Billy Gibbons has an unfinished song he wrote with Jeff Beck called Chocolate Meatballs

Billy Gibbons onstage
(Image credit: Frazer Harrison)

ZZ Top’s perennially bearded vocalist and guitarist Billy Gibbons is currently treading the boards in Europe as part of The Big One, Part 1, a series of solo dates in promotion of his third and latest extracurricular release, 2021’s Hardware

The tour visits the UK twice, with dates in London and Birmingham lined up for the first week of July, and a final show in the blues hotbed of Bournemouth on July 11. 

Below, Billy Gibbons reflects on these solo shows, life without Dusty Hill, and his memories of his great friend, the late guitarist and chocoholic Jeff Beck. 


How recently did you begin performing solo gigs away from ZZ Top? 

It all started with an invitation to play at the famous Havana Jazz Festival [in 2015]. I said: “Gee, I don’t want to crash a jazz festival with a rock’n’roll party.” We were so curious, it led us to recording a few songs in that style as an experiment, and then down a path to the Afro-Cuban-inspired [solo debut] Perfectamundo [released that same year by Gibbons and his band the BFGs]. We might have never gone in that direction had I not received the phone call. 

After more than fifty years of working with the same two guys in ZZ Top – drummer Frank Beard and bassist/vocalist Dusty Hill – stepping away must bring some sense of liberation. 

Oh yeah, it was quite a reward. [Drummer] Matt Sorum is famous for playing with Guns N’ Roses, Velvet Revolver and The Cult, and we’ve also got our good buddy Mr Austin Hanks, who plays [his bass guitar] upside down, backwards and left-handed. Watching him, he’s like Jimi Hendrix and Albert King on acid. 

Back in the nineties, Austin Hanks was a member of the great but sadly overlooked band Slick Lilly. 

Yes indeed, Slick Lilly. That was a good one. 

The reviews of your three solo records were all very positive. Given that you are doing precisely what you want, that must double the reward? 

That’s the high card, the big twist; we don’t have to do anything, but we get to do things. In fact, I’m meeting Matt and Austin later this evening and chances are we’ll have a couple of new tracks ready for release, maybe even before we come to see you in the summer. I really like working with those guys. What I’m doing will always be blues, but they help me to paint a picture towards a new direction.

On this tour should we expect mainly solo albums tunes, plus some ZZ and a few covers? 

It’ll be a little bit of this and a little bit of that… something old, something new and a lot that’s blues. 

When your long-time ZZ Top bandmate Dusty Hill passed away in 2021 it must have been like losing a member of the family

Oh yeah. Dusty was a great guy, a swell singer. He provided a solid platform for me to solo without having to look back. He was always on it. Dusty used to say: “If I’m late to the stage, be sure to give my guitar to Elwood [Francis, Hill’s roadie].” Elwood is a family member; he’s been with us for three decades. 

And sure enough, Elwood picked up the parts and pieces [to replace Hill in ZZ Top]. But whereas Dusty played with his fingers, Elwood uses a pick. It’s a little sharper. He brings a little more finesse. And at the first rehearsal he showed up with a full beard longer than mine. 

ZZ Top, with Elwood on board, performed just days after Dusty’s passing. Do you understand why some people found it hard to get their head around that? 

Well, there was a lot of curiosity: “What’s this going to be like?” “Can this guy hold up the bottom of The Top?” In a trio it’s a big challenge. Everything has to be working at a hundred and ten per cent. But Elwood was ready, having been a part of it for so long.

And Dusty had made it clear that he wanted the band should continue without him if necessary. 

Yes he did. He said: “The show must go on.” That was his wish, and we granted it. 

By the time this story is online you will have played at the two tribute shows to your late friend Jeff Beck. Do you have a favourite anecdote about Jeff? 

\We played with Jeff last November. Jeff is a chocoholic, and while out grocery shopping the lovely Gilligan Gibbons [Billy’s wife] spotted a box of chocolate malt balls which we bought for Jeff, who mistook them for chocolate meatballs. We had a big laugh, and I suggested we write a song called Chocolate Meatballs. We got a half of it done. You’ve reminded me that it needs to be finished. Maybe tonight in the studio with Matt and Austin. 

Two years ago you said things were “getting pretty warmed up” for a new ZZ Top album. 

Are things coming to the boil yet? Yeah, in fact we are currently reviewing the tracks that deserve completion. Dusty is on some of those, so is Elwood. What’s fascinating is that we have three or four tracks with them both, they’re trading off. The only tell-tale difference is that Dusty, playing with his fingers, sounds a little warmer. 

Might it be released this year? 

I would hope so, but we’ve got lots of road work ahead, including a summer [US] tour with Lynyrd Skynyrd, who despite the recent passing of Mr Rossington are ready to carry on. That will be a tribute to Gary.

Billy Gibbons: The Big One Tour 2023

Jun 28: Vienna Gasometer, Austria
Jun 29: Zurich Volkshaus, Switzerland
Jul 02: London O2 Shepard's Bush Empire, UK
Jul 03: Birmingham O2 Institute Birmingham, UK
Jul 05: Albi Festival Pause Guitare, France
Jul 06: Paris Olympia, France
Jul 08: Brussels Cirque Royal, Belgium
Jul 09: Weert Bospop Festival, Netherlands
Jul 11: Bournemouth O2 Academy Bournemouth, UK

Tickets are on sale now.

Dave Ling

Dave Ling was a co-founder of Classic Rock magazine. His words have appeared in a variety of music publications, including RAW, Kerrang!, Metal Hammer, Prog, Rock Candy, Fireworks and Sounds. Dave’s life was shaped in 1974 through the purchase of a copy of Sweet’s album ‘Sweet Fanny Adams’, along with early gig experiences from Status Quo, Rush, Iron Maiden, AC/DC, Yes and Queen. As a lifelong season ticket holder of Crystal Palace FC, he is completely incapable of uttering the word ‘Br***ton’.