By Donovan Roche
ZZ Top has had one foot in the blues since the Texas trio formed in 1969. So, for the band’s prodigiously-bearded guitarist/singer Billy F Gibbons to release a solo album dedicated to the genre, isn’t an implausible stretch.
Now touring on The Big Bad Blues, Gibbons stopped by the Belly Up in Solana Beach on Nov. 15 to showcase the new material. Though the 68-year-old Rock & Roll Hall of Famer regaled the packed house with several selections from his current release, he also mixed things up with some ZZ Top classics and cool covers.
Gibbons kicked off his nearly 90-minute set with Muddy Waters’ “Rollin’ and Tumblin’,” one of three covers on the new 11-track album. It was a rollicking start to a night filled with hoots and hollers from the predominantly middle-aged male audience.
A couple of songs later, Gibbons, sharply dressed in a glittery jacket, hat and cheap sunglasses (probably not, but hopefully you appreciate the reference), confessed that he may have offended Belly Up’s sound man. He said he came out before the show to see a stack of speakers fronting the stage that came up to his waist, and he requested to have them removed because it was more important for the audience to see his shoes. It got a laugh and there was no noticeable issue with the sound, but it does make you wonder what the show would have been like if you couldn’t see the slight singer’s footwear.
Also noticeably missing from the sparse stage was a bassist. Gibbons explained that his tech-laden guitar featured A Little Thunder pickup capable of converting his lowest notes to bass in real time.
Innovation aside, the core trio was ably filled out by left-handed guitarist Austin Hanks and deft drummer Matt Sorum (Guns N’ Roses, The Cult). Each had time to shine in the spotlight: Hanks providing vocals on “Rising Water Blues” and Sorum nailing the vocals and Bonham-beats on the Led Zeppelin encore-saver “Whole Lotta Love.” Even Gibbons’ guitar tech, Elwood Francis, supplied some tasty licks on a revved-up version of “Route 66” and shared harmonica duties with James Harman.
Decidedly laid-back, the most you’d get from Gibbons would be some feverish finger-pointing—wiggling toward his bandmates to indicate their entry point or directing to the audience as if to say, “That was for you, and you, and you.”
And there were many special moments throughout the night—from the delightful “Treat Her Right” (off Gibbons’ first solo album, 2015’s spectacular Afro-Cuban outing, Perfectamundo) to the singalong “I Thank You” and set-closing “Sharp Dressed Man.” Come the final bow, Gibbons proved that—with ZZ or not—he’s still on top.
The Big Bad Blues tour wraps up Dec. 29 in Austin, and next year ZZ Top will celebrate its 50th anniversary. There are some tour dates on the calendar, but none yet in San Diego.
For the past 30 years, Donovan Roche has covered the world of music—from the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind to The Struts’ latest tour. Send your story idea to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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