Review by Teresa Hopkins
Artist: BILLY GIBBONS AND THE BFG’S
Label: Concord Records
Release Date: November 6, 2015
01. Got Love If You Want It
02. Treat Her Right
03. You’re What’s Happenin’, Baby
04. Sal Y Pimiento
05. Pickin’ Up Chicks on Dowling Street
06. Hombre Sin Nombre
07. Quiero Mas Dinero
08. Baby Please Don’t Go
09. Piedras Negras
If the road you’re on gets you from Point A to Point B just fine, it seems logical to live by the adage of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. But there’s no challenge in that, is there? Life’s journey, metaphorically or musically, gives us limitless opportunities to get out of a familiar comfort zone and explore, expand, and grow.
Having firmly cemented his status as a guitar legend over the last 46 years in a band with its original lineup still intact, Billy Gibbons has certainly earned his place in music history. Infusing the sounds of his heroes with his own signature sound as one-third of the band ZZ TOP, he lit the fire under countless numbers of us to want to follow suit and to rediscover for ourselves all those who influenced him. And behind the trademark beard and sunglasses, there has always been much more to Billy’s love affair with music than playing the three-chord electrified blues for which we know him best.
Growing up in Houston, Texas in the ’50s and ’60s, he couldn’t help but be wowed by Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed, and Lightnin’ Hopkins, but his exposure to music wasn’t limited to rock and blues. A great variety of musical genres, including gospel, country-western, and West African styles made quite an impression as well, and his affinity for percussion led to an opportunity to study with mambo king Tito Puente. No doubt all of that helped shape Billy’s style. The music that delighted him in his youth has evidently stayed with him, waiting to be further explored and expressed.
In 2014, Gibbons was invited to perform at the Havana Jazz Festival. He was unable to attend the event, but nonetheless inspired: the idea of going off on a bit of a tangent must have seemed irresistibly fun. He hand-picked a group of fellow musicians who came to be the BFG’s (his initials) and, combining some of his favorite genres, predominantly those with an Afro-Cuban flair, they put together the music for “Perfectamundo”.
Co-produced with Joe Hardy, they recorded the album in the cities of Houston and Austin, Texas; Los Angeles, California; and Pontevedra, Spain.
Says Billy: “The real challenge, of course, was working with sounds that haven’t shown up on a ZZ TOP record before: timbales, bongo, maracas, conga. Early on in these sessions that started unfolding in the studios…Joe Hardy, G-Mane Moon and I decided, ‘How can we Cubanize what feels natural?’ And that, of course, invited the consideration of covering some songs that are quite familiar…”
On “Perfectamundo”, the blues are liberally seasoned with sounds and nuances from the Caribbean, Central America, and beyond. Opening the album with a wonderful down-and-dirty tone, Gibbons covers ‘Got Love If You Want It’, an old Slim Harpo tune, then eases back as the percussion takes a front seat for most of the remainder. The feel reminds me so much of Muddy Waters’ 1955 hit ‘She’s Into Something’ that I like it right away.
Gibbons and the BFG’s make ‘Treat Her Right’ (a tune that Roy Head made popular back in 1965) sound like their own. The fuzz-box bass and the salsa beat gets things moving and certainly give it more polish and modernization, and the piano really adds to the richness of the music.
An acoustic slide intro with a delta flair on ‘You’re What’s Happenin’ Baby’ fools me at first. The bass kicks in and it’s a 180, joined by a B3 and more cowbell, baby! Fluid and sensual, this tune has me—even with Billy using auto-tune on the vocals—up until the techno and the rapping comes in. A little spice, used selectively, adds emphasis to the spoken word, but it’s overused here, and cheapens what could have been a sexy, classy song.
The idea for ‘Sal & Pimiento’ came from a business card from a new Cuban restaurant with the same name (meaning “salt and pepper”). This one showcases how well the Latin and Afro beats combine with Billy’s trademark blues licks and sound.
‘Picking Up Chicks on Dowling Street’ features the maracas and mucho cencerro y timbales, with Billy’s guitar taking more of an accompaniment role as the B3 is in for the solo. ‘Hombre sin Nombre’ (“Man Without A Name”) reminds me a little of ZZ TOP’s ‘Sleeping Bag’ from “Afterburner”, but less synth-y. ‘Quiero Mas Dinero’ (“I want more money”) would be great without the rapping, in my opinion, but again, back to that earlier comment about die-hards having open minds…and anyway, Billy Gibbons was never one to shy away from trying something new and out-there. This song is more like several little songs in one, switching styles within, and the last few measures are my favorites.
Billy’s take on the old Lightnin’ Hopkins song ‘Baby Please Don’t Go’ stays more true to what we’re familiar with, both on the original song and with Billy’s usual style, but it’s busy with exotic percussion that gives it a nice modern feel. ‘Piedras Negras’ (“black stones”) would be great in a soundtrack to a movie, right at the end as the credits roll. I think of outlaws on the run, stopping long enough on the dusty ride for a ladle or two of water and a quick check of the knapsacks to make sure the loot is all still there, sharing a hearty laugh, and hopping back up on their sweaty horses and riding off into the sunset.
I never tire of hearing Billy play…but the title track, ‘Perfectamundo’, didn’t do much for me. It sounded very contrived rather than inspired.
Considering the lyrical content, I’d imagine it would go over well with a video on VH1, though. The album closes out with ‘Q’Vo’, laid-back and heavy on the B3. I like this one: no frills, just a nice, smooth Chicago blues groove.
When an artist whom we’ve come to know as having mastered a particular genre decides he or she wants to venture out musically on a path less traveled, deviating from the norm is often a Catch-22: it’ll bring in new fans, but not all the die-hards are gonna dig it. As much as it can be risky to dabble (or swim) in another genre, it’s also sometimes hard for fans to wrap their minds around it. You have to sort of stand back and hear the music for what it is—the integrity of the music itself, the musicianship, the strength of the songs—and let that be the main focus, rather than dwelling on the issue of an artist doing something different. Fact is, most of us are in a very comfortable rut and come to expect the same old song and dance from an artist we like; isn’t that why we like them? But many artists have pulled it off well. I do admire Billy Gibbons’ decision to go in a slightly different direction with the BFG’s. He’s endured a bit of criticism before for going way modern with ZZ TOP’s sound at times, but it’s never daunted him. And that’s cool.
It sounds like Billy and the guys had a real good time putting this album together. That’s what it’s all about: making music and having fun. I personally could have done without the rapping and some of the techno enhancements, as I think they took away from the wonderfully pure and passionate feel that the percussion gave to the music. It seemed more emphasis was on modernization than in celebrating the musical genre itself, and at times this somewhat clouded that distinction. They could have gone old-school with it, and I think I’d have liked it a lot more. But If you’ve been one to shake a tail feather to Billy’s magic with ZZ TOP and you like a modern twist, you’ll enjoy “Perfectamundo”.
Billy Gibbons: guitar, bass, B3, piano, vocals
Alx “Guitarzza” Garza: vocals, bass guitar
Mike Flanigin: B3
Martine “G.G.” GuiGui: piano, B3
Greg Morrow: drums
Joe Hardy: guitar, keys, bass guitar, vocals