Expect the unexpected from little ol' band from Texas

Gary Graff
Special to the [Cleveland] Plain Dealer

If things had gone according to plan, ZZ Top would be on the road right now supporting a new album called "Mescalero."

But after 34 years together, the three members of the self-described little ol' band from Texas know things don't always go according to plan.

The group is out on the road right now, but "Mescalero" - which was due out April 15 - is in limbo. The 16-track album - ZZ Top's 16th - is waiting for Clive Davis, who has taken the creative reins at RCA Records, the group's label, to figure out what he wants to do with it.

The good news, says ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons, is that Davis "loves the record so much that he wants to involve himself some way." And considering that Davis is the man who vaulted Santana to multiplatinum status by teaming that veteran group with younger artists on the "Supernatural" and "Shaman" albums, Gibbons and company are ready and willing to listen to what he has in mind.

"That's something ZZ Top has never really enjoyed or had the luxury of doing - this recent development of bands cross-collateralizing or Hey, let me come over and bring you a song,' " says Gibbons, 53, who formed ZZ Top in 1969 in Houston with bassist Joe "Dusty" Hill and drummer Frank Beard - who remain his bandmates to this day.

"I met with [Davis] in New York, and I was kind of leaning toward at least entertaining the possibility of perhaps igniting one of these collaborative excursions. I'm content to let it percolate a little bit, but I guess we'll get our marching orders from the record company, probably sooner rather than later."

Gibbons and company certainly have reason to be open to some new ideas. The band's career cannot be considered anything but successful, with hit singles dating to 1973's "La Grange." The peak, however, came between 1983-86, when ZZ Top adopted a sleeker, modern sound for its "Eliminator" and "Afterburner" albums, selling more than 15 million copies of the two combined and spitting out a set of videocentric hits such as "Sharp Dressed Man," "Legs," "Gimme All Your Lovin' " and "Rough Boy."

Things have cooled off since then; the group's two latest studio albums - 1996's "Rhythmeen" and 1999's "XXX" - didn't even go gold, much less platinum. So Davis' proven touch might not be a bad thing.

Still, Gibbons says he, Hill and Beard are proud - justifiably so - of "Mescalero," which the trio recorded at its new studio in Houston.

"It's a little bit of everything we do, and then some," Gibbons says of the existing album, which deftly meshes all of the styles ZZ Top has explored during its career. "There was no focus of Let's do this period of ZZ Top' or Let's do the early period.' "