ZZ Top - Tres Hombres - Review
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critics' view

Early ZZ Top shows had them performing to exactly an audience of one (as in 1970, when they played the National Guard Armory in Alvin, Texas, and Gibbons bought the guy there a Coke at intermission to make sure he stuck around the for the second set), but a relentless touring schedule put them before plenty of ears in the early part of the ’70s. They shared bills with Uriah Heep, King Crimson, Brian Auguer’s Oblivion Express, Earth Wind & Fire, and African funk band Osibisa, as well as Cheech & Chong. But, as Blayney recalled, an early gig with the Allman Brothers Band was the real catalyst: “[Duane] Allman’s guitar technique seriously influenced Billy Gibbons…he slowed down a touch, became more precise in his fretting, played fewer but tastier notes.” Quarter, peso, or regular pick in his palm, Gibbons’s right hand grew ascendant.

Had the band simply returned to a cinder block studio in Tyler, Texas, where they cut their first two albums, that sort of tone might have never been clarified. But thanks to bigger shows and higher placement on the marquee, ZZ Top’s notorious manager Bill Ham afforded them the luxury of traveling to Memphis to record in a real studio, the legendary Ardent, where Isaac Hayes cut Hot Buttered Soul, Led Zeppelin mixed III, and Big Star recorded their star-crossed albums. Working with engineer Terry Manning (the start of a relationship between band and engineer that would stretch into the ’90s), ZZ Top finally put the band’s deceptively simple tone down to tape.

Tres Hombres is a top sirloin steak of an album, lean yet beefy, not a trace of gristle to be had on 10 songs that clock in just over 33 minutes. It twines together both the Texas blues and its hard-rocking British variant, with Gibbons taking cues from the likes of Lightnin’ Hopkins and Fleetwood Mac’s Peter Green. But it also stakes out its own ground. The record struck a nerve with metalheads and punks, prog-rockers and hipsters. In its songs, tales of highway succubuses and Greyhounds abound, the supernatural mingling with the folksy, Jesus with good ol’ boy ghosts.

The end result changed the ZZ Top’s fortunes forever, even if the initial critical response was muted. NME found the songs “virtually indistinguishable, the lyrics unmemorable.” Rolling Stone said they were “only one of several competent Southern rocking bands.” Tres Hombres nevertheless went Top 10, hung out on the charts for 81 weeks, and gave them their first gold record, even though the album’s lone single, “La Grange,” broke down just outside the Top 40. ZZ Top would forever sound like a Texas roadhouse blues band, even as they now filled stadiums.

In hindsight, it’s hard to fathom American rock culture without Gibbons’s lecherous "har-har-har," much less the opening one-two of “Waitin’ for the Bus” and “Jesus Just Left Chicago.” The latter pair was foundational for classic rock radio’s Twofer Tuesdays (along with Zep’s “Heartbreaker” and “Living Loving Maid” and the Rolling Stones’ “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” and “It’s Only Rock’N’Roll”), in which two songs began to be thought of as one. That opening hiccup of snare, bass drum, closed hi-hat, and the three-chord lick of “Waitin’ for the Bus” has the kick of a flank-strapped bull, the crunch of a crushed beer can, and the tang of sauce-slathered beef ribs. Featuring Gibbons’s dual turns on both harmonica and wah-wah guitar, and boasting a boogie rock strut, “Bus” has a blues structure lyrically and thematically, its narrator singing with a paper bag in hand and dreaming of a gleaming Cadillac instead of public transport. Said “Bus” then rear-ends right into “Jesus Just Left Chicago.”

The latter is a slower 12-bar blues with added measures that pits Gibbons’s trembling nasal sneer against the lurch of the rhythm section. His clean, chiming tones on his sunburst 1959 Les Paul (an instrument he called Mistress Pearly Gates) drift across the song like buzzard down. Gibbons even slips in and elongates the country blues lick from Robert Johnson’s "Love in Vain" for good measure. Thanks to a tape-splicing mishap, there’s almost no space between the two songs, and the happy accident means one tune in 4/4 and one in 6/8 serve as conjoined twins. The band has had the “Bus Jesus” pairing on their setlists ever since.

No song better defines the ZZ Top crowd’s aesthetic than “Beer Drinkers & Hell Raisers,” and it’s also the tune that’s been covered by the most baffling array of acts, ranging from Motörhead to Van Halen to Coheed and Cambria. It all but certifies the band’s shit-kicker credentials, right down to the “can of dinner” boast. And the original album’s inner sleeve verifies that with 13 photos of peculiar small-town characters that seem pulled from the song—there are fields of oil derricks and mariachi bands in roadhouse bars, longhairs and good ol’ boys downing Schlitz.

Speaking of Tres Hombres and its visuals, the LP’s centerpiece is pretty much the pinnacle of the album-gatefold-as-artwork, opening to reveal an aorta-plugging spread of Tex-Mex courtesy of Leo’s Mexican Restaurant on Lower Westheimer in Houston. The going rate at the time for the meal depicted at the center of Tres Hombres was $2.99, and it came out of brainstorming session the band had with longtime artist Bill Narum, responsible for drawing freehand the band’s early album covers. “We talked about how the album was once again a return the brotherhood of the Texas border and threw around some ideas to reflect that,” Gibbons recalled in an interview. Narum stepped out and returned with the meal, which, rather than being shot at Leo’s, was instead set up at photographer Galen Scott’s studio, along with a bottle of the Howard Hughes-brewed Southern Select beer and an antique radio tuned to 1570 on the AM dial, a Mexican clear-channel station that could be picked up in the States. It’s the station the band would immortalize in 1975 with “Heard it on the X.” And the photo almost didn’t happen: when they took a break during the shoot, Scott’s German shepherd hopped up on the table and wolfed down the entire platter.

A peculiar figure named R&B Junior serves as an inspiration for “Master of Sparks.” As Gibbons recollected to the Houston Chronicle: “[R&B Junior’s] family had a spread outside town with a ranch-hand on hire who was a talented welder. We got together to construct a steel caged ball, complete with escape door and a surplus pilot’s seat. We figured that chaining this ball up and rolling off the back of a truck would provide a thrill. At 60 miles an hour, that thing would spark up the night sky like nobody’s business.” A sly shift in perspective at song’s end reveals that the narrator in the song burns to a crisp amid the highway flares, meaning that one of the heaviest songs in the ZZ Top catalog is narrated by a dead man.

That line between reality and fantasy might be stretched thinnest on the band’s most infamous track, “La Grange.” It was named for a small Texas town that boasted a destination called Chicken Ranch, a local institution since the 19th Century. “La Grange” paid tribute to what would later be called “the best little whorehouse in Texas,” though said house was shuttered the same year that Tres Hombres arrived. The song has since ubiquitous across American culture. You can hear its nimble, clacking shuffle (equal parts John Lee Hooker’s “Boogie Chillun” and Slim Harpo’s “Shake Your Hips”) on everything from Striptease, Armageddon and Dogtown and Z-Boys to remakes of “The Dukes of Hazzard” and Walking Tall. It was the entrance music for Texas wrestling royalty the Von Erich brothers. In the 40 years since its release, “La Grange” has been in commercials for motorcycle insurance, Wrangler jeans, and NASCAR. But Gibbons is a sly one, hmmming and hawing as he spreads a rumor and then interjects, “But now I might be mistaken.”

Take ZZ Top at beard value and you might miss the wink going on behind the cheap sunglasses. Or mistake them for any other Southern rock band. Jon Tiven’s assessment of the group in 1976 is most revealing in that regard. “On stage they look like nothing other than a bunch of dumb shits from Texas, three boys who just walked off the set of “Bonanza” and are heading out after the show to eat three sirloins apiece,” he quips. But as the story progresses, Tiven’s first impression falters. Gibbons opens up to talk about mandala formulas, meditation, Rastafarian cults (Gibbons was an early fan of the Wailers), and how to “impart a consciousness which will elevate the listener.” Perhaps that Tex-Mex spread from Leo’s really does contain the body and blood of Jesus, and maybe there is a stretch of Texas highway that leads to a different sector of the cosmos.

Andy Beta
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