ZZ Top’s Billy F. Gibbons confesses that he found the idea of putting his Texas blues-rock group on the road with country stars Brooks & Dunn “just downright peculiar.”
And that’s saying something for a group that’s performed surrounded by livestock, vultures and rattlesnakes and driven bumper cars on stage during previous tours.
But Gibbons is pleased to report that “the whole thing is really pretty cool.”
“It’s interesting in that we’re fans of their band, and their band is fans of ZZ Top’s,” says Gibbons, 58, who formed ZZ Top in 1969 in Houston with bassist Joe “Dusty” Hill and drummer Frank Beard — who, of course, is the only one of the three without one.
“It’s really kind of an interesting blend of like-minded souls that have gotten together and pushed this thing down the road. And the audience that’s turning out is enjoying every minute of it, too.”
ZZ Top’s tour mates, who appeared with their Texas compatriots on an episode of CMT’s genreblending “Crossroads,” feel the same way.
“We learned a really valuable lesson opening for The Rolling Stones that those kind of rock fans are not that different than our fans at all,” says Kix Brooks, “and our fans are just like we are. It’s hard to say you don’t dig ZZ Top.”
Gibbons notes with a laugh that “there’s a few more cowboy hats in the crowd” at this show — before being reminded that ZZ Top has worn it’s share of cowboystyle hats in the group’s early days. But he thinks the success of the show, during which Brooks & Dunn join ZZ Top for renditions of “Tube Snake Boogie” and “Jailhouse Rock,” points to the evershrinking divide between rock and country.
“I think the most telling bit is how much country seems to have leaned in toward a more rock-oriented backing sound,” Gibbons explains, “’cause when you listen to the instrumentalists, they’re (playing) charging, full-out rock.
“So on that note it’s probably less peculiar to the audience members because they seem to know what they’re getting into.”
The Brooks & Dunn tour, meanwhile, is just one of an assortment of projects ZZ Top has gotten into this year.
The group played its 1983 hit “Sharp Dressed Man” on “American Idol” in May with eventual champion David Cook and also released a DVD, “Live From Texas,” in June. On Tuesday, the group will release an expanded 25th anniversary “Eliminator (Collector’s Edition),” while Gibbons has recorded a version of Chuck Berry’s “Run, Rudolph, Run” with Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl and Motörhead’s Lemmy Kilminster for a compiliaton called “Metal Christmas” that’s due out this fall.
What really has ZZ Top’s focus, however, is a new album — which will be produced with Grammy Award-winner Rick Rubin (Red Hot Chili Peppers, Neil Diamond, Johnny Cash). Gibbons calls working with Rubin “an opportunity we’ve waited for for 20 years,” noting that the producer has “got a good feel on the pulse, and I’m very interested in what he might have in mind.”
While the collaboration is “a new venture,” Gibbons says that Rubin has already forwarded one idea — hooking ZZ Top up with Ohio blues-rock duo the Black Keys for some writing and possibly recording. “I’m such a big fan of these guys ... it makes total sense,” Gibbons says. “And that’s pretty down and dirty, which is good for ZZ Top.”
Gibbons, meanwhile, says there is some new material around already, from a 15-day studio session he did in May with a couple of engineers, during which Gibbons says he “managed to squeeze out 15 tunes.
“It was just me kickin’ back and having a good time,” Gibbons recalls. “We did everything from a black church gospel ballad to updated versions of ‘Rollin’ and Tumblin’’, did some Jimmy Reed take-off things, just keeping that bluesy thread throughout. I think that as long as we maintain that blues tradition, the material takes on an identity that’s easily digestible, at least in terms of what our fans have asked for.”
Gibbons says he hopes ZZ Top hits the studio shortly after its tour cycle, which which finishes Nov. 1 in Amarillo, Texas. The band, he says, is as ready to go as he’s ever seen it.
“This go-round there’s has been a fierce resurgence of common ground that three of us are enjoying being in the middle of,” the guitarist explains. “There’s just a lot of enthusiasm between us now, and I think that it’s setting us up to go directly into the studio and keep that momentum that seems to be hitting.”
ZZ Top, Brooks & Dunn and Rodney Atkins perform at 7 p.m. Saturday (Aug. 23) at the DTE Energy Music Theatre, Sashabaw Road east of I-75, Independence Township. Tickets are $59.50 and $39.50 pavilion, $29.50 lawn. Call (248) 377-0100 or visit www.palacenet.com.
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