Billy Gibbons, Dusty Hill and Frank Beard, collectively known as ZZ Top, probably are the only intact major rock band from the 1960s still firing on all cylinders. Since their formation in 1969, ZZ Top’s blues-based sound has yielded international sales of 30 million records and the classic-rock staples “La Grange,” “Legs” and “Sharp Dressed Man.”
ZZ Top’s May 20 show at the Saenger Theatre is a makeup date for November 12, when bassist Dusty Hill’s stomach illness led to the cancellation of the show. OffBeat interviewed ZZ Top singer-guitarist Billy Gibbons in September, a few weeks after the band’s hometown, Houston, had been devastated by floods that accompanied Hurricane Harvey.
On September 10 in Sugar Land, Texas, ZZ Top played the first major concert in the Houston area after Hurricane Harvey. Was it a concert unlike any you’ve played before?
It was a unique experience, a homecoming to a hometown that was devastated but not down for the count.
Many first responders attended your show in Sugar Land at the Smart Financial Centre. What was your take on the overall vibe, atmosphere and spirit in the audience?
Surprisingly upbeat. The abiding feeling was one of moving forward. Folks there needed a break from the magnitude of the disaster experience. The show seemed to provide some momentary enjoyment. I mean, what ZZ Top does is based on the blues and it’s often said that the blues is there when you need ’em. We were happy to provide that at a time of real need.
You scheduled your Sugar Land show many months ago, so it seems to be destiny that ZZ Top played that particular date. Are you pleased that Texas band ZZ Top performed the first big rock concert in the area after the flood?
Absolutely! We personally knew a significant percentage of the audience, so if ever the term “friends and family” would apply, this was it. We were encouraged by their spirit and resilience.
ZZ Top launched from Houston. Do you think the band would exist as we know it today if not for your musically formative years in Houston and the Gulf Coast region?
Most likely the sound would have been quite different if things had coalesced elsewhere. There’s the Gulf Coast vibe, the blues tradition and easy access to border radio. Houston is a blues town that attracted so many innovators, like Lightnin’ Hopkins. There’s a reason stars like Ray Charles and B.B. King came to Houston to further their careers. It’s something special.
Has Hurricane Harvey and the flooding, and the people’s response to the disaster, inspired you to write a song or songs?
We’re in the midst of a flurry of writing and recording, so what that hurricane wrought might have an impact on that. We’ll see what the power of introspection lays down.
On May 20, you’re playing at the Saenger Theatre in New Orleans. During Hurricane Katrina, the Saenger experienced wind damage and subsequent flooding. It’s beautifully restored now. New Orleans is a famously musical city not far from Houston. Were you deeply affected by the 2005 flood in New Orleans?
Nobody from the greater Gulf Coast area and beyond wasn’t affected in some way by that calamity. New Orleans has always represented a cultural mecca to us, so it was monstrous to see what happened in ’05. We’ll not soon forget.
After you, Dusty and Frank have played together through these many years, do you have a groove and chemistry that’s instinctive?
Beyond instinctive. It’s downright telepathic. We don’t know beforehand when one of us is going to twist off into uncharted territory, yet something kicks in and preserves the groove. Muscle memory!
You formed ZZ Top in Houston in 1969. Why and how have you guys kept ZZ Top cruising so strong for so many years?
As Sun Ra used to say, “Space is the place.” We give each other enough space to be our own individual selves. Of course, when we’re together, it’s a three-headed monster that we can’t control on our own. It takes a collective effort to tame that beast!
Do you have plans yet for your 50th anniversary year, 2019?
People are starting to ask this question. We’re starting to ponder an appropriate answer. Playing louder is what we’ve come up with.
You played the first ZZ Top gig on February 10, 1970, at a Knights of Columbus Hall in Beaumont. At that gig, or when you guys first got together, did you know that you had something good?
That was our first real gig, so Beaumont holds a special place in our collective memory. But we clicked before that gig, when we initially got together to see if we had any chemistry. What was supposed to be a 30-minute audition turned into a ferocious, three-hour jam session. That got the party started. It’s really still the same.
Beyond being bandmates, are you, Dusty and Frank best friends?
We’re all best friends with ZZ Top. Each of us has a unique relationship with the other, but it’s hard to define “best.” We’re best friends with the sound we make together. That keeps us quite close.