ZZ Top conjures the sounds of the border

By Ramiro Burr
San Antonio Express-News

Web Posted : 04/24/2003 12:00 AM

"Mescalero," ZZ Top's upcoming album, will mark a return to its border blues roots, says guitarist Billy Gibbons.

ZZ Top — Frank Beard (from left), Billy Gibbons and Dusty Hill — will play here Tuesday.

Special to the Express-News
ZZ Top
Where: Verizon Wireless Amphitheater, 16765 Lookout Road, Selma
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday
For openers: Kenny Wayne Shepherd fronting Double Trouble
Tickets: $25.50-$57.50 at Ticketmaster outlets

"There are two songs in Spanish, which hearken back to 'Rio Grande Mud' and 'Tres Hombres,'" Gibbons said. "A lot of the early ZZ Top has returned to bring on that border-style rock."

Though "Mescalero," originally scheduled for April 15 release, has been delayed with no new date set, the beloved Houston trio is pushing ahead with its "Beer Drinkers and Hell Raisers" tour, which arrives Tuesday at the Verizon Wireless Amphitheater. Tickets cost $10-$57.50 and are available through Ticketmaster. Double Trouble featuring young guitar hotshot Kenny Wayne Shepherd is opening.

The album title literally means "maker of mescal," the liquor made from cactus native to northern Mexico. The theme also informs ZZ Top's stage scenery.

"It's (stage) based on the mescalero theme," Gibbons said. "It's a desertlike setting, there's a cantina, and who knows what'll bust out of those doors."

"Mescalero" track "Qué Lástima" is one of the Spanish songs. Gibbons describes it as techno-mariachi inspired by a toast at a Matamoros cantina.

"Everyone's had their heart broken and been without a peso or two on occasion, and this song is about how to get out of it," he said. Though nothing is set in stone, the band has been discussing collaborations with an eclectic range of musicians — modern rockers Foo Fighters and Beck, pop rebel Pink and even hip-hop diva Eve.

"That would be a wild combination, ZZ Top going hip-hop," Gibbons said.

Los Angeles artist Ryk Maverick created the Día de los Muertos-themed cover art. It portrays a cactus-filled desertscape with a fire-breathing, sombrero-and-serape-clad skeleton holding a drink.

"We wondered how to return to some semblance of the original ZZ roots," Gibbons said. "That was so steeped with our being from this part of the world, that I think that friendship should be broadcast to the world. This imagery seems to fit. It's what made us in the beginning and I think it will serve us well in the present."

"Alley-Gator," another new cut, features Gibbons playing an antique concertina, an accordionlike instrument. His concertina has a great pedigree.

"It was given to me by Flaco Jimenez, and it's something to behold," Gibbons said. "It's really a work of art. Not only is it quite playable despite its age, it's got a sound that just won't quit. He taught me one opening line. We've kind of used that as the theme of this song. It's like zydeco meets norteño meets rock."

Live, bassist Dusty Hill takes lead vocals on the new "I Want a Piece of Your Love," while Gibbons delivers "Buck Nekkid," "which doesn't really need an explanation," he said with a chuckle. Drummer Frank Beard rounds out the trio.

The synthesizers that characterized 1980s classics such as "Eliminator" and "Afterburner" have been mostly absent recently, but the group has made few other stylistic modifications. It still cranks out up-tempo, three-chord roadhouse blues.

"As you know, we really haven't changed too much," Gibbons said. "That's going on three decades of having a lot of fun out there. There's really no reason for us to consider changing too much."

ZZ Top recently played in New York for Willie Nelson's 70th birthday party, and opens for the Rolling Stones July 16 in Helsinki, Finland. The group first opened for the Stones 30 years ago in Honolulu.