Ignored Obscured Restored
Today’s SotW was written by guest contributor Steve Studebaker. Steve leads Blind to Reason as their guitarist, vocalist, and songwriter. Their music streams on Spotify. Besides BTR, Steve is a musicologist and huge ZZ Top fan. So when I learned ZZ Top bassist Dusty Hill died this week, I knew just the guy to call on to pay tribute to him for the SotW.
Anyone who knows me knows I love the blues, and blues rock — Zeppelin, the Stones. Robin Trower, Allmans, et al. But the band who got me going at a young age was ZZ Top. That Little Ol’ Band from Texas.
I saw them for the first time as a teenager in 1975 on the ‘Fandango’ tour. I was about 20 feet from the stage at the Portland Memorial Coliseum. Always with great style, their stage was empty except for the drums, flanked on either side with a huge row of Marshall stacks re-branded as “Rio Grande” amps. Billy and Dusty powder blue sequined cowboy suits and ten-gallon hats. They tore the roof off the joint. My ears rang for days and my mind was blown. I’ve seen them several more times, most recently a couple of years ago with my younger son. They never disappointed.
Formed in the late sixties and just recently celebrating 50 years together, they managed to play original music that sounded like classic blues. Texas blues in the style of Albert and Freddie King. They played loud but with finesse; hard edged but always a little bit funky.
Both Billy Gibbons and Dusty were known for a minimalist style. Exactly the right note at exactly the right time. Perfectly in sync and in the pocket, with no unnecessary fluff.
Here’s an example. If you want to hear the baddest, funkiest, opening 30 seconds in classic rock, put on their third album Tres Hombres. The first cut is “Waitin’ for the Bus”. Billy starts off with a blistering lick on his Les Paul (named Pearly Gates), and then Dusty walks in with the drums 3 bars later. Magic. Turn the volume way up!
Of course guitarist and vocalist Billy Gibbons gets the lion’s share of accolades. Rightly so. Jimi Hendrix called him one of the world’s greatest guitar players. But a bass player in a power trio has to carry the load. He’s the glue that holds the drums, guitar, and vocals together. Dusty Hill did all of that and more. Throughout their discography you’ll hear syncopated, polytonic bass parts that other arena rock bands want no part of. Dusty sometimes sang backup vocals, but ironically he sang the lead on their biggest radio hit, “Tush”.
In my book, their greatest albums are the aforementioned Tres Hombres and their sixth album Deguello. But every one of their records has a radio hit, with tasty licks, funky rhythms, and more than a few psychedelic desert sojourns.
Legend has it that the first time Billy and Frank met Dusty, he passed out and fell off the barstool. They looked at each other and said, “He’s gonna fit in just fine.”
In that spirit, check out cut 3 on Tres Hombres. It’s another great bass performance, as he and Billy do “call and response” vocals. As you listen, raise a glass to Joseph Michael “Dusty” Hill.
If you want the whole story check out the documentary That Little Ol’ Band from Texas on Netflix.
Enjoy… until next week.