Interview: Billy Gibbons on ZZ Top's NYC live setlist
Hot on the heels of the release of their stripped-down, oh-so-bluesy, Rick Rubin-produced new album La Futura, ZZ Top played a rousing and rambunctious show at New York City's famed Beacon Theatre last night (12 September).
MusicRadar caught up with guitarist Billy Gibbons this morning to get his thoughts on the performance and to go over the tracklist song by song:
“Man, it was so warm last night, the feeling in that room. Everybody was so happy to be there, and they brought such a spirit into the place. When you’re on a stage like that, with a crowd like that, you can’t help but be lifted up. In a word – rockin’! The place was full of energy.
“It deserves mentioning the absolute quality of sound in that room. I’ve talked to Gregg Allman about it, and we suspect that the molecules have been resonanted into complete, total alignment. You can’t beat that room.
“It’s a grand theatre, but when you’re on the stage performing and you’re looking out, you can’t take it all in – which is beneficial, really, because it would be so distracting to the craft of playing music. Those towering figurines in the corners do come into focus from time to time, and they’re a sight to behold."
“There’s quite a few songs from Tres Hombres. We compared the set with a previous engagement at the Beacon and decided to throw in some left turns to add some freshness and treat those in attendance to something that was a little oddball.
“For instance, Vincent Price Blues: responding to an unusual, inordinate amount of e-mails requesting the song, we started playing it in Europe, and it’s worked out quite well in the set.
“The funny thing, referring to our new album which is now officially on the street, it’s come to our attention that some of these songs are heavily requested, particularly the early ones we put out as a sneak peak on iTunes. We’ve gotta go back and relearn them, relearn what we’re supposed to know! [laughs] But we will. I have a feeling all of them are strong contenders.”
I Thank You
“This takes us back to the Memphis days. It was our subtle, second-level messaging to everybody, because we really do appreciate the fans who take the time to come out and enjoy the night with us. It’s us saying, ‘We thank you.’”
Waitin' For The Bus
“We’ve been playing it since ’73, when it appeared on Tres Hombres. The transition where we go from Waitin’ For The Bus into Jesus Just Left Chicago, the segue between the two songs that’s on the record has become part of the show.
“It was an accident, too. The engineer was sequencing the selected tracks, and he inadvertently shorted the space – it was supposed to be three or four seconds. Thing is, it was seamless, so that’s how we learned it to play live.”
Jesus Just Left Chicago
“This is one of our favorites. We get to change it up by inserting the name of the city we’re playing in. You gotta do it. Oh, you gotta!” [laughs]
“Another favorite. This one is from 1990. Antenna was our first release after we left Warner Bros. and went over to BMG.
“Dusty really enjoys playing it because it reminds him of how happy he is to not be performing it like we were forced to when making the video. There’s a brief scene in the Pincushion video where we’re flying up and down in this giant box that had these wooden needles coming at us. The harness we were forced to wear to pull off this flying act was miserably uncomfortable.
“Dusty said, ‘Yeah, I’ll play Pincushion all night long – not like we did in the video, though!’”
Heard It On The X
“Just a good old rocker. It’s fast and furious, and we always enjoy delivering it.
“The fingering on that particular riff is somewhat challenging. In the solo, it’s not single-note picking, it’s highlighting the overlapping guitar riff. The kick drum goes away, Dusty’s bass drops out and it’s pretty much just guitar. It gets to the point where it’s a real show-off spot.”
25 Lighters - I Gotsta Get Paid
“I’m still trying to get the words to this one unraveled. Last night, I had a little cheat sheet in front of me. The origin of the tune was a hip-hop number from 15 years ago, which has now been bluesified thanks to the inspiration of Lightnin’ Hopkins.
“Those two genres collided, leaving us with I Gotsta Get Paid as you hear it now. Trying to unravel the words shows you one thing: I don’t think you’re going to see ZZ Top doing straight rap and hip-hop numbers. But we are having a good time with the tune as it is now.”
Gimme All Your Lovin'
“Oh, yeah! We stuck that in – it comes and goes. We positioned it after the performance of I Gotsta Get Paid as kind of a relief. It’s a song we’re quite familiar with, and that drumming introduction takes the heat off of somewhere other than me.”
Vincent Price Blues
“It is a blues number, but it’s got some unorthodox chord changes that make it particularly appealing.
“The guitar feedback is just on the brink of becoming unmanageable. We’ve got a setting on the guitar that we switch to just to perform the song, and it creates a kind of ghostliness – it’s right on the cusp of being runaway. The feedback can be a problem if it gets out of control, but in this case, it adds a texture that really enhances the overall effect.”
Heaven, Hell Or Houston
“It was almost added as kind of the end-band challenge. If Vincent Price Blues weren’t weird enough, Heaven, Hell Or Houston surely would be.
“It’s one of the more obtuse numbers that we ever released. I think it was the closing song on El Loco. It’s become a favorite for everybody, but it is something of a secret challenge for the band members. The song might sound simple, but the time signature actually changes three times. It's tricky.”
My Head's In Mississippi
“Just a good boogie favorite. We pulled it off last night, but it was funny - I said, ‘Hey, if we stretched this out, I can get more syllables out of New York Ci-taaaaay!’ So we stuck it in and it worked.”
Beer Drinkers & Hell Raisers
“Another gem from the barrel of fun, Tres Hombres. Dusty gets to shout it out and sing the good line: ‘Hell raisers!’ Yeah, we like raising a little hell.”
“It’s the closest thing to a pop song that we do. This one’s on Afterburner. It’s kind of uplifting. I guess it’s something for the girls.”
Sharp Dressed Man
“It’s one of the titles that we can’t seem to dismiss from an evening’s performance. Believe it or not, you cannot believe the number of e-mails we get the next day after a show – ‘You didn’t play Cheap Sunglasses,’ ‘You didn’t play whatever’ – so we’ve been kind of tossing the coin on some songs.
“You can't please everybody all the time. Something’s gotta give. But Sharp Dressed Man seems to make its way in there.”
“It’s our chance to show off the influence of Bo Diddley. He’s the one who taught us how to put fur on our guitars.
“The particular fur on our instruments is nicely groomed. Mr. Elwood Francis and Mr. TJ Gordon, our respective guitar technicians, actually have groomer’s combs to make sure our strings don’t get trapped in the fur. Although it has happened!” [laughs]
Tube Snake Boogie
“The night before the Beacon, we popped in and hit the stage for a little party that John Varvatos was having. It was such a great atmosphere that Dusty said, ‘Let’s do Elvis,’ and so we pulled out Jailhouse Rock. From that same period, on the El Loco album, appeared Tube Snake Boogie.
“We were tossing the coin again. Dusty loves his ray of sunshine, getting to sing one or the other. So we flipped the coin and it came up Tube Snake Boogie, which brings us up to the two cornerstones of our career… “
“It’s been nearly 40 years, and we’ve played it every night. [laughs] It always feels good. The composition is two short verses at the top of the song, and then we get to steer it into Improvisational Land.
“Live, it can take a lot of twists and turns. Last night, we threw in bits of Bar-B-Q and the Jimmie Rodgers song, I’d Rather Be Sloppy Drunk. It’s kind of morphed into something quite different from the version that was on the Tres Hombres album.”
“It’s straight ahead, and Dusty gets to come back for that extra tag-on ending. I’d say, for the majority of the shows we do, Tush seems to really resonate with our friends and followers. We’ve tried some other things in the past, but you can’t beat letting Dusty laying it out there.
“On this song, Mr. Elwood comes out and lights up a cigar for me. It’s one of the last great, cheap cigars – a Backwoods. They come eight to a pack, two bucks. A quarter a cigar, the best deal in the country.
“Doing that bit is sort of my tip of the hat to the scene in Prince’s movie Purple Rain. Remember when Morris Day has his valet bring out the mirror on stage? That’s what we do. We bring Elwood into the spotlight.”