First, some folks put it under glass and treat it like it’s the Gutenberg Bible or the original copy of The Constitution Of The United States. Like it must NEVER be touched by human hands, lest it turn to dust. A rare and delicate flower, only to be admired from afar and played EXACTLY LIKE THIS. To which I say: go fuck yourself.
Secondly, there are those among us who shall remain nameless (insert favorite guitar wanker here) who view the blues as nothing more than a song structure. I, IV, V, occasional II for variety, repeat ad nauseum until the set is over. It’s technique and reference. Faint echoes at a safe distance. Cheap manipulation and laziness, all sound and fury signifying nothing. Guitar masturbation weedely weedely woo. Result: mass narcolepsy. To which I say: I would also tell you to go fuck yourself, but you already are.
Anyway, a pox on both your houses. (Hello, John Mayer!!)
So who has successfully avoided both clichés? Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Billy F. Gibbons, Dusty Hill, and Frank Beard. They strapped the blues onto a 1933 Ford Eliminator coupe and dragged it kicking and screaming through 40+ years of disco lights, hair metal, skinny ties, boy bands, one-hit wonders, and sensitive artistes. They ran over ALL that shit wearing blue jeans and snakeskin boots, looking like an Amish experiment gone horribly wrong, and sounding like God intended. From the first note of “(Somebody Else Been) Shakin’ Your Tree” (from their first LP in 1971) to the last note of “Have A Little Mercy” (the last track on their latest CD La Futura), they have been immediately recognizable and 200 proof original.
They’ve always had a finger in the air and one foot in the blues. The other foot may have had a wandering eye, but it always came home bearing gifts of platinum records and fatter wallets. Listen closely to “Sleeping Bag.” It’s still a come-on with some seriously nasty guitar. “Rough Boy” is still a lovely shade of dark blue. Programmed drums and synthesizers hide nothing. The notes were always beautifully bent. ZZ Top changed with the times and didn’t change a single iota.
La Futura, their 15th studio album, is (pardon the pun) a razor-sharp addition to an already overflowing discography of gems. One might have expected them to mellow out after 40+ years. Alas, no. Quite the opposite. The guitars are heavier, the vocals are gruffer, the machetes are sharper, and the whole thing crunches like a villager’s hut under the hooves of Godzilla.
If you want proof that Billy Gibbons may be the best guitar player alive, look no further. La Futura has an almost embarrassing overabundance of proof—the guitars wail, pierce, agonize, and soothe, always providing the song with exactly what it needs. When Beard and Hill lock in, the whole thing takes off like a Delta spaceship.
“I Gotsta Get Paid” is a fuzzed-out cover of the hip hop song “15 Quarters”(originally by DJ DMD with Lil Keke and Fat Pat). It’s also a stone cold work of modern art. “Over You”v is the great lost R&B ballad, Gibbons’ vocals growling Tom Waits-style. It’s what Otis Redding would sound like if he gargled with razor blades and gasoline. “Flyin’ High” is simply an air guitar classic. Put it in your car’s CD player and just try not to wreck. Can’t be done. You have been warned. And of course, what’s a ZZ Top record without a good ol’ double entendre? This time around, it’s “Big Shiny Nine’” and it’s about a gun. I think. Wink and a nod.
When you see La Futura on the shelf, snap it up. Buy a copy for everyone you know. Order it online. Stream it on Spotify. Just get it. Nine years since their last studio CD, ZZ Top has lost not an ounce of power. They still cut through the bullshit like no other.
Long story short: ZZ Top didn’t put the blues under glass and respect it real hard until it was dead. They also didn’t use it as an excuse to be lazy, get paid and laid, and be like everybody else. They played their version of the blues. Now you play yours. That’s the takeaway. If you sound just like fill-in-the-blank, you have failed. Stop imitating your heroes, clear your throat, and speak in your own voice. If you have to get your heart broken on the Hank Williams level, that’s fine. If you must develop a nasty drug problem or find Jesus, please do so. If you have to leave an unending string of tears, doom, and destruction in your wake, please get started. The machetes are in the barn. Start cutting.
Michael Franklin is the Media & Reserves Specialist at Western Kentucky University’s Visual & Performing Arts Library (VPAL). Michael is also a professional musician and sound engineer. He is currently recording his 6th CD with his best friends Screenlast 6.0 and Audacity Sourceforge. He thinks Iggy Pop is the greatest singer in the history of music. If you disagree, you’re wrong. You better ask somebody.
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