Amazingly, in its 36-year existence, ZZ Top has released only 14 albums. But what’s more amazing is how well all of them still hold up.
No less than seven “best of” reconfigurations have been devoted to the “little band from Texas” – from single- and double-disc compilations to the lavish Chrome, Smoke & BBQ box to the misguided Six Pack (consisting of more “contemporary” remixes of the band’s first five albums and El Loco – skipping over Deguello).
So what’s left to regurgitate? Well, as Rhino often does following the box set and “greatest hits,” it has reissued expanded versions of (so far) two of the original albums. Thankfully, both feature the original mixes, hearkening back to the initial vinyl, that were resurrected for Chrome, Smoke & BBQ, remastered by Bob Ludwig – the entire band, but particularly Billy Gibbons’ lead, benefiting from a big, fat, warm sound.
With its third LP, Hombres, ZZ Top cracked the Top 10 of Billboard‘s album chart for the first time, thanks in large part to the John Lee Hooker-inspired single, “La Grange.” But nearly every cut by these blues-rockers in rhinestone-cowboy garb sounds like a classic, from the opening “Waitin’ For The Bus,” which segues abruptly but seamlessly into “Jesus Just Left Chicago.” The medley is also included in the live bonus tracks for this expanded edition, along with a live “La Grange” – the dates and places of which (in typical mysterioso ZZ tradition) are not revealed.
The influence of early Fleetwood Mac (more prominent on songs like “Brown Sugar” and “Just Got Back From Baby’s” from the first ZZ album) is evident in the “Green Manalishi” stop-time breaks in “Master Of Sparks,” but the band was definitely coming into its own.
For Fandango, we jump ahead to 1975 and kick things off with a revved up version of “Thunderbird,” from Dallas’ early-’60s legends the Nightcaps. Originally released as a live side and a studio side (a concept unfortunately lost in the CD world), side one was recorded, as the original LP noted, at the Warehouse in New Orleans, “captured as it came down – hot, spontaneous, and presented to you honestly, without the assistance of studio gimmicks.” Long before the group began experimenting with sequencing and other studio effects, it was first and foremost one cooking live band. Come to think of it, it still is.
Gibbons stretches out to again summon Mac’s Peter Green, vocally and instrumentally, on “Blue Jean Blues,” while “Mexican Blackbird” is a classic of a different sort, showcasing another of the band’s essential components – its sense of humor.
This time, Dusty Hill gets the spotlight on the bonus tracks, with live versions of the frantic boogie “Heard It On The X” and shuffle-of-doom “Tush,” to contrast with the studio versions, and another live take of Elvis’ “Jailhouse Rock” for good measure.
This is the best the full-length versions of these albums have sounded since the advent of the compact disc. Hopefully, the rest of ZZ’s catalog will get the same treatment, and soon.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s June ’06 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.