This year marks the 40th anniversary of the debut release from that little ol’ band from Texas, ZZ Top. To commemorate the occasion, a number of bands— some clearly influenced by the trio, others not— have come together for “ZZ Top: A Tribute From Friends,” which is out tomorrow (Oct. 18).
As is almost uniformly the case with these endeavors, the results are mixed. The one rule is that if you’re going to If you’re going to salute ZZ Top, you better bring your A Game when it comes to guitar playing. For the most part, that’s where the album excels...in some cases to the exclusion of everything else.
For example, Jamey Johnson’s “La Grange,” which is the perfect marriage on paper, is one of the more anemic cuts vocally, after starting strong It should be all laid-back growl and swamp boogie-messiness, and instead it’s all a little too polite. There’s a word I never thought I’d use in connection with Johnson. There is, however, a great guitar riff that segues into a meaty organ solo in the middle that goes into some wicked harmonica work, so what it lacks in Johnson’s vocal delivery, it makes up for (and how) in the musicianship on the track. I wish it were an instrumental, and I say that as a Johnson fan. Of course, it should sound great: Johnson brought in a ringer: ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons is on the guitar shootout that also includes Wayd Battle and “Cowboy” Eddie Long on slide. Absolute killer.
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Most of the artists take the basic premise presented by ZZ Top in the original and build on that. Some, like Duff McKagan’s Loaded’s take on “Got Me Under Pressure,” or Nickelback’s “Legs” are fairly faithful interpretations. The true exception here is Wyclef Jean’s version of “Rough Boy,” one of ZZ Top’s few hit ballads. He takes the track, speeds it up a little, throws a synthesized drum beat on it, and turns it into something totally rough and tumble and sexy all at the same time. Given his upbringing in Haiti, the words “I was raised in a place where I had no choice but to be a rough boy,” ring authentically.
A ZZ Top Tribute may be the only place in the world where Wyclef Jean and Mastodon are in the same line-up. The latter turns “Just Got Paid” into a wild and wooly snarl of a song, again, with a little help from Gibbons.
Some of the covers take nice, unexpected turns: Wolfmother’s “Cheap Sunglasses” starts in the most pedestrian of ways before exploding into a ferocious, tangled guitar blow out and then goes off on a cool psychedelic bent. Daughtry, who tackles the combo platter of “Waitin’ For the Bus” and “Jesus Just Left Chicago” gets the second part better than the first. Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler joins with Fleetwood Mac’s Mick Fleetwood and Jon McVie, as well as Johnny Lang and Brett Tuggle for a fun version of “Sharp Dressed Man” (under the moniker M.O.B.). As you recall, Aerosmith and ZZ Top toured together in 2009.
ZZ Top has never had much use for women, other than as playthings with long legs, short skirts and willing smiled, so it’s no surprise that there’s precious little estrogen on this tribute. In fact, there’s only one. But Grace Potter and the Nocturnals deliver “Tush” with more balls than most of the men on the set. It starts breathless, slinky and nasty and only gets better from there. If the cut had any more testosterone, she have a beard longer than Gibbons’ or Dusty Hill’s.