Billy Gibbons and the BFG’s
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
The longtime frontman for that “little ol’ band from Texas” transforms into a Latin lover? Well, not quite, but ZZ Top guitarist/vocalist Billy Gibbons adds just enough percussion, soul-jazz, cha-cha and Afro-Cuban mojo to his gnarly blues rock to concoct something vibrant and exciting on his first ever solo outing. Unbeknownst to most, Gibbons studied percussion early in his career under legendary master mambo king Tito Puente (a friend of his band leader father), which shows the music on this recording is a closure of sorts. Still, it’s the confluence of genres that makes this more than just ZZ Top with timbales.
With his liquored-up, growling vocals and crawling king snake guitar leads, no one will mistake the bearded rocker’s disc for a slick Santana knock-off. Gibbons’ love of blues is apparent from the opening cover of Slim Harpo’s “Got Love if You Want It” that then upshifts into Roy Head’s classic “Treat Her Right,” a perfect fit for the Latin rock treatment. Gibbons pushes his boundaries with the occasional auto-tuned vocal and even some subtle hip-hop rapping, but nothing that will offend long time ZZ Top fans, especially since that band’s biggest ’80s hits had heavy synth backing. He also tackles the blues classic “Baby Please Don’t Go,” funking it up and featuring Doors and Deep Purple-styled organ to add extra spice.
Recorded in five studios in Spain, Texas and California, the album seems to have been pieced together over time but it doesn’t sound it. There’s a greasy vibe that permeates the songs (sung in English, Spanish and “Spanglish”) creating a tough, gutsy mood that shifts gears, sometimes even in the middle of tunes. The hard rock riffing of the title track gives way to funky basslines followed by some rapping and singing, twisting this way and that but never ripping apart at the seams. There’s even a bit of acoustic guitar in the opening to the salacious, grinding “You’re What’s Happening Baby,” six minutes of a jazz-soul groove that has Gibbons sing/talking “you’ve got your shorty-shorts on” like a lecherous old uncle as the band chugs behind him. It features just enough rapping to keep it frisky before he breaks into one of his patented swamp-laden guitar solos. The closing “Q-Vo” is little more than a rewrite of “Green Onions” but ends things on a slinky, jazzy note you wish would continue for longer than its 3 ½ minutes.
Best of all, it sounds like Gibbons is having a blast, bouncing around musical genres while staying true to his muddy roots on an album that does everything a solo disc from an artist with a recognizable sound should. Even non-ZZ Top fans will appreciate the vitality and exuberance that jumps out of every track and those who have followed Gibbons’ 45 (and counting) year career should be delighted with this energetic if temporary change in direction.