Though the group enjoys mass appeal, ZZ Top and guitarist Billy Gibbons are held in particularly high esteem by fellow musicians in all genres of popular music. Willie Nelson recently Gibbons to join him at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles during a concert to celebrating the country legend's birthday. In concert, Gibbons proudly plays a guitar given to him by Bo Diddley (and which he can be seen holding in the book accompanying this CD). Heavy metal legend Lemmy claims that his band--Motorhead--is the second greatest rock and roll band in the world, right after ZZ Top. One of the first and most famous tributes paid Gibbons came from the man Lemmy used to roadie for, the late Jimi Hendrix who told Dick Cavett that Gibbons was one of the few guitar players he would pay to see.
Listening to this compilation, it's plain to see why this group is so well-loved. Their powerful, overdriven boogie sound and their naughty-but-clever lyrics are enjoyable viscerally without a great deal of analysis required; that said, and I think this is why so many musicians sing their praises, there is an awful lot of craft going into their songs just beneath the surface. The vast majority of the songs on Rancho Texicano follow the traditional 12-bar blues pattern or other established forms, such as the John Lee Hooker derived boogie riff that charges the wonderful whorehouse anthem "La Grange." It seems simple, but Gibbons always finds a way to tweak the format with clever chord substitutions in places where lesser players would never think of them.
Gibbons is truly one of the preeminent electric guitar players in the world, to me the greatest blues/rock guitarist to follow Jimi Hendrix. His style of picking, grinding his thumb to alter the sound of the note and create false harmonics, is as instantly identifiable as Hubert Sumlin's combination of finger and plectrum playing or BB King's extended vibrato. And he's not afraid to let you know where he got his licks from; you can hear the influence of Texas great Lightnin' Hopkins on the opening cut "Brown Sugar" (not the Stones' tune, but the same double or triple entendre), and Albert King, another Texan, all over--for the sake of citing an example, let's take his King-esque use of vibrato on the solo to "Got Me Under Pressure,"one of four tracks culled from their 1983 smash Eliminator. His outro playing on "Cheap Sunglasses" (included here in its original studio version and in a 1980 live recording issued as a b-side) is particularly delicious, easily the best Bo Diddley solo played by somebody other than the gunslinger himself.
An earlier compilation of ZZ Top was titled One Foot in the Blues. This collection, even the part chronicling their most commercial run in the mid-1980s, shows that the commitment runs deeper than that. The trio's playing is consistently inspired and their best songs--"Waitin' for the Bus," "Jesus Just Left Chicago," "Tush," "La Grange," "Cheap Sunglasses," "I'm Bad, I'm Nationwide" and "Sharp Dressed Man," to pick a few--are some of the most joyfully perfect blues songs written in the last thirty five years. Rancho Texicano features a really good collection of 38 tracks illustrating the first part of ZZ Top's career, perfect for those looking for an overview or perhaps an upgrade of their worn vinyl copies.