Billy Gibbons would be forgiven if he spent the rest of his musical career solely entertaining ticket holders who want to see the singer perform with ZZ Top. Fast approaching the band’s 50th anniversary, Gibbons has been synonymous with blues-rock since ZZ Top’s formation in Houston, Texas in 1969. Since then, the band has touched on various musical genres over the years, including new wave, punk, and dance. But now Gibbons has headed down an all-new path.
With his first ever solo project, Billy Gibbons and the BFGs, the musician is prepared to introduce longtime followers to a side of the man many have never seen: the Latin-music fan. With debut album Perfectamundo packed with tracks featuring Gibbons’ signature guitar licks against a Cuban beat, the singer acknowledges he had to think outside the box to put a backing band together for the new group.
“I’d thought it might be interesting to do something a bit different from ZZ Top. However, if that were to be a straight-ahead blues/rock project — well, I’d recruit a great rhythm section and that, of course, would be Dusty Hill and Frank Beard and that combination is, as we know, ZZ Top,” Gibbons explains. “The concept for Perfectamundo immediately catalyzed with an over-the-transom invitation to participate in the Havana Jazz Festival. We thought we should prepare a song lineup and approach appropriate to the event, and we fixed on the idea of doing something with an Afro-Cuban flavor. And that turned out to be Perfectamundo.”
This appreciation of Afro-Cuban sounds isn’t particularly new for Gibbons. “We thought we should explore some of the aspects of Latin rhythms because of the offer to come to Havana. Then, again, there are Latin rhythms in some of our earlier efforts — ZZ Top’s ’10 Foot Pole’ has an undercurrent of “ritmo Latino,” he explains. “We must make mention of the fact that the great Tito Puente showed us the way into syncopated rhythms many years ago. My dad heard my continual banging on trash cans and pots and pans and put me on a plane to New York to focus that energy in a more disciplined way from none other than the original Mambo King. Those influential directives jumped up when the Perfectmundo concept began to percolate.”
Studying the greats in music history is something that Gibbons has made a point of in his work with ZZ Top. While the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame members are well regarded as all-time greats in rock music, and indeed Gibbons was ranked in the top half of a recent Rolling Stone list of the greatest guitarists in the history of rock, the band’s true impact may be in capitalizing on the electrified sounds of the blues. To ask the frontman what the blues has meant to his sound, you quickly find out that he still considered its influence to touch every piece of music he plays.
“At the root of just about everything we know is the blues,” Gibbons elaborates. “It’s just an inescapable force and we’re happy to have spent some quality time in service to it. We felt it was the way to go — get down and get with it like the originators: B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed, Lightnin’ Hopkins. Jimi Hendrix showed the way by combining a heavy, heavy guitar sound with a blues-rooted approach. That’s just some of the inspiration that put us on the path we’ve trod for four-plus decades.”
That approach led Gibbons and the rest of ZZ Top to maintain a stranglehold on the top of the rock charts throughout the ’80s and much of the ’90s, bringing a sound unlike any of their peers to mainstream radio and becoming the most unorthodox stars of the MTV era. Musical success wasn’t new for the trio, but the constant exposure of their videos on teenagers watching at home led to an entire generation being introduced to the driving pulse of the band and an entirely new audience showing up at the concert venues.
“It wasn’t so much a shock as a new way to work,” Gibbons says, reflecting upon that time. “It’s true that we had some early successes and our touring trajectory was on a rambunctious uptick, but it kind of got a rocket assist back then and we were on point to keep rockin’ with an expanding audience.”
But MTV famously stopped broadcasting videos around the clock decades ago, and the music industry in which Gibbons’ new project finds itself maneuvering has changed just as much since his first band’s heyday. While it has never hurt to have a pretty face to go along with vocal chops, the majority of record companies seemingly cater exclusively to teenagers now, and many older acts find themselves struggling to master online promotion in order to connect with their older fans. Gibbons realizes that he is venturing into new territory late in his career by gambling on a new project in an age where 25-year-old musicians can be considered over the hill by their labels, but has found an infectious enthusiasm at his new project’s home.
“Oh, yeah,” the singer says. “Last I checked my drivers license, it indicated that I had passed the quarter-century mark a while back. We think Concord Records does a pretty great job in getting the word out about Perfectamundo. I sincerely have no complaints about the promotional efforts. They are way into it. Our work combined with theirs stands as a united front. It’s really all about delivering sounds and rhythmic texture that gets everyone moving.”