Never let it be said ZZ Top doesn’t know their audience.
A month or two before their September 1 headlining date at the PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel, the band got the sad news that their original opening act, Gregg Allman, had fallen ill and would be unable to take part in this leg of their summer tour. Rather than roll up the touring tent, ZZ Top — guitarist/vocalist Billy Gibbons, bassist/vocalist Dusty Hill, and drummer Frank Beard — knew exactly who to call on to take his place: New Jersey’s own Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes.
For his part, Southside is quite eager to open for that little ol’ band from Texas in his home state. “It’s a real honor. ZZ Top plays authentic Texas blues,” Southside told Best of NJ during a recent sitdown in Asbury Park. “I hope they can teach me even more about their roots and where it all comes from, because the history down there runs deep. And if they want me to come onstage to jam on some blues or a Jimi Hendrix song, or ask me play to my harp right alongside them, I wouldn’t say no.” (We’ll be posting our full-on separate interview with Southside Johnny here real soon, BTW.)
This PNC show comes a little over a week before the release of ZZ Top’s new barnburner of a live album, LIVE – Greatest Hits from Around the World (Suretone), which features classic tracks like “La Grange,” “Gimme All Your Lovin'” and “Legs” — and also includes a guest turn from British guitar icon Jeff Beck on “Rough Boy” and “Sixteen Tons,” both recorded in London. “The admiration we hold for Jeff is boundless,” Gibbons said. “Whenever we get together, it stands as a truly special occasion. Just being in Jeff’s presence, one easily feels that certain responsibility to be in tip-top form for whatever it is that’s going on — be it wrenching on a hot-rod car or wrenching out a few juicy licks on an electric guitar. It’s uplifting just to be in Jeff’s company, day or night.”
In an exclusive interview, Gibbons (pictured, center) tells us about his fondest memories of playing in the Garden State, who his favorite native New Jersey artists are and why, and just what ZZ Top’s future may entail.
Best of NJ: Do you have any specific memories of what it’s like for ZZ Top to play in New Jersey? You’ve been coming to the Garden State for decades now.
Billy Gibbons: Well, we’ve played the Garden State numerous times and, of course, one automatic entry by most is experiencing the famed Capitol Theatre, where we became regulars in Passaic — and lots of other notable venues around the state that always had a cool, yet raucous energy swirling about.
Best of NJ: There’s a particular show you did at the Capitol Theatre during the Expect No Quarter Tour in 1980 that was broadcast on the legendary King Biscuit Flower Hour, and it still resonates with many a ZZ fan to this day. Any thoughts of ever releasing it officially?
Gibbons: The famed Expect No Quarter Tour was just right for the band and those in attendance. Couldn’t ask for a more enthusiastic moment. That it tied in with King Biscuit’s national broadcast sat firmly in the back of our minds, which prompted us best to ‘bring it.’ Could be another ‘burner’ for future release.
Best of NJ: Is there a special flavor to New Jersey-born and bred artists like Bruce Springsteen, George Clinton, Clint Black, Count Basie, Frank Sinatra, and Jon Bon Jovi — just to name a few — that appeals to you?
Gibbons: Your mention of Frank Sinatra really hits home. My orchestra leader dad [pianist/bandleader Frederick Royal “Freddie” Gibbons] played many society dates with Sinatra over the years, which were regarded as really high times. Speaking of Count Basie, ZZ Top tipped our hat to him by taking to the stage at his namesake theater in Red Bank. You could say we’re always down for The Count. And let’s not forget The Sugarhill Gang — I’m thinking that’s pretty much ‘Ground Zero’ for hip-hop. The list of inspirational performers from NJ goes on and on: The Isley Brothers in Teaneck, and Lesley Gore, who was a standout among James Brown, The Rolling Stones, and Smokey Robinson & The Miracles in the famous T.A.M.I. Show [a film of the infamous T.A.M.I. concert held at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium in California on October 28 and 29, 1964].
Best of NJ: Outside of Bruce Springsteen himself, I can’t imagine anyone more quintessentially New Jersey than Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes. What are your impressions of Southside as an artist, and how will it feel having him as your opener in his home state?
Gibbons: We have, in fact, crossed paths with the inimitable Southside on several occasions, and the word that springs to mind is: ‘Real.’ What you see — and hear — is what you get. Remember that record he made with Ronnie Spector? [“You Mean So Much to Me,’ the legendary Southside/Spector duet on the Jukes’ 1976 debut album, I Don’t Want to Go Home.] Pretty sensational. You gotta definitely like that.
Best of NJ: I sure do. What can fans coming to the show at PNC expect to hear from ZZ Top that night in terms of song choices and the evening’s overall vibe? And can I put in a vote for “Manic Mechanic” [a deep cut from 1980’s Degüello] while I’m at it?
Gibbons: Well, the ZZ Top set list continues to evolve with ever-increasing diversity, yet the best known stuff remains along with maybe a track off our first album — the one cleverly entitled ZZ Top’s First Album (1971). And we’ve been known to cover Jimi Hendrix, our greatest inspiration, fairly regularly. The suggestion for “Manic Mechanic” is now noted. We might just rev that one up, too!
Best of NJ: Finally, if we were to look into our ZZ-fied crystal ball and project 50 years into the future, what do you think ZZ Top’s legacy will be in 2066 — and beyond, for that matter? After 46-plus years together, how long do the three of you plan on playing — will it be until the sauce in the very last TV Dinner in the world turns too blue, or…?
Gibbons: Our intention is to keep on keepin’ on. We believe it remains having a good time getting to do this for four-plus decades, and that’s the real gift. Our legacy might be along the lines of, “They came, they turned it up, they rocked, they didn’t stop — except for tacos.”
Mike Mettler (@MikeMettler), a.k.a. The SoundBard, is the weekly Audiophile columnist for Digital Trends, the music editor of Sound & Vision, and is currently writing the authorized biography of the band Styx. In his spare time, he dreams of owning a turquoise 1967 fastback Mustang, just like the one his parents owned while he was growing up. (This would mean cleaning out his garage, but that’s a Jersey resident’s conundrum for another time.)
Photos courtesy Ross Halfin/ZZ Top