Tuned In To Music

Reflections from a lifetime

Review: ZZ Top, Chrome, Smoke & BBQ

Chrome, Smoke & BBQ is a four-CD set that chronicles the career of Texas blues-rockers ZZ Top.  It opens with three tracks from guitar player Billy Gibons’ pre-Top band The Moving Sidewalks which are much better than you’d think.  Both sides of their first single “Miller’s Farm” and “Salt Lick” follow.  The collection closes with five “medium rare” tracks that include a Spanish version of “Francine”, a live version of “Cheap Sunglasses” and several remixes. The 8+ minute remix of their cover of Elvis’s cheese plate “Viva Las Vegas” is especailly good.  In between are generous selections from their albums from 1970’s ZZ Top’s First Album to 1990’s Recycler“. 

In addition to Gibbons, ZZ Top included Dusty Hill on bass and Frank Beard on drums.  Their deeply blues influenced brand of arena rock is instantly identifiable to anyone who was listening to mainstream rock in the 70s and 80s.  Gibbons is a much better than average guitar player and virtually every song in the set includes solid, and often outstanding, riff rock guitar.  Beard and Hill are not playing at the same level but they are an exceptionally tight rhythm section.  While they rarely shine, they virtually never produce anything less than rock solid support that provides the perfect accompanyment for Gibbons’ guitar. 

The set includes a hefty booklet with the usual laudatory essays and tons-o-pics of the band.  It also includes track-by-track comments from all three members of the band which will probably be of great interest to fans of the group.  There’s also a flip book of pictures that does their spinning fuzzy guitars thing and the cool-zoom-to-go hand business that were iconic elements of their 80s videos.  Again, fans of the band will love it.

Listening to all four of these discs leads to two conclusions.  First, ZZ Top were an uncommonly solid band who produced  a lot of consistently high-quality music for a long time.  There are 80 tracks here and very few of them are filler.  Not many bands could put out a set like this

The second conclusion that creeps into consciousness and refuses to go away is that ZZ Top were a band that was pretty much satisfied with “good enough” and who never found the motivation to drive beyond their comfort level.  It’s striking how many of these songs end in a fade out which is often the sign of an inability or unwillingness to put out the effort to write a song with a clear beginning, middle and end.  Virtually all of the music on Chrome, Smoke & BBQ is good and very little of it is really good.  They formed with the idea of being a power trio but when you compare them to trios like Cream or the initial incarnation of Gov’t Mule, they simply aren’t in the same class as musicians.  Gibbons is the possible exception but over the life of the band he never really pushed to get to that next level and bring his bandmates with him. 

Given the somewhat narrow range of their music and the high level of consistency with which they played, four discs is more ZZ Top than the casual listener is likely to want or need.  There are several one or two disc greatest hits collections that will fill the bill.  Serious fans of the band will love Chrome, Smoke & BBQ if they don’t already have most of this music in their collections.

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07/23/2008 - Posted by | CD reviews, music, music reviews | , , , , ,

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