Saturday, January 1, 2011
Grand Halls 52
ZZ TOP – “Rio Grande Mud” (London, Texas) – I can clearly remember my name. It’s Ray Dorsey. I can also clearly remember the first time I heard ZZ TOP. It was a quiet evening that a 15 year old Ray Dorsey was dialing his little transistor across the FM band & happened to stop on what I figured was a blues station. A back-porch 3-chord strum and a drummer tickling the rim of a snare. Atop it, what could only be a 90 year old black man with the names “Blind” & “Lemon” somewhere in his moniker leered about a “home out on the range” where “they got a lot of nice girls.” So, there I was enjoying what I thought was a history lesson when suddenly a drum flourish from the Bill Ward songbook thundered in and the guitar morphed into an overdriven beast, mirroring the original lick in Herculean fashion. Let’s not even get into the fact that some 3 minutes later, the guitarist had put on a clinic of tone control soloing for the ages, running the gamut from neck pick-up creaminess to false harmonic squawking that Zakk Wylde could only dream of. I was hooked and the fishermen were 3 Texas white boys called ZZ TOP. I only add that because until later in the month when my allowance came in and I ran to buy “Tres Hombres,” I was convinced that the band must’ve had a age-wizened African American bluesman on vox.
I went on to learn many things about ZZ TOP. The first was that most of the vocals were handled also by the unassuming, short-haired (and, at that point, beardless) guy named Billy Gibbons…who also was the guitarist! I also determined that “Tres Hombres” was their 3rd album, having been preceded by the shockingly-titled debut “ZZ TOP’s First Album” (a subject of future Realm study) and “Rio Grande Mud.” It can often be a mistake to speak in terms of “best” of this and “greatest” that but I have no problem at all saying that along with The Allman Bros. “Fillmore East” opus, ZZ TOP’s sophomore effort is one of the two greatest blues rock guitar statements ever. “Rio Grande Mud” opens innocently enough with it’s most accessible track, the springy “Francine.” Loaded to the brim with catchy major chords and melodies, it also sees bassist Dusty Hill taking one of his 2 vocal spotlights on the record. I always have to laugh at the interview where Gibbons said Hill’s mom used to complain, “C’mon, let Dusty sing one!” Seriously though, the four-stringer best known for his crooning on “Tush” some years later acquits himself nicely on this one.
It’s with Track 2, “Just Got Paid,” however that the trio really gets cooking. Borne on an overdriven riff that just smokes, Billy G. not only takes over on the throat but uncorks a slide solo fit to peel paint off the walls…off we go! “Mushmouth Shoutin” takes us to the back step of the little shack in Texas, as certified blues tumbles out of the speakers and Gibbons unveils another talent, wicked harmonica. Then comes “Ko Ko Blue” and greatness is front & center. The heavy-assed, funky rhythm here is just devastating. While raw enough to slice you open and sporting a groove that could throw anybody’s back out, it serves as the foundation for Gibbons’ sleazy story about a Texas honey I’d love to meet. “Ice cream, you know what I mean. I’ll bet I’ve got a flavor you like!” Indeed. More shredding harmonica plus some Binks-like drumming from Frank Beard fuel this one and Billy G’s slide, highlighting the melody in the coda is a thing of beauty. Side One ends with a song covered a year or so later by another Texas trio, Stray Dog. The rocking “Chevrolet” features Dusty Hill’s smooth pipes as Gibbons adds a sweet solo on the neck pickup.
It’s without any hesitation that I say Side Two of “Rio Grande Mud” is one of the most dominant performances by a single guitarist/singer etched in wax. You wanna know why Billy F. Gibbons is one of my rawk heroes? Listen to these 5 songs. “Apologies To Pearly” opens this in instrumental style with Billy alternating between slide & lead in a blistering fast-blues work out. Up next is the tasty “Bar-B-Q,” a scorcher that has the Tone Master switchblading into a searing Les Paul bite and just tearing the house down. “On fire” is a term one could use with no reservation! Brilliantly shifting gears, the mood is taken down to a seething lament about a woman doing you wrong. Some 7 minutes in stride, “Sure Got Cold After The Rain Fell” is as powerful a slow blues as these ears have ever heard, the soloing gut-wrenching. Live, this must’ve been on the order of Hendrix’s “Red House.”
And then, Jesus! Here we come to the granddaddy of them all, one of my favorite songs ever, “Whisky’n Mama.” A scant 3:20, this mutha simply unleashes one of the most bad-assed riffs in the history of rock. I simply defy your silly ol’ ass to either sit still or NOT pick up your air guitar anywhere during the course of this nasty thang! I also wouldn’t blame you if you formed a new religion with the express purpose of worshipping this song forever! Christ, what a stomper! More raging slide present, of course, and if that weren’t enough, album closer “Down Brownie” is almost as good!
Don’t know what more to say, my friends, about the high point in the career of a band that’s had quite a few but “Rio Grande Mud” is surely a template for a lot of things that include words like “guitar,” “blues,” “kick ass” and “smokin’.” Billy Gibbons is crowned as a master of tone, control and ass-busting on this one and his supporting cast of Hill & Beard are Gods of their own domains. Now what was my name again? Hmm…after picking up my guitar, I know it sure ain’t Gibbons. I’ll bet I’ve Got A Tone You Like Ray Dorsey