“I paid good money for these shoes! I want people to see them!”
Ever the rock star, Billy F Gibbons was asking a stagehand at B.B. King’s in Times Square to get all the guitar effects pedal units out of his way.
He’d just finished a “most minimalist” Tuesday afternoon rehearsal with Late Night With David Letterman show bass ace Will Lee and drummer Anton Fig, who were off to their nightly show taping, and Hammond B-3 organ players Martin Guigui and Mike Flanigin, whom he’d brought along with him.
Turned out the foot controls were Lee’s. Asked whether Gibbons didn't need his own, the Great One merely held up his hands and twiddled his fingers, symbolically suggesting that he really didn’t need anything else--which everyone already knows.
Earlier this year at this same venue, Gibbons had stepped out of his ZZ Top safe zone for the reunion, after more than 40 years, of the Moving Sidewalks, his pre-ZZ psychedelic Texas blues-rock group. It was hugely successful, but it was just a taste of what this night’s Billy F Gibbons & Friends event would bring.
The gig had been booked after a first one, slated for the following night at the smaller downtown club City Winery, quickly sold out. It followed two encouraging Gibbons solo developments, one being his stellar guest performance on Lee’s new solo album Love, Gratitude And Other Distractions, namely his guitar play and vocal duet with Lee on Lee Dorsey’s 1966 hit “Get Out Of My Life, Woman” (and his appearance in Lee’s hit video for the tune).
Secondly, Gibbons had tested the twin B-3 configuration at a taping of Daryl Hall’s Live From Daryl’s House program in Upstate New York.
“It’s a great online success story,” Gibbons said at a late-night deli run following the City Winery gig. “He attempted to do something musically, and started a jam session in his house, spontaneous and organic, and started it as a webcast—then it got picked up [by the Palladia high definition music channel]. He wanted serious musicianship and quality entertainment--not a prepackaged gig. Nothing is preplanned: You just show up and play, and Daryl is such a great singer that he demands an equal level of talent to back him up.”
For the taping, which airs next month, Gibbons brought along Guigui, the B-3 whiz and film actor/director (My X-Girlfriend’s Wedding, Changing Hearts), Austin mainstay Flanigin and Louisiana guitarist Shane Theriot.
“We walked in, played a few chords, and suddenly were surrounded by a band! The producer said, ‘Just don’t make any mistakes!’ A lot of it was done in one take, and fortunately, it fell on a holiday break from ZZ, and allowed Mike and Martin and I to say, ‘Let’s put something together and offer to bring it to New York.’”
Besides Gibbons on his own, the distinguishing factor of the New York shows was the novel B-3 duo.
“We first experimented with it on Daryl’s show,” said Gibbons. “Then when we started thinking about the solo shows, we wondered, ‘What would make them interesting?’ and figured ‘one B-3, is good, two are better.’ We couldn’t place it having been done before, which was all the more reason to do it.”
Flanigin did point out that while B-3 players Jimmy McGriff and Richard “Groove” Holmes recorded together, “it doesn’t happen very often.”
“It’s the extreme outer fringe, because you’re hauling two [B-3s], when hauling one is hard enough,” Gibbons explained. So they rented a pair of the big Hammonds for Guigui and Flanigin.
“We just listened and complemented each other,” said Flanigin, “and nobody stepped on each other. No Fender bass can go as low sonically as an organ bass pedal, so I doubled Will’s bass during ‘Let’s Have A Party.’ But we didn’t work anything out in advance.”
Gibbons & Friends also performed “Foxy Lady,” a tribute to his idol/mentor Jimi Hendrix, and B.B. King’s “Rock Me Baby,” after he noted how Hendrix, who “took me halfway around the planet and taught me half of everything I know,” was himself a fan of Jeff Beck, and Beck's “Rock My Plimsoul” version of the King blues standard.
King, Gibbons noted, had actually advised him against using heavy gauge guitar strings, which he had figured made for a bigger sound. As for guitar, Gibbons was playing a special guitar made for him by master luthier John Bolin to honor Buck Owens at a country music awards show in Las Vegas and featuring a head shot of Owens on its body, and “Think Buck Owens” inscribed on the neck.
“With two B-3s, I’ve got to meet the challenge somehow!” said Gibbons, explaining that the “Think Buck Owens” directive gave the guitar an added “cerebral” quality.
Of course Gibbons and Lee performed “Get Out Of My Life, Woman” (after Gibbons related how happy he was to record it while he had a cold and could exploit lower vocal tones), also ZZ Top’s “Sharp Dressed Man” and “La Grange.” But a blues shuffle version of Nancy Sinatra’s immortal “These Boots Are Made For Walking,” retitled “These Boots Are Made For Shuffling,” came out of nowhere and was ecstatically received.
Alluding to Bobby “Blue” Bland’s classic 1961 album “Two Steps From The Blues,” Gibbons said, “Well, this is not two steps, but 2,000 steps from the blues.”
But it worked beautifully, as did “Jailhouse Rock,” which they closed with at B.B.’s, Gibbons and Lee exchanging vocal leads. Gregg Allman surprised everyone when he came backstage after, looking great.
“Two B-3s? What do I have to do?” he wondered aloud. No one answered, but if Allman has three B-3s at his next show, you’ll know why.
In Gibbons’ dressing room, friends were eating the birthday cake presented to him on stage in celebration of his 64th the day before, as he called up old tunes from his iPhone from the likes of Steve Tyrell, B.J. Thomas (Lee worked with him early in his career), fellow Texas blues-rock guitar great Johnny Winter and Louisiana legend T.K. Hulin.
“I had a blast,” noted Gibbons. “Will and Anton were locked, like two peas in a pod. And we did 90 minutes of material, when we thought we’d get only 60.”
The next night at City Winery, Gibbons announced that “all the musical collisions and wrecks happened last night,” then added, “We promise to have a few more for you tonight.” The only real difference, though, was a last second encore of “Sweet Home Chicago,” necessitated by the thunderous ovation and marked by Gibbons substitution of the title line for “New York’s the only place to go.”
“The last two nights were barn burners!” said Gibbons, at the deli. “There were a lot of happy accidents.”
“What people don’t know is that Billy grew up watching [Texas bluesmen] Hop Wilson, Lightnin’ Hopkins—all the great blues artists," said Flanigin. "He comes from that place of experimentation that spawned ZZ Top, and is now applying it to other projects.”
“It’s a real good opportunity to step out and express the non-ZZ blues,” said Gibbons. “Here’s this steam roller, pushing and pushing and pushing, and all I have to do is grab the wheel and drive it.”
It’s a sentiment that applies equally to ZZ Top, he said, adding, incidentally, that his regular group’s bassist/vocalist Dusty Hill and drummer Frank Beard came to a Moving Sidewalks reunion show in Texas.
“It was such a compliment to have the support of my favorite rhythm section in the world,” said Gibbons.
[The Examiner has written liner notes on ZZ Top albums.]
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