The Morning Call: Interviewing ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons: Band, coming to Sands Bethlehem Event Center

After nearly 47 years as a band, after 15 studio albums that sold a collective 20 million copies and a half-dozen compilation discs that sold 6 million more, and after 34 singles that hit Top 40 on various charts, ZZ Top releases its first full-length live album today, Sept.9.

“Live — Greatest Hits From Around The World,” is exactly what its title says: a double-album of 15 of the band’s best-known repertoire recorded on several tours in North America, South America and Europe.

ZZ Top has played largely the same live show for the past several years — hit-laden sets of songs such as “Gimme All Your Lovin’,” “Sharp Dressed Man,” “Legs,” “Tush” and “La Grange.” That’s likely what they’ll bring to the stage at Sands Bethlehem Event Center on Sunday, Sept.  11, with Gov’t Mule.

In a recent e-mail interview, ZZ Top singer/lead guitarist Billy Gibbons talked about the new disc, ZZ Top’s career and its future.

Here’s a transcript:

LEHIGH VALLEY MUSIC:  I read a recent interview in which you said ZZ Top has “a lot” of material for a new disc. Any idea when it might come out? What’s the material sound like?

BILLY GIBBONS: “We do indeed and it sounds a lot like ZZ Top!  There’s quite a few songs rattling around from the never-ending studio sessions and we continue to work things out. As the ZZ song says, “Country, Jesus, Hillbilly, and Blues.”  We reach out for it all.”

 You guys have not released anything new since 2012’ “La Futura.” Why not?

“ The ironic twist to that question is ZZ Top’s first-ever, all live, full-length album.  It’s “ZZ Top Live – Hits From Around The World, literally recorded around the planet and officially out on the street September 9.

“And there’s a couple of splendid players, James Harman [who played on the group’s 2003 disc “Mescalero” as well as on “La Futura”] blowin’ some mean blues harp with us on ‘Waitin’ For Th’ Bus’ and ‘Jesus Just Left Chicago,’ as well as the fierce guitar slinging from our good friend, Jeff Beck adding his signature to the ballad-like fave, ‘Rough Boy’ and some greasy guitar searing through the country and western classic, ‘16 Tons.’  We think it’s super.  Everybody gotta like that!”

[In a publicity release, Gibbons says of the album, “In an abstract surrealism style, this collection is a definitive chronicle of the band hangin’ together for four-plus deluxe decades, getting down to do what we get to do. The true document of life de la ZZ.”

[The disc isn’t ZZ Top’s first foray into recording its live shows. It has released three DVDs, including the double-platinum “Live from Texas” in 2008. It most recently released “Live at Montreux 2013” in 2014.

[The self-proclaimed “Lil’ Ol’ Band from Texas,” which also includes bassist Dusty Hill and drummer Frank Beard, first made its mark as a boogie-rock outfit that released its first disc, “ZZ Top’s First Album,” in 1971, but didn’t see real success until 1973’s “Tres Hombres” and 1975’s “Fandango!,” both of which went Top 10 and sold gold with the hits “La Grange” on the former and “Tush” on the latter.

[But the band had its biggest success in the 1980s, when its songs “Legs,” “Gimme All Your Lovin’” and “Sharp Dressed Man” dominated MTV with videos of the sunglass-wearing, long-bearded guitar players.

[The success of those songs helped the band’s 1983 album “Eliminator” sell more than 10 million   copies, and the 1985 follow-up “Afterburner” sell 5 million copies.

[The group’s last gold or platinum album was 1994’s “Antenna.” And it hasn’t had a hit since 1996, when “What’s Up with That” hit No. 5 on the Mainstream Rock chart. But its popularity had continued: “La Futura” hit No. 6, the group’s highest-charting disc in more than 25 years.

[ZZ Top was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004.

[ZZ Top also in recent years has had to cancel shows and even parts of tours as its members were hit with health issues. It canceled a 2014 show at Bethlehem’s Musikfest just 10 days before the show when bassist Dusty Hill had to undergo surgery to remove two kidney stones. It played at Musikfest in 2015, but canceled some shows in April when Hill broke his shoulder.

[That raises the question of the health of Gibbons, 66, and Hill, 67.]

 Back in 2014, ZZ Top was supposed to play our Musikfest festival, but canceled because Dusty had to have the kidney stone surgery.  Then early this year, you canceled some shows because Dusty broke his shoulder.  How frustrating is that? And are you guys healthy now?

“ Healthy, yes, yet the mystery question remains, ‘wealthy and wise?’  The ZZ mochine’s all tuned up and ready for some raucousness. Come on and check us out. “

[The live disc isn’t the only first step ZZ Top has taken recently.

[Gibbons last year released his debut solo album (and first solo disc by any ZZ Top member), “Perfectamundo,” and took to the road in his first-ever solo tour, which stopped at Stroudsburg’s Sherman Theater.

[Gibbons assembled the disc in his Houston studio, exploring the potential for a Latin flavored album with his Argentine-born, Puerto Rico-raised friend and musical collaborator Martine “G.G.” GuiGui.]

 What made you do the solo disc “Perfectamundo?” at this point. Compare it with ZZ Tops’ albums.   

“The catalyst was the over-the-transom invitation to perform at the Havana Jazz Festival which immediately aimed the challenge toward an approach with some solid sounds appropriate for the gathering there.

“Some serious woodshedding and recollecting what Tito Puente taught us way back when about Latino rhythm and percussion followed.  With ZZ, the guitar is out front and the rhythm lays way back; ‘Pefectamundo’ on the other hand puts rhythm out front leaning heavily on that Cubano backback — it’s all about moving posteriors, and when in Havana, THAT works!”

 

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