ZZ Top returns to a more traditional blues sound in latest concert tour

It's no secret that playing the blues has been a way of life for the Texas trio ZZ Top for nearly 20 years.

In fact, for the MTV generation, they might very well be the definition of American blues.


But to catch even a few moments of one of their live shows on this tour supporting their latest effort, "Recycler," you would be hard-pressed to see much similarity at all between the current material and the two previous albums that made them one of the nation's most popular bands.

In many ways, the "little ole band from Texas" has come full circle in its search for the perfect blues.


"What we did with 'Recycler' just felt better," said guitarist Billy Gibbons, after the band's first of two shows at the Capital Centre Sunday night. "If we had stayed on the synthesizer journey we might have ended up as a rap band or something."

Sure, that's more than a bit far-fetched, but according to Gibbons, the trio was all set to go into Memphis -- their usual recording environs -- and give their 10th album what he calls "the 'Eliminator-Afterburner' treatment.

"We arrived two days ahead of our equipment so we borrowed some gear to jam on and we started playing the blues," Gibbons said. "Two days later we had scrapped everything we had done up to that point and started writing all new material to do in a more traditional blues style. In just 48 hours we had dramatically changed the direction just because it was so natural for us."

What he calls " 'Tres Hombres' meets 'Afterburner'," the music of "Recycler" -- except for "Doubleback," which was recorded earlier and used as the featured song in the film "Back To The Future, Part III" -- features virtually none of the drum sampling or processed sounds that its pair of predecessors were laden with.

Songs like "Gimme All Your Lovin'," "Sharp Dressed Man" and "Sleeping Bag" were wonderful tunes -- catchy, too -- but they hardly qualified as the basic down-and-dirty blues of ZZ's early days.

"I think the show reflects the mood we're in right now," said bassist Dusty Hill of the band's current two-hour show, which is heavy on "Recycler" music as well as classics such as "Tush," "La Grange" and "Tubesteak Boogie," which had been either missing or sparse on the last two tours.

Gibbons said that extenuating circumstances might have affected the band's ideas for the latest album.

In an effort to explore the roots of the band and promote the purest form of the blues, ZZ Top has spearheaded a fund-raising campaign to benefit the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, Miss.


After visiting the museum three years ago on the advice of a friend "who saw a little sign that said 'Blues museum this way,' " Gibbons, Hill and drummer Frank Beard decided to help curator Sid Graves get material and publicity for the archives.

"It's just a very special little place that not many people know about because no one really has a reason to go to Clarksdale," Hill said. "It's in the back of a library and it has all kinds of pictures, records and history of the people who made it all happen."

As for what direction ZZ Top will head next, Gibbons said the band won't know until it gets back to Memphis.

"All of that stuff we worked on that we didn't use is still floating around in some pre-recorded form inside our heads," Gibbons said. "We can always go back. We did it once before."