Texas has a proud tradition of blues guitar players, from T-Bone Walker and Lightnin' Hopkins through to Jimmie and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Right in the middle of that tradition, hiding in plain sight, is Billy F. Gibbons of the 'rock' band ZZ Top. And not to denigrate rock and roll; fact is, they do rock, no question. But, then, so did the Muddy Waters Blues Band. All I'm saying, don't let their broad appeal mislead you, because ZZ Top is also one of the premier blues bands of the last forty years. And if you don't believe me, all you have to do is check out Rhino's deluxe reissues of two of their classic albums from the 1970's, Tres Hombres and Fandango, and you can hear for yourself some of the nastiest and funkiest boogie ever put on vinyl (and now plastic).
Originally released in 1973, Tres Hombres is everything a blues-rock album should be. It has great songs, electric performances and, though some of the effect is lost shrunken down for CD, a great design. Like the other great LP's of its era, it equates to something more than just a collection of songs. The set opens with the classic pairing of "Waitin' for the Bus"--an occasion for the blues if there ever was one--and "Jesus Just Left Chicago" with Gibbons' clever guitar voicings on its I-IV-V pattern. ZZ Top surely didn't invent the boogie riff that drives "La Grange." We can thank John Lee Hooker for that, and Canned Heat certainly deserves a tip of the cap for putting it into a higher gear. Those artists set the standard for the boogie; with "La Grange," though, ZZ Top met that standard and upped the ante another notch. Some of Gibbons' finest recorded guitar work can be heard here, particularly the false harmonics generated by grinding his pick fingers into the strings during the guitar solo. And it's not just the big, overpowering hits that make this disc so special. Check out the Steve Cropper-esque broken chords on the ballad "Hot, Blue and Righteous" and the gospel-tinged "Have You Heard" that closes out the set. Lovely stuff, all of it. And the three bonus tracks that close the reissue are enjoyable as well, delightfully raw live versions of "Waitin' for the Bus"/"Jesus Just Left Chicago" and "La Grange."
1975's Fandango is, without question, a spottier affair than its predecessor. Nonetheless, it's still a heck of a lot of fun and features some outstanding tracks. The first half of the original album is live, highlighted by a driving jam on "Backdoor Love Affair" that includes snippets of Little Walter's "Mellow Down Easy" and Hooker's "Boogie Chillun," the song from which "La Grange" was ultimately derived. Drummer Frank Beard drives the rhythm like a racehorse headed for the wire. The studio half includes the ballad "Blue Jean Blues," with Gibbons delivering a heartfelt vocal and lead guitar worthy of any bluesman you can name. Bassist Dusty Hill delivers a humorous vocal on the country-ish "Mexican Blackbird," and the album's closer is "Tush," just as perfect a piece of 12-bar rock that you could ask for, in the tradition handed down from Chuck Berry himself. The CD issue also includes three additional live tracks that are also well worthwhile. Have Mercy!