ZZ Top shows it still can groove on 'Mescalero'
July 20, 2005 - Most people think of ZZ Top as a rock trio — a two-thirds bearded and infinitely cool blues-and-boogeying trio at that.
So it will come as a surprise to be in-formed by guitarist/singer Billy Gibbons that when ZZ Top's career took off behind the 1983 CD "Eliminator," it was a fourth member of the band who helped propel ZZ Top onto the airwaves of top 40 radio and the then-emerging video powerhouse MTV.
"See ZZ Top, a lot of people don't know, is actually a four-piece band," Gibbons said slyly in a recent interview. "There are the three players and then there's this mysterious invisible figure called 'Mr. Time.' He's always there. You've got to pay your dues to Mr. Time. If you can stay in step with him, then you're one step ahead of the hound."
It was during the recording sessions for "Eliminator" that ZZ Top discovered the true power of the groove. And that factor — perhaps even more than a slicked-up sound that incorporated synthesizers and programmed rhythms into the band's mu-sic — was what told Gibbons and bandmates Dusty Hill (bass) and Frank Beard (drums) that "Eliminator" might have captured an extra magic.
"The one element that allowed us to consider acknowledging anything different was a host of new sounds, but (perhaps more so) a return to a focused attention to good timing," Gibbons said when asked if he had any sense when "Eliminator" was finished that the CD was something special.
"As a trio, the rhythm section is just bass and drums," guitarist/singer Gibbons said. "My job is to float with that as the backbone. Because of the enjoyable experience of paying attention to that one aspect of good timing, everybody winds up having a blast. It's an important element, and it showed up probably most stridently with 'Eliminator.' And having had a reasonable amount of success with that release, we continued to keep that in the forefront. It's a direction of purpose and you know, it's just a good thing."
In fact, since the 1994 CD, "Antenna," ZZ Top has scaled back on the synthesizers and drum programming that gave "Eliminator" and the two albums that followed it — "Afterburner" and "Recycler" — a polished sound.
Instead, "Antenna" marked a move back to ZZ Top's rougher, bluesier roots as Gibbons' guitars once again moved to the forefront, and the group crafted a leaner sound. But even in that setting, the groove has remained a key ingredient in the ZZ Top sound.
The rhythmic presence, in fact, is ar-guably more pronounced than ever on the band's outstanding current CD, "Mesca-lero." This time out, the group liberally mixes programmed beats with acoustic drums to generate the potent rhythms that drive songs such as the joyously swampy "Alley-Gator," "Buck Nekked" — the latest in a long line of risqué-ish tunes — and the hot-rocking "Me So Stupid."
The guitar-rich bluesy swagger of such songs, however, very much recalls the rough and tumble feel of such 1970s-era ZZ Top albums as "Tres Hombres" — which yielded the band's first hit single, the John Hooker-ish "La Grange" — "Fandango!" — which included the popular tune "Tush" — and "Tejas."
"It's a return not only to the roots, but it's a combination of how do we keep one foot in the blues and stick one foot out of that door, like checking the weather or sticking your toe in the swimming pool," Gibbons said of "Mescalero." "What are we getting into? You don't really know until you dive in. And that's what we did."
In that exploratory sense, the process of making "Mescalero" wasn't that different from the one that produced the "new" ZZ Top sound on "Eliminator." When the band arrived in the studio for the recording sessions, they were greeted by a host of new instruments and studio gadgets. The band didn't hesitate to begin experimenting with the new toys and figuring out how they could work within the ZZ Top sound.
"I guess the funny aside to this was we were surrounded with new things that had strict instructions," Gibbons said. "We im-mediately threw the manuals away."
This summer, the band returns to the road for an extended run of concerts in support of "Mescalero." As on past tours — think back to the auto junkyard set on the "Recycler" tour — the band won't skimp on production.
"We've got an interesting addition to the touring troupe, coordinated by some hand-picked custom car and cycle specialists who will be on stage," Gibbons said. "We are actually building a car and a motorcycle as the tour proceeds. So sparks will be flying and hammers will be pounding, and I hope they can keep a beat. If they put a good tune on the engine once they get that fired up, we'll just tell them what RPM we want it at."
ZZ Top plays Wednesday at the Family Arena in St. Charles. Tickets for the 7 p.m. show cost $47.50, $43.50 and $37.50.