By now, the presence of tribute albums on the marketplace has become a constant and ubiquitous presence ever since the trend started to really pick up steam in the early 1990s. Not surprisingly they can range in quality from the very good and well thought-out (Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye; Sweet Relief) to the marketing-driven bold-faced grab for money that looks better on paper than in execution (Hell Bent Forever: A Tribute to Judas Priest; Common Thread: The Songs of the Eagles). And while ZZ Top is certainly deserving of these types of recorded accolades, this latest attempt to pay homage to That Little Ol’ Band from Texas falls somewhere in between. Especially when the inevitable comparisons are made between A Tribute from Friends and 2002’s Sharp Dressed Men: A Tribute to ZZ Top. While it would be easy to dismiss the latter thanks to its reliance on a number of Music Row artists better known for crossover homogeneity than musical risk-taking, it takes considerably more chances and has a little more sonic grit than its current successor.
The newer collection features performances that fall flat whether it’s the ad-hoc super-group The M.O.B., whose members Steven Tyler, Mick Fleetwood, Jon McVie and Jonny Lang turn in a yawn-inducing reading of “Sharp Dressed Man” or Wyclef Jean’s slick version of “Rough Boy” overflowing with poppy synths, bleeping sound effects and drum loops that drain it of any soul. (In fairness, Brooks & Dunn don’t fare any better on their nine-year-old version). Elsewhere, other artists color too much within the lines whether its Nickelback’s pounding and otherwise unremarkable “Legs” or how Duff McKagan’s Loaded do so little to alter “Got Me Under Pressure” that you may as well just play the original. You don’t find the kind of creative risk-taking you find on Sharp Dressed Men where Willie Nelson applies a Texas swing treatment to “She Loves My Automobile” that the late Bob Wills could get behind or how the normally vanilla Lonestar manages to apply more sandpaper to the arrangements of “Gimme All Your Lovin’” than Filter does with the same song.
In fairness, Tribute from Friends does have a number of bright spots. Mastodon takes a break from its usual progressive stone-rock complexity to infuse a significant groove into “Just Got Paid” and country music maverick Jamey Johnson gives warhorse “La Grange” a facelift via some extended riffing, wailing harp and meaty organ runs. Elsewhere, American Idol finalist Chris Daughtry elevates himself beyond his namesake band’s usual Staind/Creed-like hard-rock mediocrity to submit an admirable rendition of fan favorite “Waitin’ for the Bus/Jesus Just Left Chicago.” And while Daughtry the singer doesn’t go renegade like Hank Williams, Jr. did on SDM when he flip-flopped the medley and upped the blues quotient a considerable amount, he ends up doing right by Billy Gibbons, Dusty Hill and Frank Beard.