The first time Billy Gibbons and ZZ Top set foot in Memphis there was a good bit of confusion. Booked to play a blues festival at Overton Park in 1971, based on the strength of the still unknown Texas group’s debut LP, promoters were expecting something different.
“They thought we were supposed to be black,” says Gibbons. “They were a little panicked, cause it was a blues festival with a lot of the great old-time players. They put us on the very end of the bill, but the response was actually quite good. That was our first brush with a fabulous city, steeped in a great musical tradition. As soon as we got there we could feel blues wiggling out of the ground.”
A few years later with their 1973 breakthrough, Tres Hombres, ZZ Top would become regular habitués of the Bluff City, recording their next half dozen albums locally, mostly at Midtown’s Ardent Studios. “We moved into Memphis, and for the next 18 years we never moved out!” says Gibbons.
On Saturday, Gibbons and ZZ Top return to town to headline the Beale Street Music Festival. The past year has proved to be a particularly fertile period for the band, and for Gibbons. In addition to the recent critically acclaimed ZZ Top album, La Futura, the guitarist recently revived his first band, the Moving Sidewalks, after 40 years, to mark a new CD of their collected work.
The Moving Sidewalks were a psych-blues combo from Houston that released one record, 1969’s Tantara, and found themselves on the cusp of stardom. “We were 18 years old, still trying to figure it all out,” says Gibbons. “We hit the touring trail, had a short stint playing with the Doors and later with Jimi Hendrix. Very quickly those experiences wised up some adolescent punks and turned us to real professionals. It was all a good thing.”
Unfortunately, half the band, keyboardist Tom Moore and bass player Don Summers, were drafted into the military. “That sidetracked things in an unexpected way,” says Gibbons. “That’s when I twisted off and started ZZ Top.”
Last year, when the prospect of the Moving Sidewalks CD reissue came up, Gibbons and the other band members started talking about doing shows around its release. “But we decided to test the water first and get together and play. I can honestly say if there is such a thing as time travel, we all experienced it within about 10 seconds of the first note,” says Gibbons, laughing.
The band’s comeback show at B.B. King’s Blues Club in New York in March was an unexpected triumph. “After that performance in Manhattan I got a wave of e-mails — people saying they recognized the old songs, but that they had a heavy, slowed down fierceness that came from all the time that had passed. We had blossomed into his wicked thing,” says Gibbons.
Buoyed by their live performances and the attendant response, the Moving Sidewalks have begun working on a new album — a follow-up to their debut, just over 44 years in the making. “This recent rise in popularity of a band that was, up until few weeks ago, somewhat invisible, has not only rekindled friendships but stimulated a new chapter musically,” says Gibbons. “It adds legitimacy to the whole affair, taking this thing back into the studio. I was amused how good everyone was. Everybody’s chops had kept growing in the years apart.”
Gibbons and the Sidewalks have been recording at ZZ Top’s Foam Box Studios in Houston, with former Memphian Joe Hardy and engineer G.L. Moon. The group has cut 10 songs so far, with more in the works. The Sidewalks even have a tentative title for the album: 4-44. “Tom Moore with his droll wit came up with that one. He said, we’re four guys after 44 years: 4-44,” says Gibbons. “Makes sense to me.”
While Gibbons has been busy rekindling some magic with his first band, his main outfit ZZ Top continues to enjoy the benefits of its own comeback effort, La Futura. Released last fall, it marked the band’s first new studio record in nine years, and proved to be its strongest outing since 1985’s Afterburner.
Though they’ve been making records since Nixon was in office, ZZ Top’s creative formula remains intact. “We’re three guys in the same room, playing pretty much the same three chords that we’ve been playing for all these years,” says Gibbons of the dynamic with bassist Dusty Hill and drummer Frank Beard.
This time, however, another famous bearded figure was involved, in the form of uber-producer Rick Rubin. “He’s guy who’s got a tremendous sense of intuition, and a grand measure of patience. Rick is in no hurry: If it ain’t done, it ain’t done,” says Gibbons of the album that was nearly four years in the making.
In fact, Rubin and the band cut two-plus albums worth of material during the sessions. “His theory is gimme 20 and I’ll take the best 10. We wound up with 25-26 tracks that were all good, so he threw them into a hat picked them that way,” says Gibbons, who adds that band will return to the studio with Rubin to begin work on a follow-up soon..