Billy Gibbons Gets Some Cuban Satisfaction With the BFGs
Photos by Violeta Alvarez
Billy F. Gibbons & the BFGs
Cullen Performance Hall
December 3, 2015
Billy Gibbons’ legacy is secure. Within the city of Houston and the rock and roll community at large, his role lies between mystic shaman and beloved uncle, an avuncular old dude with mojo in his fingers who can always be counted on for a dirty joke. If ZZ Top never releases another album or plays another Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo, much as us fans hate to imagine such a scenario, he’s got nothing left to prove.
But as an artist with a Cuban itch he just had to scratch, this year the 65-year-old singer and guitarist delivered Perfectamundo, a sly and slippery album that allows Gibbons to indulge some of his more exotic musical tastes. The record is steeped in ‘60s soul-jazz, Afro-Cuban rhythms and Third Ward blues, but also big splashes of hip-hop and pitch control. Despite its vintage roots, it feels totally contemporary.
Such a unique album requires an equally unique crew to play it live, so Gibbons assembled a typically eclectic group of his friends and associates dubbed The BFGs, which made its Houston debut Thursday night at Cullen Performance Hall. Here onstage were Gibbons, three drummers, two B-3 organ players and a man at the very back of the stage, who played a peculiar box-looking thing with two vertical keyboards inside it and went unintroduced all night long. If the goal was to add to the evening’s overall mystique, it worked.
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Besides its leader’s initials, the band’s initials also nod to Booker T & the MGs, whose hepcat cocktail-jazz groove is where the evening started. From there the groove slid into a version of Roy Head’s 1965 R&B hit “Treat Her Right” that came on sultry and molasses-thick, alternating B-3 swells and piquant Cuban piano licks over a roiling foundation of percussion provided by Alx Guitarzza on congas and timbales and lady drummers SoZo and Melanie DiLorenzo.
That was the recipe for most of the night’s Perfectamundo cuts — “Sal y Pimiento,” “Pickin’ Up Chicks On Dowling Street,” “You’re What’s Happenin’ Baby” and Slim Harpo’s cha-cha “Got Love If You Want It” — which floated across the auditorium like something that would drift up to Houston from one of those old border radio stations in the JFK administration, with a stray rap verse from Guitarzza tethering it to the present.
Gibbons, whose voice seldom rises above a throaty growl whether singing or speaking, was clad in a crimson leisure suit that, coupled with his graying ginger beard, made him look like the baddest Santa at the mall. As the night wore on, the solos grew progressively bluesier and more fluid from not only the bandleader but organists Martin Guigui and Austin mainstay Mike Flanigin, both of whom appropriately sported lava lamps on their instruments. The title track of Flanigin's recent solo album, The Drifter — a beyond-improbable collaboration between Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown and Hee Haw’s Roy Clark, Gibbons said — provided Thursday's deepest rabbit hole, a Dali-esque vortex of elongated time, interlocking keyboard and guitar licks, and drums lapping the edges of the song like waves on the beach.
Other standouts included a swaggering spin through Lightnin' Hopkins' "Baby Please Don't Go" with plenty of Dowling Street grit attached, and the hard-rocking "fake Spanish" number "Quiero Mas Dinero." As for the bearded elephant in the room, Gibbons reached "deep in the subterfuge" — actually 1981's El Loco — for "10 Foot Pole,” perhaps the most incomprehensible song in ZZ Top's entire catalog. Later on came another deep cut, 1975's "Thunderbird," but this whole evening was pretty deep, if you can dig it.
It was a little spiritual too, especially when Gibbons broke into his Reverend Willie G character — if it is indeed a character — late in the set and laid on some gospel jive about sandy beaches and soul slippers; Guigui and Flanigin cut him with churchy organ fills the whole ride. He was also exceptionally gracious offering the DiLorenzos the chance to impress honored guest Frank Beard with the expertly orchestrated drummer calisthenics required for the encore-opening "La Grange." (To close out the night once and for all, he acquitted himself quite nicely on the titanic riffs and needle-sharp fills of Led Zeppelin's "Rock and Roll," too.)
According to Gibbons, Perfectamundo came about with an invitation to play last year’s Havana Jazz Festival, where the current BFGs tour will conclude next month. The recent thawing of relations with Cuba may be directly responsible for the album, but Perfectamundo also dates back to when Gibbons' father, a piano player and high-society Houston bandleader, introduced him to Latin-jazz great Tito Puente as a teenager. Behind those trademark jet-black shades, Thursday it wasn't hard at all to imagine a gleam of pure satisfaction in Gibbons' mischievous eyes. And he's certainly earned it.
Personal Bias: Tithing member of the Rev. Willie G's congregation.
The Crowd: Quite a few long beards, as luck would have it.
Overheard In the Crowd: "You'd think nobody in Houston pissed, according to the architect" — the downstairs men's room at Cullen is a two-holer.
Random Notebook Dump: The BFGs set the mood so well, the people behind us really did think it was a cocktail party.
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