The unexpected passing of ZZ Top’s Dusty Hill in the summer of 2021 put a period on the first chapter of one of the longest running lineups in rock ‘n’ roll. They’ve carried forward, however, with longtime guitar technician Elwood Francis stepping in.
Hill reportedly instructed his bandmates Billy Gibbons and Frank Beard to continue with Francis in his place. Now, Gibbons tells UCR that the group will make new music with Francis, something which he terms as “an interesting excursion into the unknown.”
First, they’re taking things back to the beginning in a way that’s fitting for a group more than five decades removed from the release of their debut album. Raw, a new live album, will be released on July 8. The set was recorded at the time of the band’s 2019 documentary, That Little Ol’ Band From Texas, at Gruene Hall – the longest running live music venue and dance hall in Texas.
ZZ Top runs through a loose collection of classics, while also pushing deeper into the depths of their catalog to pull out lesser-heard tracks like “Certified Blues” and “Brown Sugar,” both from 1971’s ZZ Top’s First Album. Diehards will appreciate the many priceless moments put to tape, from the Texas shuffle of “Thunderbird” to the beer-drenched guitar licks of songs like “Blue Jean Blues.”
We spoke with Gibbons in the midst of ZZ Top’s ongoing tour as they were preparing to play a show in Tucson. He discussed the new release and the emotional experience of moving forward with Francis, while also sharing some humorous memories of Willie Nelson in advance of their concerts together this summer.
Watch ZZ Top Perform ‘Brown Sugar’ at Gruene Hall
The fact that you were able to record these performances at Gruene Hall is pretty great. That place has so much history.
I have to give credit to Sam Dunn, who was the director of the film. Initially, we were under the impression that Sam wanted to take a snapshot of us three guys with a backdrop of a place that might suggest elements of where ZZ Top got its beginnings, humble as that may be. Upon arrival, we discovered that no one had told our crew and technicians that this was simply an exercise for a photograph session. They went ahead and set up the entire stage with equipment – which to our delight, happened to be at Gruene Hall. That place has been there so long, every speck of sawdust in that crazy wooden structure has rattled into place. It now serves as a grand resonating speaker box. [Laughs.] So in addition to posing for a photograph, we decided to put the guitars to work and let Frank [Beard] take the drum stand. We started playing as the cameramen were getting their gear in place. We were just knocking around, pretty much like we started. Things worked out pretty much as they’ve always been, three guys just thrashing around.
“Certified Blues” is not one that finds its way into a set list very often. What’s the history on that song?
We were going out to California early on. We had booked some recording time at a studio on the West Coast. As we were crossing the desert sands, way out in West Texas, we passed a gas station. They had a decrepit neon sign and the only word that was lit up was the word “certified.” [Laughs.] In the middle of nowhere, we certainly had the blues. There was nothing. I said, “Well, that pretty much carves it in stone. We have the ‘Certified Blues.’” That was an inspiration. Even today, we have a fond memory of those humble beginnings.
The album really gives good context to the unique eras of ZZ Top and how it all fits together.
Just recently, we were kind of reflecting on the two sides of ZZ Top. One being the rather eccentric and weirdly odd perception that kind of unfolded with the weird beards and funny hats, kind of out of step with trends of fashion. But coming from Houston as well as Frank and Dusty coming from Dallas, we had a very strict set of guidelines as we were learning how to play and perform. I think that measure of seriousness is a good balance that exists even today. You can have a humorous experience going out with a ZZ Top night and the underlying tone is very serious. We take that part of it very seriously. That part of it has not changed and maybe it’s a good balance! [Laughs.]
How do you connect the eras and the diversity of things like “Just Got Paid” compared to “Sharp Dressed Man,” from your perspective?
Although we’ve been tagged as a blues rock band, we took that blues piece as interpreters. Lord knows, the great American art form that the blues to this day remains was established long before we started. At the same time, it was so influential. We decided to take a stab at it as nothing more than interpreters. I think that’s the best way to describe it.
Watch ZZ Top Perform ‘La Grange’ at Gruene Hall
You and Frank have made an admirable transition, the way you’ve moved forward with Elwood.
I credit Dusty. Not only was he a great performer and a great friend, he had a thread of wisdom. When he was feeling a bit out of sorts, he requested going to see his physician. He said, “Listen, if I’m late getting back to the gig, make sure that Elwood, our guitar technician, wraps his hands around my guitar.” I said, “Okay.” He said, “Look, he’s more than a family member. He’s been a solid standby for over three decades.” He is adding to five decades of a rather serious side of making loud sounds. He falls right in. It’s kind of an interesting twist, but the balance remains. We’re crazy characters, almost cartoon-like, but at the bottom of it, we’re all very dedicated and serious on the musical level.
I would imagine those first shows with Elwood were emotional. How did they feel?
The emotions were running high. To Elwood’s credit, he made certain that Dusty was in an ethereal sense still present during the experience. Elwood grabbed Dusty’s hat and placed it on the microphone and made sure that there was a point of relation through the whole night. You know, I think he took it in stride. He certainly accepted Dusty’s directive. It was, “Hey Elwood, grab the guitar.” He said, “Okay, listen, I’m the hired gun. If that’s the direction, I gotta take it.”
ZZ Top is doing shows with Willie Nelson this summer. What’s your favorite Willie memory?
This is kind of an interesting aside. I was invited to join Willie for a New Year’s appearance down in Austin. We did seven consecutive appearances with Willie on New Year’s Eve. One of the more recent moments on stage, someone said, “Gee whiz, you’re pretty much in tune with what Willie does. Do you want to go talk to him? Maybe there’s something different this go-around.” We stepped onboard the bus backstage. I said, “The ball will be dropping shortly. Is there anything we should prepare for?” He said, “Let’s do something different. Let’s start off with ‘Milk Cow Blues.’” I said, “Oh yeah, ‘Milk Cow Blues,’ what key?” He said, “Let’s do it in the key of C.” I said, “Sure ‘nuff, I’ll be ready.” And the ball began to drop and when the new year rolled in, Willie stepped up to the microphone and started in with, “Whiskey river take my mind …” [Laughs.] In the key of E, mind you! But that’s Willie for you. He calls it on the spot. Just stay on your toes and be ready to rock.
Willie’s weed is legendary. Do you have a good story?
You know, we’ve missed three different New Year’s Eves, thanks to this crazy global event. But that decision to just check in with Willie, I had to peek through a cloud to make sure I was talking with Willie. I said, “I think I can see you. I can certainly hear you. But is that you?” [Laughs.]
There was reportedly a good amount of music left over from La Futura. Have you been looking putting out new music beyond Raw?
Oh, yeah. In fact, this would be an interesting excursion into the unknown – particularly with Elwood holding down the bottom end. We’ve got the makings of a band that is partially the tried-and-true longstanding experience with something so fresh, and [there’s] kind of uncharted territory that’s being broken. We find it rather intriguing. It’s a calling that has us grinning from start to finish.
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