Somewhere in the deep, wiry, soul-infested fiber that defines Billy Gibbons — and we don’t mean his classic whiskers — sit the blues.
That’s evident to anyone who has cheered the elemental boogie charge that the guitarist has led for more than 40 years with ZZ Top. But the blues encompasses a lot of music: styles that dance, groove and sustain in ways that might seem unexpected if all you know of Gibbons are the hits La Grange and Sharp Dressed Man. For Perfectamundo, his first album outside of ZZ Top, Gibbons revisits the Latin and Cuban music he knew in his youth — sounds that even predated his pre-ZZ Top band, the Moving Sidewalks. The same fuzzy guitar sound that fortifies his playing and put him in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is in abundance, as are the scratchy hipster vocals that made the coolest of ZZ Top tune sound even more chic. But there also is a generous piano and B3 organ drive along with a wall of Latin-charged percussion, making Perfectamundo serious dance-floor stuff. Ultimately, though, the music running the show is the blues.
“Let’s say the blues and Afro-Cuban music are, ironically, quite compatible,” Gibbons said via email last week. “For instance, Miles Davis, among others, exemplified those interestingly unexpected connections many years ago. We initially went about the Perfectamundo sessions in a similar manner, without formula, per se. The rhythms are up front for, well, you know, moving the backsides. We kept an open mind to surround the ongoings to let everybody figure what influences what. As everybody knows, the root of everything is the blues, and that’s a fact.”
Gibbons’ fascination with the rhythms of Afro-Cuban music dates to his childhood, when his bandleader father introduced him to Cuban percussionist and composer Tito Puente. The always-exuberant Cuban music stylist would become one of Gibbons’ earliest musical mentors.
“My dad thought it would be helpful if I spent time getting a handle on the basics of polyrhythmic percussion rather than just roam around the house beating and banging on trash cans and such. Tito’s message, as far as execution was concerned, was elemental: ‘Play what you want to hear, directly and deliberately.’ Señor Puente would abide no half-hearted efforts, so I do get what you mean about his exuberance. He got down with gusto.”
Perfectamundo uses several blues and roots music staples (Got Love If You Want It, Treat Her Right and Baby, Please Don’t Go) as seguesof sorts to the Latin-savvy command of Gibbons’ BFGs band, but several original tunes play right to the heart of the album’s piano, percussion and guitar-directed music. Leading the pack is the rich mambo strut of Sal y Pimiento (Spanish for “salt and pepper”). It’s the fourth tune on the album, but the first one to be recorded. As such, it sets the pace for the Perfectamundo sound.
“I fell into a just-opened Cuban restaurant in Houston and took a business card with me back to the studio,” Gibbons said. “I presented it to our engineering crew and said, ‘Here’s the title of the first song for the album. Now, let’s figure out what it sounds like.’ The restaurant was, of course, named Sal y Pimiento.
“The song is kind of a Latin vamp and is more about the groove than anything else. Truth be told, it could have been 10 times longer, because once we got it going, it was hard to stop. We wanted to build momentum with that one that carried through the whole album, which, of course, hadn’t been recorded yet. Certainly a funky beginning.”
Where do Gibbons’ ZZ Top bandmates, bassist Dusty Hill and drummer Frank Beard, fit in with all this? For now, the guitarist said, they are enjoying a break from the road. But the trio will be back for a European tour this summer.
“ZZ Top is, of course, the ‘main man.’” he said. “The Perfectamundo experience is a bonus.
“Can’t imagine not getting out there and playing for the people and gettin’ down night after night. It’s just terrific to be able to do what you really enjoy doing and know that others are so supportive. Win-win-win.”
If you go
Billy Gibbons and the BFGs
Opener: Tyler Bryant and the Shakedown
When: 7:30 p.m. Jan. 28, note date change
Where: Lexington Opera House, 401 W. Short St.
Note: The concert date has been changed due to the snowstorm predicted for Jan. 22. All tickets purchased will be honored on the rescheduled date.