Back to what he does best

By Tom MacIntosh

The release of Billy Gibbons2nd solo record The Big Bad Blues (Concord Records, September, 2018) gets him back to what he does best, the rowdy, swaggering Texas blues, after his debut album Perfectamundo, (2015) where he dabbled brilliantly in Cuban styles, but that was then, this is now. Even though he covers some classics like Muddy WatersRollin’ and Tumblin’, plus two of Bo Diddleys numbers Crackin’ Up and Bring It to Jerome, it’s clearly got the Gibbons stamp on it throughout.

His all-star lineup comprises Mike “the Drifter” Flanigin/keyboards, Matt Sorum (Guns N Roses, Cult), and Greg Morrow/drums, Austin Hanks/guitar, harp chewer James Harman,and bassman/producer Joe Hardy who together brew up some tasty blues from the opening bell.

The Big Bad Blues comes out swinging with a blues-boogie Missin’ Yo’ Kissin’, written by his wife Gilligan Stillwater, that sounds La Grange-esque, with easily recognisable raunchy riffs, Harman’s howling harp and the punchy rhythm section. There’s the ever-simplistic dark throbbing swagger on pieces like My Baby She Rocks, That’s What She Said, or the gutsy grunge of Mo’ Slower Blues, three vibrant blues arrangements that keep it fresh and true to the organic roots of the genre, yet making it their own.

Billy Gibbons has mostly preferred the Gibson electric guitar sound, especially the fabled “Pearly Gates”, a ‘59 Les Paul Standard he bought for $250 after selling his death-on-wheels car, (hence the name), which gave him and ZZ Top its signature gnarly sound to this day. According to the man himself, “It shines because of that dirty raunchy tone, I defy any other instrument, besides these oddball things, to get that crazy”. He has played some other brands throughout his career as well, like the ‘63 Fender Jazzmaster or the Esquire, and the almost extinct Gretsch Jupiter Thunderbird, a gift from Bo Diddley. For the promotional tour of this album, he designed both right and left-handed Newman guitars fitted with a Little Thunder pickup, which allows him to hit the low notes with a bass signal, so the live shows were, in fact, performed without a bassist; just a 3-man show, with him, Hanks, and Sorum.

He and the boys take Waters’ Rollin’ and Tumblin’ to new heights in frantic flourishes on solos which compliment Gibbons’ gravelly voice that command the blues like a ‘big bad’ boss. Another tribute to Muddy Waters is the slow moving cover of Standing Around Crying, a song seemingly written for Gibbons’ raspy voice and the harp work by Harman that just drips off the bone; a great rendition of a blues standard Waters would be proud of.

If blues music is all about call and response, speeding it up, slowing it down, and knowing when, tells the tale of who you are as a bluesman, our Mr. Gibbons knows this form inside out and shows it by following Waters slow swagger in Standing Around Crying with the shuffle in Let The Left Hand Know, with pure blues guitar bending on display over the walking bassline and piercing harmonica. Things get even greasier in the solid blues Bring it to Jerome, a Bo Diddley piece about his maraca-playing friend and songwriting buddy, Jerome Greene, and Hollywood 151, a rockin’ blues driver that begs to be played at full volume.

The album closes with another Diddley treat, Crackin’ Up, where Gibbons skillfully gets that ‘liquid’ guitar sound by probably using a DeArmond Tremolo, just like Diddley, in a mambo-like ditty you might hear from the likes of Jimmy Buffett or David Lindley, but with much more bottom and bounce. A perfect ending to an excellent blues package, whether you like modern or ‘old school’ blues/rock, The Big Bad Blues delivers with a wide array of classics and originals, but stands tall as definitive Billy Gibbons’ blues to the core.