspective of a younger blues fan to reviews. A child of 1980s music, she was strongly influenced by her father’s blues music collection.
Featured Interview – Billy Gibbons
“Coming up in Houston presented a grand exposure to some of the greats — B.B. King, Bobby Bland, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Jimmy Reed,” says guitarist/vocalist/songwriter Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top. “When you hear those guys, you know they were advanced, almost other worldly.”
ZZ Top is the only blues-fan-endorsed multi-million-selling band to retain its original members for 50 years. They tour major arenas almost constantly, and Billy Gibbons also records and tours as a solo act. His recently released second solo album The Big Bad Blues contains covers songs by Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Bo Diddley, whom he freely calls a genius.
Bobby Rush calls his bi-racial appeal a “criss-crossover.” Elvis Presley 42 years after his death has a fan base in multiple genres. Blues, rock and roll, rockabilly, rock, and country fans all consider Elvis Presley to be one of their own. The Rolling Stones have been called the greatest rock band in the world but have returned to their blues roots in the last couple of years. Stevie Ray Vaughan reinvigorated the blues in the ’80s.
More than 65 years after Elvis bridged the gap between black blues and white Johnny-Come-Latelies, why does an act like Z Z Top sell hundreds – sometimes times thousands – more records than literally every black blues act in the business? Why did B. B. King have to point out to me when I complimented him on filling the main stage at the Chicago Blues Festival that all his fans got in for free while the Stones attract many times that number at hundreds of dollars a head in large arenas?
Blues purists tell us its simple prejudice. There are more white music fans than black, and they identify with one of their own. But its more than that.
Billy Gibbons is a phenom. As popular as ZZ Top is, Gibbons is underrated as a guitarist who describes the group’s image “as if we stepped out of the pages of a strange spin-off of the Katzenjammer Kids.” That colorful presence is complemented by the wink of humor on their hits that expands their popularity way beyond that of most blues acts – and most white rock acts for that matter – playing blues festivals and the club circuit.
ZZ Top’s 1983 Eliminator album sold 10 million copies in the United States alone. They’ve sold a total of 50 million albums worldwide including 11 gold, seven platinum and three multi-platinum CDs. The lyrics of many of the songs on Eliminator are prime examples of Puck-like wink and nod, good times stance.
From “Legs,” She’s got hair down to her fanny/She’s kinda jet set, try undo her panties/Everytime she’s dancin’ she knows what to do/Everybody wants to see if she can use it/She’s so fine, she’s all mine/Girl, you got it right.” And from “Tube Snake Boogie:” I got a gal, she lives on the block/She’s kinda funky with her pink and black socks/she likes to boogie/She do the tube snake boogie/Well now, boogie-woogie baby/Boogie-woogie all night long.
What does Billy Gibbons have that Chicago blues artist Toronzo Cannon does not?
And is it unfair that Cannon has to work a day job driving a Chicago bus to earn the right to play South Side clubs and make the occasional trip to Europe where he plays relatively small clubs while ZZ Top tours the world almost constantly playing arenas at 110 db?
As early as 1955, Pat Boone stole success out from under African American R&B artists by rerecording their songs, including Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That A Shame,” Ivory Joe Hunter’s “I Almost Lost My Mind,” and the Flamingos’ “I’ll Be Home.” He would release his white washed versions before the originals could climb into the top 20 in the ’50s. Boone was one of many white artists to mine black American musical culture and offer covers to an audience that more closely identifies with a blond-haired guy in a sweater than a black face in a shark-skin suit.
Sixty-some years later, white artists continue to blanch African American sounds, but the audience for “real” blues has grown older, more sophisticated, and comes from a more eclectic racial mix than in 1955. The successful white blues artists today tend to be those who are colorblind in their influences and the color of the artists they have in their bands and vice versa for black band leaders.
If one were to ask if they’re simply the modern equivalent of a Pat Boone, I would have to answer with a resounding NO! While the success of some multi-million selling acts is more marketing than musicmaking, Billy Gibbons is the real deal by any measure. And ZZ Top’s success comes not from stealing black music.
“Relax and take time to decipher the elements that make a certain delivery exceptional,” says Gibbons about the secret to their addictive bluesy sound.
“The element of flow is key to finding one’s way. Sometimes, it’s the empty spaces between phrases that are as mesmerizing as anything else.”
So, is it fair that Toronzo Cannon has to drive a bus to feed his family while ZZ Top and the Rolling Stones play arenas worldwide while scalpers sell tickets to their shows for upwards to thousands of dollars?
Of course not, but these two acts alone bring to the party more than simple copies of songs by their black mentors. They touch a nerve with fans that identify with them on many levels, sonically, emotionally, thematically, humorously, and visually. Like the best of the blues, what they do may be simple, but it’s not easy.
An ugly result of today’s racism is the mistaken assumption that African Americans are no match for white intellect. Gibbons, to the contrary, is overwhelmed by black “geniuses” in music.
“Let’s take Bo Diddley’s “Crackin’ Up” included on The Big Bad Blues album,” he says. “That upside-down and backwards guitar intro seems simple — until attempting to reproduce it… and then it becomes an analytical challenge to delve into what Bo might have had in mind. Delivering that figure was the definitive science experiment.
“Bo didn’t leave a how-to manual. I’m guessing it came quite naturally to him as you would expect of a genius. Same goes for Lightin’ Hopkins. He wasn’t specifically playing predictable scales which, in a way, tells you that he invented something solely original. He (and Bo) were free from the constraints of any accepted norm, yet everything they did was accepted! They invented what they did out of thin air. That’s a reflection that they reserved an open mind and a vivid imagination. There’s not necessarily any particular “right way”… Sometimes a so-called “wrong way” is so, so right.”
The members of ZZ Top, Billy, Dusty Hill, and Frank Beard, are not blinded by prejudice and they never take their own success as a reason to look down on their fans. They have a catholic view of society while at the same time using their status to advance blues music as the music of all the people. They were given a piece of wood from Muddy Waters’ shack in Clarksdale, Mississippi.
The group members made it into a guitar dubbed the “Muddywood.” And when the band played Schenectady, New York in 2017 Billy Gibbons told the audience about his dad who had grown up in nearby Gloversville. Gibbons said he had walked into a Dollar Store and bought a shirt with FFA (for Future Farmers of America) stitched into it, and told the crowd, “I know plenty of farmers in Hollywood.”
How does the group stay fresh and connected with the mundane “real” world of their fans?
“The answer to how to stay connected is avoiding isolation. It’s about checking into what folks are up to, both sonically and otherwise. It’s about strolling down the alleys in Anytown, USA (or Anytown, Macedonia or elsewhere) and engaging in conversation. Most people are well meaning and have enjoyable experiences to share. Don’t wanna miss that certain entertaining and/or interesting ‘something’. Gimme a Costco, and we’ll stock up, or gimme a day with our hot-rodding pal, Jimmy Shine, for some torch and wrench details, or let’s catch a band in one of the clubs around LA. It’s about being part of the world, and we wouldn’t have it any other way. Oh, yes…there’s always a destination with Mexican cuisine on the horizon.”
In September, 2018 Gibbons released The Big Bad Blues, his second solo album of six originals and covers of Bo Diddley and Muddy Waters classics. The production is grittier than ZZ Top and features Mike Flanigin on Hammond organ, Fender bass player Joe Hardy, drummer Greg Morrow and electric guitarist Matt Sorum. The LP is the follow-up to Perfectamundo, a 2015 Afro-Cuban-flavored solo release.
In a press release, Gibbons explains, “We successfully made our way through those uncharted waters with the Cubano flavor of Perfectamundo and completed the journey. The shift back to the blues (in The Big Bad Blues) is a natural. It’s something which our followers can enjoy with the satisfaction of experiencing the roots tradition and, at the same time, feeling the richness of stretching the art form.”
Other than the obvious reason that solo work frees him from the responsibilities of meeting ZZ Top fans’ expectations, what does he get out of solo recording and touring that he doesn’t get with ZZ Top?
“There’s a certain similar element of spontaneity recording outside the (very loose) confines of the group, yet the song selection with The Big Bad Blues band is far more out of left field. In a ZZ Top session, we’re not quite sure if we’d ever get away with covering two Muddy Waters songs and two Bo Diddley songs. Then again, it might be worth having a go at it. Dusty, Frank and I love those guys, too, so perhaps it might be a good fit.”
Perfectamundo with its Tito Puente sound was another thing altogether.
“It’s a format thing. In rock, the rhythm is out back and the guitars, etc. are up front. With Perfectamundo, it was the other way around. We put the backbeat in front and the guitars out back. It’s something that’s simply a bit outside the purview of ZZ Top. Although the Cubano thing we came up with included enough bits with that ZZ Top approach to round up Perfectamundo’s success.”
When do the pedals and gadgets stop being an aid to sound and become a crutch? And how does he know the difference?
“They’re more accomplices toward creating interest in the sonic spectrum… The vast range of effects demands a genuine evaluation of what works within the frame of expression. One dramatic entry into the field of effective devices is a wild guitar pickup known as, “The Little Thunder.” That’s the singular effect which supported the outing with The Big Bad Blues show. It was the effect which added a serious bass-line to the Spanish electric 6-string guitar. A killer effect. It was a lo-fi freight-train effect driving the band night to night.”
Somehow, ZZ Top’s synthesizer never sounds synthetic, and their concerts are a dynamic delivery of their recorded sound. Does it ever become problematic translating studio sonics into a live concert setting?
“The studio is an adjunct to what we do and something of a tool shed for us. There’s not much we’ve done in the studio that we haven’t been able to do on stage and that’s quite intentional. We aim to sound like ourselves. it’s much more comfortable that way. Then again, we do enjoy going about figuring how to replicate the exotic when contemporary tech is in the blend.”
In many ways, ZZ Top’s take on humor in their dress and lyrics is more in step with today’s popular trend of looking at comedians’ sarcastic view of current events as a reality check on “fake news.” Most blues, on the other hand, has avoided humor with the possible exception of Elvin Bishop, Li’l Ed, Rick Estrin and ZZ Top. How important is humor to their music, and what is the secret of making humorous blues more than an oxymoron?
“Well, we figured early on that we’re closer to Howlin’ Wolf and that secret language of the blues. It’s a genuine American art form loaded with some twists and turns worded into the blues subterfuge. “I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide,” “Arrested For Driving While Blind” and “Cheap Sunglasses” spring to mind. An entertaining turn of phrase, an inside happenstance among us band members most likely gives us a jump start for a song. It’s the kind of thing which seems to have come quite naturally. One of the favored numbers from our La Futura album, “chartreuse” rhymed with the seldom used term, “caboose”… both a color and a class of liqueur. Somewhere therein lies rhythmic gold for one’s imagination.”
And what about those salacious lyrics?
“The entendre is oft times double and sometimes triple, but coming right out and saying it wouldn’t be much of an artistic challenge. It’s not that we’ve “gotten away” with anything over the years — those who know the subtext might get a charge but those who don’t still get off so it’s a win/win. I don’t know of anything from recent vintage that’s out of sorts from ten, twenty or even thirty years back. Nuance is everything.”
In Clint Eastwood’s film “The Mule,” he plays a 90-year-old horticulturist who ignored his family through three generations of births, weddings and funerals to follow his bliss with flowers. Is blues performing an addiction like Eastwood’s character’s addiction to flowers, and if so how does the band escape to another reality? Is there a balance?
“Clint Eastwood solidified our admiration of having a long-standing career of success. No doubt he still enjoys it and is still killin’ it. On the subject of the blues as another reality, we are constantly inspired to interpret what remains a strident focus. Living in Texas, the blues scene made for some kind of mega-mojo that’s stayed with us ever since. The real blues effect was the jumping off point for whatever we’ve been able to do since our beginnings.
“Having seen the great B.B. King in an early recording session down in Houston when I was probably 7 or 8 years old was a genuine point of no return. I knew right then that was where I was going and that moment stayed on. I caught up with B. B. years later to embrace a sentiment he shared with the simple outlook of, ‘Play what you want to hear.’ Alright! Let’s play them blues!! We’re still compelled follow suit, and it’s safe to say we’re thankful that quite a few folks have a good time checking us out doing just that… getting to do what we get to do. Simply stated, we just keep doin’ it.”
I was somewhat surprised when I saw ZZ Top in 2017 that Gibbons rarely relies on gadgets to enhance his colorful guitar sounds. I asked him when do the pedals and gadgets stop being an aid to sound and become a crutch? And how does he know the difference?
“They’re more accomplices toward creating interest in the sonic spectrum. The vast range of effects demands a genuine evaluation of what works within the frame of expression. One dramatic entry into the field of effective devices is a wild guitar pickup known as, “The Little Thunder.” That’s the singular effect which supported the outing with The Big Bad Blues show. It was the effect which added a serious bass-line to the Spanish electric 6-string guitar. A killer effect. It was a lo-fi freight-train effect driving the band night to night.”
The bottom line is that Gibbons and ZZ Top are able to stay fresh, funny and connected with the mundane “real” world of their fans whereas rock stars like the Stones can’t seem to get beyond Steel Wheels creatively.
“Hey! Don’t knock the Stones,” he says. “They’re still fantastic, and we’ll always be superfans of Keith and Mick.”
The Stones have a deeper and more varied repertoire than ZZ Top, but the Keith and Mick magic has been tarnished by their brotherly love-hate relationship that has prevented them from shooting a new song into the public consciousness since 1989 on Steal Wheels. ZZ Top celebrates their 50th anniversary this year, They continue to release new product as a band, and Gibbons as a solo artist still hits general public’s magic twanger. A look at their beginnings offers clues as to why they still work so well together. What do they get out of a Sonny Boy Williamson, Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters, and John Lee Hooker songs that inspires their sound without ever sounding retro?
“We rarely think of the blues as something immutable. It’s ever evolving so there’s scant reason to be too doctrinaire about such an art form. It’s difficult to imagine if Muddy Waters had never plugged in. That would have been a way different detour and perhaps that’s why we do what we do…create experimental situations. The blues really remains a living organism on so many levels which leads us to just do what we do and let it flourish. The bottom line is ZZ sounds like ZZ which is that of interpretation rather than a slave to form. It’s what keeps it funky.”
For more about Billy Gibbons visit: www.billygibbons.com.
Interviewer Don Wilcock has been writing about blues for nearly half a century. He wrote Damn Right I’ve Got The Blues, the biography that helped Buddy Guy jumpstart his career in 1991. He’s interviewed more than 5000 Blues artists and edited several music magazines including King Biscuit Time.
Blues Society News
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The Charlotte Blues Society – Charlotte, NC
The Charlotte Blues Society is proud to announce that Buffalo’s favorite son, Tommy Z, will be the featured artist for our April Blues Bash, and 26th Anniversary Celebration on Sunday, April 7!
Doors open at 7:00, and show starts at 8:00, to be followed by an open blues jam. Admission is free for members with valid cards, $5.00 for others. The show will be at The Rabbit Hole, 1801 Commonwealth Ave., Charlotte, NC 28205.
We continue to collect non-perishable foods and household items for Loaves and Fishes. We hope to collect 2,000 pounds this year to help stamp out hunger in Charlotte. 1 Can? I Can! It promises to be a great evening! Hope to see you there!
Crossroads Blues Society – Rockford, IL
Monthly shows on the second Saturday of each month at Hope and Anchor English Pub on N 2nd St in Loves Park, IL. 3/9/19 John Primer, 4/13/19 The Cash Box Kings and 5/11/19 Corey Dennison Band. All shows 8 PM to 11:30 PM.
First and Third Friday’s feature the Blues at the Lyran Society Club on 4th Avenue in Rockford and a great fish fry, too! The schedule is 3/15/19 Milwaukee Slim with Billy Flynn, 4/5/19 Dave Fields and 4/19/19 Oscar Wilson and Joel Patterson. No cover, 7 pm to 10 pm.
Prairie Crossroads Blues Society – Champaign, IL
Prairie Crossroads Blues Society continues holding two Blues Jams each month. Thanks to Pipa’s Pub, 604 S. Country Fair Dr. in Champaign for hosting these jams held the 2nd Sunday of each month from 4 to 7 pm and the 4th Wednesday of each month from 7 to 10 pm. The host band plays the 1st set and then it’s open to all the jammers in the house.
Sunday March 10, we welcome back Robert Kimbrough Sr. Robert is the youngest son of Junior Kimbrough and put on an amazing show at the 2018 Prairie Crossroads Blues Fest. Bring your instrument. For more info visit: www.prairiecrossroadsblues.org.
The Illinois Central Blues Club – Springfield, IL
The Illinois Central Blues Club has announced the line-up of talent for Blue Monday live performances held every Monday night at the Alamo, 115 North Fifth, Springfield, IL from 8:00pm to midnight. Additional information on any performer listed below is available upon request.
March 11 – Kyle Yardley Blues band, March 13 – BluesMattic, March 18 – Rooster Alley Band, March 25 – Aaron Griffin, March 27 – Billy Galt & the Blues Deacons, April 1 – Brandon Santini Album Release Party, April 8 – The L.A. Jones Quartet with Adrianna Marie, April 10 – Dan Rivero, April 15 – Gracie Curran & the High Falutin’ Band, April 22 – Marty D. Spikener’s On Call Band, April 24 – Hard Road Blues Band , April 29 – Kilborn Alley Blues Band, May 6 – Orphan Jon and The Abandoned.
Also ICBC willl be celebrating their 33rd year in business on March 30 with the ICBC 33rd Birthday Celebration at K of C, 2200 S. Meadowbrook Rd, Springfield, IL. Doors open @ 6:00 PM, Torrey Casey & the Southside Hustle 7:00 PM followed by Joanna Connor Band.For more information visit www.icbluesclub.org.
Grand County Blues Society – Denver, CO
Blues guitar superstar Walter Trout headlines Blue Star Denver 8, presented by Blue Star Connection in conjunction with the Grand County Blues Society, a Benefit Concert, Silent Auction, and Gear Drive, Saturday, March 23, at Turnhalle Ballroom at The Tivoli, located at Metropolitan State University of Denver, 900 Auraria Parkway. Doors open 5:30pm, showtime is 6:00PM. Tickets: $25.00 (General Admission), $35.00 (Reserved), $69. (VIP); $750.00 (VIP Premier Table). Info: (303) 726-6111 or visit www.bluestarconnection.org. Also performing: Honey Island Swamp Band, B To The Sixth, and Special Guest, Kate Moss.
Net proceeds benefit Blue Star Connection, to help carry out their mission of providing access and ownership of musical instruments for children and young adults with cancer and other serious life challenges. To date, BSC has reached over eight-hundred kids and has donated musical gear to sixty-five Children’s Hospitals and Music Therapy Programs as well as several other community programs.
Great Northern Blues Society – Wausau,WI
To celebrate 20 years of the Blues Café, we will be kicking off the weekend by hosting a 20th Anniversary Party, Friday, March 8 at the Rothschild Pavilion (near Wausau, WI). Doors will open at 5:30 pm, with Howard “Guitar” Luedtke getting things started at 6:30 and Reverend Raven & The Chain Smokin’ Altar Boys taking the stage at 8:30.
Friday admission can be bought the night of the event for $5 and is included with all Saturday Blues Café ticket, which will be available to purchase at Friday’s event.
Saturday’s Blues Café lineup includes the Mark Cameron Band at 1 pm, the Ivy Ford Band at 3 pm, the Cash Box Kings at 5 pm, the Danielle Nicole Band at 7 pm, and Ronnie Baker Brooks at 9 pm. Doors will open at noon. We hope you can join us for a weekend of great music, and to celebrate 20 years of good times at the Blues Café. For more information, visit gnbs.org.
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