Beloved bearded guitar guru Billy F. Gibbons has been making records since 1968, first with the psychedelic Moving Sidewalks and then with the little Texas trio ZZ Top, who rightly found fame and fortune and haven’t lost it. But 2015 marked the guitarist/singer’s first ever solo outing, the Afro-Cuban-flavored Perfectamundo. Gibbons’s show in support of the record, originally scheduled for the 1,500-capacity Town Hall, was downsized to the 500-seat Gramercy Theatre, its normally open main floor packed with filled folding seats. Still, as is often the case when members of arena-scale bands tour solo, the venue wasn’t sold out, though it was filled with a plethora of happy middle-aged dudes — and a few enthralled female fans, two of whom approached Gibbons onstage mid-show to sign albums, which he did.
The sharp-dressed man of the people is, at 66, still rail-thin, and on this night he sported shiny red pants, suspenders, and a sparkly rose-embellished jacket that looked like a creation of the famous rodeo tailor Nudie Cohn. And while Gibbons once jokingly guesstimated that he owns enough guitars to fill a “ballpark,” for this evening’s set, he played only one. Eschewing his trio format for his debut solo tour, Gibbons was flanked by two Hammond B3 players, two female drummers, and a DJ multi-instrumentalist.
In a set that was only about an hour long, Gibbons proved personable, likable, and obviously talented. But with one album’s worth of material to draw from, and with the headliner chatty and casual in the semi-intimate setting, the evening was surprisingly underwhelming. Perhaps it needed a true Cuban nightclub atmosphere of round tables and a dance floor, or the energy and intensity that comes from a standing crowd pressed to the front of the stage.
Kicking off with the classy and classic dancy-rumba rock romp “Treat Her Right” from Perfectamundo, Gibbons and his BFG’s dug into a twelve-song set peppered with quite a few covers, some well-known, some not, and a handful of ZZ Top songs — 1973’s driving boogie-blues classic-rock radio staple “La Grange,” 1981’s lesser-known “Ten Foot Pole,” and “Thunderbird,” its shuffling sing-along vibe and “get high” entreaty making it a crowd favorite.
“Picking Up Chicks on Dowling Street” explored more Santana-esque Spanish/Cuban rhythms, while “Sal y Pimiento” didn’t have the spicy flavoring you’d hope from a song so named. Perfectamundo, inspired by a trip to Cuba and “this jazz shit,” as Gibbons smilingly explained, is definitely squarely in the wheelhouse for the talented Texan, who explored Spanish influences in ZZ Top (“Mescalero,” Degüello). But in a live setting, the material and performance lacked the driving passion and soul that are so key to electric blues and Afro-Cuban music.
“Quiero Mas Dinero,” off the new record, boasted the most ZZ Top feel of all his solo material, while other new tunes — “You’re What’s Happening, Baby” were serviceable but uneventful; ditto Gibbons’s take on Slim Harpo’s “Got Love If You Want It.” Even the iconic, much-covered “Please Don’t Go” lacked the urgency present in most versions, and that dearth of amped-up energy and song-to-song flow made this outing sadly and surprisingly staid. A lot of samey tempos and energy kept the crowd mostly in their seats, as did a poorly chosen and executed cover of Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” featuring DJ Elwood Francis on vocals and a disappointing hip-hop mash-up.
While ZZ were pioneers in the use of synth and electronics, finding their biggest commercial success in Eighties albums like Eliminator and Afterburner, Gibbons’s solo endeavor is not quite there yet. Gibbons was grateful, gracious, and über-cool, joking that “some of y’all have seen me in a band before.” Yes, ZZ Top are long-lasting icons for a reason, but it’s clearly hard to replicate the intuitive feel and flow of three guys who have been playing together for more than forty years. Kudos to Gibbons for branching out, but sans his ZZ brothers, the songs — and sensibilities — do not remain the same.