Billy Joel welcomed a surprise guest onto the stage for his latest gig at New York City’s legendary Madison Square Garden when Billy Gibbons popped up to jam with his band on a couple of ZZ Top classics.
Joel was playing his 89th show of what is now a world record breaking residency at the Garden, one that has just been extended with the 94th being announced for 10 September. And when you are that many dates in to a residency that’s lasted a decade, it does you good to shake up the set and get some guests involved. Who better than Gibbons, a man who loves to jam? Just hand him an electric guitar and count him in.
On this occasion, it was a Fender Esquire, or an Esquire-style guitar. Gibbons has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to custom and bespoke T-styles with a single pickup, and the fidelity of the video might be good but not quite good enough for a reliably accurate make and model id.
Joel is a little coy when introducing the track and instructs his long-serving guitarist Tommy Byrnes to kick things off, who then picks out a blues-rock shuffle riff on a Gibson Les Paul Standard and the crowd goes wild, first, because said riff is unmistakably La Grange, from ZZ Top’s 1973 breakthrough album, Tres Hombres, and Billy Gibbons is walking out from side of stage dressed in his stage duds.
A gentlemanly handshake with Joel and he’s ready to jam. The performance is a two-hander. Gibbons takes the first solo, going all legato with his left hand while conducting the crowd with his right, then counting in Byrnes to take his turn. Byrnes, who has been with Joel since 1993, did not disappoint.
For a moment, this was Gibbons’ show, and up there he was directing traffic, calling in Joel for a piano solo, then Mark Rivera to take his spot on the sax. It was like they had all done this before. Gibbons counting everyone down to the climax of the song. Not a beat missed.
A full-blooded rendition of Tush followed, with the late Dusty Hill’s vocals handled by Joel’s rhythm guitarist Mike DelGuidice. Gibbons, Byrnes and DelGuidice are all pictured above in Byrnes' Instagram post.
La Grange and Tush marked a big change in ZZ Top’s profile. Tres Hombres, their third album, broke them. Fandango! built on that momentum, half tracked in the studio, half live, all with that energy.
As Gibbons explained to MusicRadar in 2013, both La Grange and Tush were three minute tunes that took all but three minutes to write and record.
“[La Grange] was kind of a haphazard, last-minute thought that came together in all of three minutes,” said Gibbons. “We were waiting for the engineer to complete his house cleaning chores, and we were jamming out. At one point, we looked through the glass and the guy was waving his arms, signalling us to continue on. The song just fell into place.
“Another one of those ‘catch-it-in-three-minute’ tunes, was Tush. We had gone down to Alabama, and it started to take shape with the riff. As for the lyrics, well, it’s not exactly Bob Dylan. [Laughs] That one we recorded in the studio.”
That it felt right was all Gibbons knew back then. How these songs land with an audience is in the lap of the gods but there’s a lesson in doing what feels right in the moment. That’s exactly what ZZ Top were doing.
“Tush felt good from a musician standpoint,” said Gibbons. “But you know, you can never tell what’s going to be a hit or not. We were enjoying the recording experience, figuring out how to grab a moment and making it repeatable.”
Joel was named MSG’s first-ever music franchise performer in December 2013. Basically, he is the musical equivalent of the New York Knicks and New York Rangers. Playing Madison Square Garden must be like playing in his front room by now. Head to Billy Joel for ticket details for the residency. His September date is on sale now for Citi card members.