ZZ Top tramps into Bluff City on big Stax weekend

By Donnie Snow
May 2, 2003

"I don't think we were cognizant of all this timeliness, but we're kind of grinning like we planned it, of course," says ZZ Top's guitar wizard, Billy Gibbons, about the band's upcoming release.

The same weekend the Stax Museum opens, ZZ Top plays Beale Street Music Festival armed with the soon-to-be-released "Mescalero," featuring the R&B; classic Stax hit Tramp, recorded by Otis Redding and Carla Thomas in 1967.

This comes, conspicuously, 25 years after ZZ Top's blues-driven arena rock climbed into the top-40 with another high-octane Stax hit, I Thank You.

Gibbons says he and a friend were listening to a radio blues show in California, heard the song, "and it was just such a pleasure to revisit that thing. Finally we returned to conduct some rehearsals and all three of us (Gibbons, Dusty Hill and Frank Beard) sort of fell into it.

"I'm telling you, it's interesting, if you spend just a few minutes (looking through the old classics), you never know what you'll find."

The trio from Houston, Texas, has often leaned to blues.

"There's some thread of connectivity," Gibbons said of the way Southern blues got to Houston. "It's really defied the type of analysis that closes the discussion once and for all.

"How it ties in with Houston is a little different (than the migratory blues route that went through Memphis), but there is this belt that hugs the Gulf of Mexico. Maybe it's in water, where the Mississippi gets into the Gulf."

Gibbons says ZZ Top lately has felt the need to expand their influences.

"Indeed, I found in the last, oh, five years, as the competition increases, just the sheer number of people who take up music as something to do, to really be inventive, you many times find yourself reaching out of what you may normally be known for."

Gibbons is alluding to some interesting style choices on "Mescalero," like neo-metal, crypto-zydeco, boogie-flavored vamps, a country-style ballad, TexMex border ambience and something they're describing as techno-mariachi, sung in Spanish.

Gibbons tabs the crossover explosion to the enormous musical library opened up to the world through the Internet.

As for the surge of white artists in the traditionally black art form of the blues, he offers that it's the "romantic element connected with that art form. Because we're long gone past the days of the workload that energized that form of expression - the harsh reality that surrounds the history of the blues. Romantic notions of being a blues player have stifled the elements that kept it a dangerous art form."

- Donnie Snow: 529-2556