Headed to town in support of his first solo album, I checked in with ZZ Top singer and guitarist Billy Gibbons about the Afro-Cuban sounds that influenced Perfectamundo, learning about rhythm from Tito Puente, performing in Cuba, his love of the Chicago blues and much more…
“Same three guys. Same three chords.”
Those have frequently been the words used by Billy Gibbons to describe his band ZZ Top throughout a career spanning the nearly fifty years since their 1969 formation.
Along the way, Gibbons and his two bandmates (bassist Dusty Hill and drummer Frank Beard) have covered a lot of ground, beginning in Houston, Texas and stopping along the way in places like Cleveland, Ohio for induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (2004). ZZ Top’s became a life spent on the road which has continued seemingly uninterrupted ever since.
But of late, those words have taken on a special irony as Gibbons began touring with a new band, celebrating diverse sounds on the only solo record he’s ever released, November’s Perfectamundo.
It’s an album that grew out of an invitation to perform in Cuba at the 2014 Havana Jazz Festival. Unable to make it in 2014, but inspired creatively by the invite, Gibbons assembled a new band and hit the studio, ready to make a record based not on the influence of the blues guitarists that longtime ZZ Top fans have come to expect but one instead that celebrates rhythm.
Unbeknownst to most, at a young age, Billy Gibbons was schooled in the Latin rhythm of conga, bongos, maracas, timbales and more by legendary American musician and Latin jazz composer Tito Puente, a family friend.
Drawing on those early New York based lessons in Latin percussion, Gibbons began work in 2015 on the Afro-Cuban influenced sessions that would eventually make up his first solo album: Perfectamundo. Album in hand, Gibbons finally made good on that 2014 invitation by performing in Cuba at the Havana Jazz Festival for the first time this past December.
Returning to the Chicagoland area with his new backing band The BFG’s for a set Friday night in St. Charles, I checked in via email with Billy Gibbons to find out more about his experience in Cuba, his early lessons in rhythm under the guidance of Tito Puente, the difference between writing Perfectamundo as opposed to writing for ZZ Top, the influence of the Chicago blues and much more.
Q. The Perfectamundo sessions came out of a late 2014 invitation to perform at the Havana Jazz Fest, an invite which you made good on this past December. What was it like finally performing the Afro-Cuban inspired music of Perfectamundo in front of the audience that inspired it and how would you rate your experience in Cuba in general?
Billy Gibbons: Quite a positive excursion all the way around.
The Cuban audiences were actually already onto ZZ Top and seemed sincerely appreciative of the effort “The BFG’s” made by doing something totally relating within the Afro-Cuban element. The enthusiasm was underscored with a plethora of rump shaking which we took as a sign of enthusiastic approval.
Q. Your training at an early age with Tito Puente obviously looms large over the new music. What would you say is the most important thing you learned from Tito Puente?
BG: Aside from the basics of rhythm, the credo Tito imparted was, “Play what you want to hear and deliver with deliberation.”
In short, he pressed perfection while sharing encouragement to do whatever I wanted in the most powerful manner.
Q. Rhythm seems to be key to the success of Perfectamundo. Was it difficult, initially, to think more in that vein as opposed to when you’re writing and recording with ZZ Top?
BG: Well, from the beginning with Perfectamundo, we put the rhythm up front as opposed to having it out back like we do with ZZ Top. With the rhythm dominant, the guitar parts fill in the blanks and punctuate what the rhythm section puts down.
It’s two sides of the same coin yet, with Perfectamundo, the band always called “tails.”
Q. ZZ Top, over the course of the last forty-five years or so, has become the epitome of a power trio. But your current tour with The BFG’s features more instrumentation and players, as well as sounds outside the blues and rock arena that casual fans might not be expecting. Has it been rewarding to expand your palette like that in the live setting after all this time?
BG: With ZZ, we get the most out of the least — it is definitely an exercise in unfettered minimalism which is why it seems to come across as powerfully as we think it does.
Perfectamundo has more filigree – some of it from the expanded rhythm section and some from the Hammond organ’s presence – which lands the bonus of sound exploration.
Our pre-ZZ band, the Moving Sidewalks, included the B3 so we’ve been down that road before… always a good way to keep sonically limber.
Q. Growing up around Houston, obviously the playing of Lightnin’ Hopkins was a major early influence on both your style and the music you’d come to create with ZZ Top. But sometimes I feel like Chicago blues is an understated influence as well. I’ve seen you mention Jimmy Reed as an influence – as well as B.B. King’s Live at the Regal album which was recorded here – so I’m curious about your early exposure to the Chicago blues: how big of an influence was it as you started to develop your identity as a blues guitar player?
BG: In a word: Huge!
We were immersed with Jimmy Reed, Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters whose recorded sides became the inspiration. There’s no question that the sides recorded at 2120 S. Michigan Avenue and over at VeeJay had a monumental impact on our worldview. Of course, these were the giants whose contributions can never be understated.
We shared quite a few bills with Muddy Waters and it was always an honor to be in his presence. ZZ Top inducted Howlin’ Wolf into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and have been in touch with his family ever since.
And while we’re on the subject of Chess, we can’t forget the great Bo Diddley, Little Walter, Lazy Lester, Sonny Boy Williamson and on with host of others.
Electric blues changed everything and its impact on rock resonates to this day.
Q. ZZ Top grasped the potential power of MTV earlier than a lot of their colleagues and really capitalized on the power of the music video beginning in 1983 following the release of Eliminator. MTV, despite the “music television” still in its name, obviously isn’t much in the business of featuring music videos these days – but the medium itself still seems like an important one to you as you’ve released an entertaining new video for “Treat Her Right.” All the elements that made those ZZ Top videos so memorable are there – women, cars, guitars, etc. The new video has over 300,000 hits on YouTube. Is the short form music video as a story-telling device still an important one to you?
BG: Well, yes… it really is important as we lean toward using every means at hand to get the message out, both sonically and visually.
In those early videos the aim was to intentionally keep the visual presence with the band to the minimum. Looking at pretty girls and shiny cars is way easier!
The same holds true for “Treat Her Right.” I’m in there a bit, mostly in an advisory capacity.
– Jim Ryan (@RadioJimRyan)
(Details on Friday’s Billy Gibbons concert below)
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Billy Gibbons And The BFG’s
Friday, January 29, 2016
St. Charles, IL
Also performing: Tyler Bryant & The Shakedown
Tickets: $59 – $125
Click HERE to purchase tickets