Like the bands he’s fronted for most of his adult life, Billy Gibbons isn’t afraid to throw a musical curve ball or two. ZZ Top’s remarkable leap from bar boogie blues to electronic-fuelled pop made them international superstars in 1983 with the release of the Eliminator album, then when Gibbons announced his first solo record in 2015 with the Afro-Cuban flavoured Perfectamundo and then performed at the Havana Jazz Festival, his shift in musical gears was another example of the Gibbons philosophy that some left turns just feel right.
There’s no mistaking the incarnation of Gibbons on The Big Bad Blues: dirty, boogie blues, gritty, down at heel and sometimes just plain mean. As he says: “The shift back to the blues is a natural. It’s something which our followers can enjoy with the satisfaction of experiencing the roots tradition and at the same time feeling the richness of stretching the art form.”
It’s a form that is rarely more keenly felt than in the hands of a man who hasn’t shown about two-thirds of his actual face publicly for about four decades. And while ZZ Top seem to have forgotten where the studio is (although a 50th-anniversary tour and new music is planned for next year), he keeps his freak flag flying with this collection of bar jams and blues covers that is as flinty and steely edged as Gibbons himself.
From the opening cover of Gilly Stillwater’s (that’s Mrs Billy Gibbons to you and me) Missin’ Yo’ Kissin, he sets out his musical stall early. The low-slung vocals sound like an out-take from sessions for La Grange, his guitar offsets his gruff vocal tone with a range of beautiful, high keening notes and we’re hitting the ground running. It’s an ecstatic celebration of blues and rock’n’roll, as on the rangy cover of Muddy Waters’s Rollin’ And Tumblin’.
Especially good too is his take on Bo Diddley’s Crackin’ Up. Which is not to undermine some of Gibbons’ new music: the slick-sounding drive of Hollywood 151, the spacey Let The Left Hand Know… and the confident hustle and roll that is My Baby She Rocks is the kind of tune you imagine Billy Gibbons could write in his sleep, but you’re always glad to hear his low growling vocal and sleek guitar playing it again all the same.