Texas trio unleash a torrent of southern rock-boogie and reinvigorate the blues
Before the beards, the revolving guitars, and sleazy MTV clips, ZZ Top were a relatively little known trio from Texas who loved to boogie. No glam or psychedelia for them, thank you very much. Just plain old time blues and no-frills southern rock. Their first two albums, 1971’s ZZ Top’s First Album, and Rio Grande Mud (1972), barely made much of an impression, so when it came to the band’s third record, Tres Hombre, Billy Gibbons (guitar, vocals), Dusty Hill (bass, vocals), and Frank Beard (drums) probably weren’t holding their collective breath in the hope of achieving international stardom. Except that’s exactly what happened.
Released in 1973, Tres Hombre would catapult the group into the charts and music venues the world over, thanks mainly to one song, “La Grange,” a compelling blend of 1940’s John Lee Hooker, English Rock, and good old fashioned Texas swagger. Also, the album was recorded in Memphis, at the now legendary Ardent Studios, a far more modern facility than ZZ were used to. This gave their music a fuller, richer sound, and one in keeping with latest technology, in contrast to the somewhat muddy, earthier production values of the group’s previous efforts.
Opener “Waiting for the Bus” is a nice bit of progressive blues-funk, during which Gibbons proves that he’s no boy scout when it comes to the guitar, unleashing some stinging licks throughout. Due to a mishap by the engineer during sequencing, the second track was spliced “Jesus Just Left Chicago” just a little too closely to the first, meant that ever since both songs have become eternally entwined.
Other cuts like “Beer Drinkers & Hell Raisers” and “Master of Sparks,” with their infectious boogie beat and cactus and cowboy attitude play out like autobiographical anthems of the band itself. But of course every blues-rock album, no matter how gruff and tough, must contain at least one track for the ladies, and in ZZ Top’s case it comes in the form of the reflective, mournful “Hot, Blue and Righteous,” a sort of anti-power ballad the likes of which Aerosmith should have been listening to.
They pay homage to the Stones with “Move Me On Down The Line,” while “Precious and Grace” is the sort of heavy-rock/boogie ZZ Top not only perfected, but would rarely stray from, even 45 years later. “La Grange” of course is the song, and the tune they are best remembered for (although “Best Dressed Man” and “Legs” probably come close). Sure they ripped off John Lee Hooker’s “Boogie Chillin’,” so much so that I’m surprised Hooker didn’t attempt to sue Gibbons/Hill/Beard for some of the most blatant plagiarism in music history, yet that doesn’t mean that “La Grange” isn’t a great song in its own right, and when Gibbons imitates Hooker’s vocal mannerisms in the vein of “Boom Boom,” he does so with conviction and honesty.
Gibbons wah-wahs his way through the funky “Sheik,” before concluding the LP on a soulful note with “Have You Heard?,” a gospel-blues similar in style to Gregg Allman’s “Will The Circle Be Unbroken.”
Although some critics may have been ambivalent at the time (Rolling Stone magazine were not particularly impressed), Tres Hombre has clocked up a decent amount of mileage over the years, sounding just as fresh today as it would have in 1973, thanks to a combination of production and quality playing/songwriting.
ZZ Top has always stayed within its comfort zone, preferring not to mess too much with the blues/boogie formula, and why should they? When you create music as timeless as this, how how how how might be just the thing to lift the listener’s spirits.