The Big Bad Blues Returns
Billy Gibbons returns to his Texas roots on second solo album
It’s a little unexpected to hear that a rocker like Billy Gibbons has a “real comfort zone,” but that’s exactly how he describes his latest dive into the blues for The Big Bad Blues, his second solo album out now on Concord Records.
“Them blues run the range from the lowest of lows to the highest of highs and all points in between,” Gibbons says. “Them blues lurks deep down inside.”
The owner of 1980s-era MTV’s favorite hot rod isn’t exaggerating. Ever since Gibbons formed his first band Moving Sidewalks as a teenager in the mid-1960s, the blues has retained a persistent presence in his songwriting and performances, inspiring an early friendship with Jimi Hendrix, the groove-based rock of ZZ Top throughout the ’70s and ’80s and even lingering beneath some of the Cuban soundscapes Gibbons explored on his first solo album, 2015’s Perfectamundo. But The Big Bad Blues is Gibbons’ strongest embrace of the genre in quite some time. Featuring six original songs and five covers with support from Mike Flanigin (keyboards), Joe Hardy (bass), Matt Sorum (drums), Greg Morrow (drums), Austin Hanks (guitar) and James Harman (harmonica), the album serves as both a refresh of and addition to the musical style that inspired Gibbons to trade drums for guitar at 13.
Gibbons’ approach to music has for decades been to start with a foothold in one style and twist it until the music he’s making sounds fresh and new. It’s a method that brought success to ZZ Top in hits like “Gimme All Your Lovin’” and “Tush,” and one Gibbons has particularly enjoyed as a solo artist. With Perfectamundo, Gibbons returned to the Latin sounds he gravitated toward as an aspiring young percussionist; for The Big Bad Blues, he’s again revisiting the artists that inspired him as a young man, updating tunes made popular by Muddy Waters, Jerome Green and Bo Diddley and creating originals in response to their influence. Covering blues legends such as these can be a tricky business—even for established artists like Gibbons—but Gibbons wasn’t intimidated. Instead of approaching each task as an attempt to strike a balance between the old and the new, Gibbons instead viewed each chunk of original songwriting material as a launchpad of sorts, providing building blocks that he felt free to use.
“We’re all beholden to ’em for leaving a template,” Gibbons says. “Moving forward, it’s just stretching it out from there. It’s an inner space exploration. It’s rewarding to attempt an interpretation from that legacy as a point of departure.”
The version of “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” that Waters made famous in the 1950s, for example, maintains a steady rhythm beneath Waters’ measured lyrics. In his cover, Gibbons brings a new edge to the song by boosting its speed, delivering a rollicking take that feels more fun and frenzied than Waters’ earlier iteration. It’s in a song like this that Gibbons’ skill as an arranger comes into play: While his guitarwork and vocals technically open and close the song, both surrender for the majority of the three-minute recording to the rhythmic focus of “Rollin’ and Tumblin’,” allowing the tempo to drive momentum from the opening riff through the humorous “Fried chicken, man” lyrical aside that Gibbons throws in at the end. It’s a pristine example of the possibility that Gibbons sees whenever he walks into a studio, the potential for creation that continues to drive his music.
“Any working track conceptualized in a certain way can take a left turn and become something unheard of,” Gibbons says. “The surprise element is exciting.”
That discovery can also lend to more traditional interpretations. On the other Waters cover, “Standing Around Crying,” Gibbons manipulates the tonal qualities of the song more thoroughly than he does its rhythms, taking his time to find the right layering for the drums, harmonica and vocals as the guitar plays a supporting role. Gibbons’ history with the blues and decades-long absorption of music by its early gatekeepers give him an ease and confidence when broaching the idea of a new song to add to the cannon, as heard in his willingness to explore the brass influence on New Orleans blues for “Second Line” and partnership with his wife, Gilly Stillwater, to bring a ZZ Top-like flavor to her song “Missin’ Yo’ Kissin’.” Despite Gibbons’ position as songwriter and genre caretaker on this album, he doesn’t take his role too seriously. Put simply, “[The blues is] about standing with the guitar, turned up loud,” he says. “You can’t lose with the blues.”
Part of the fun in ZZ Top’s best hits is that the songs feel like they might rock right off their rails at any given moment. There’s a bit of that same feel to The Big Bad Blues, a barely-in-control element that is actually quite polished upon close examination. “Onstage, that unknown of what’s going to happen keeps the ZZ outfit on point, which is where the band wants to be,” Gibbons says. Listeners want to let loose when they listen to a Billy Gibbons song, and Gibbons is more than happy to supply the thinly-veiled innuendos and raunchy tempos to make that escape possible. There are several other genres that Gibbons is eager to explore for future projects (“Tex-Mex, Cajun-Creole, reggae, etcetera are all in consideration,” he says), but in the immediate future, he is focusing on the big, bad blues that serves as his musical core. Besides, those as-yet unexplored genres aren’t all that different from the blues, anyway. “These [genres] are, in some way or another, the elements in common with the blues—which is where the real comfort zone remains.”
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