Blu-ray Review: ZZ Top - That Little Ol' Band From Texas

Fifty years on, ZZ Top continues to put Texas boogie on the map.
  |   Comments

For more than 50 years there has been only one ZZ Top. No band before or since really sounds -- or looks -- like them. They play the blues, but they aren't a blues band. ZZ Top's brand of music takes a page from the blues and adds a healthy dose of rock 'n roll, Texas boogie and, perhaps most importantly, a sense of humor. They're consistent, too, featuring the same lineup of Frank Beard on drums, Dusty Hill on bass, and Billy Gibbons on guitar this entire time. A new documentary, That Little Ol' Band From Texas, takes a loving look at these Texas icons.

Produced by Banger Films, the same company that made Super Duper Alice Cooper and the Peabody/International Emmy award-winning Netflix series Hip-Hop Evolution, That Little Ol' Band From Texas begins with some Texas footage before revealing the band driving in an old hot rod set to their classic "La Grange." The group ends up at Gruene Hall, where the studio version of the track gives way to the band performing it live with the same intensity as the record. Interviews with the band are interspersed with those from celebrities and fellow musicians such as Billy Bob Thornton, who likened seeing the band on stage to that of seeing Bugs Bunny in person and Joshua Homme from Queens of the Stone Age who, like many, was drawn in by the mystique of the band's MTV era, from the beards to the cars to the girls.

ZZ Top's beginnings were humble. Hill sang in the streets in Dallas to avoid his surroundings and soon found himself in a band with his brother. When their drummer quit, Hill's brother made an executive decision to get Beard in the band and two thirds of the classic ZZ Top lineup was born. The group decided to move to Houston, where they met Gibbons, who was playing with The Moving Sidewalks, a band that took its name from the 13th Floor Elevators. The Moving Sidewalks and, particularly, Gibbons, were gaining national recognition, playing with the likes of Jeff Beck, The Doors, and Jimi Hendrix. When the group opened for Hendrix, they had to pad their set by playing a couple of Hendrix tunes and Hendrix told Gibbons, "I like you. You've got a lot of nerve."

When two members of the band got drafted, Gibbons decided to carry on as an organ-based trio named ZZ Top. When the keyboardist and drummer left, Gibbons recruited Beard and, soon after, Hill, and ZZ Top as we know it was born.  Around this time, Bill Ham approached the band to manage them. Ham had been a successful musician himself and had big dreams for the trio.

The group recorded their first album at Robin Hood Studios in Tyler, Texas. The studio was connected to an old house. Ham had a strict no overdubs rule, but the band wanted a big sound like their heroes in Cream and The Jimi Hendrix Experience, so they tricked Ham into getting them ribs -- in the next county -- and Gibbons quickly doubled his guitar parts. Ham loved the results and the band cranked out their first record.

It was the group's third album, Tres Hombres, where they hit pay dirt. Recorded at Ardent Studios in Memphis where the band wanted to record because they heard Led Zeppelin recorded there, it featured such staples as "La Grange" and "Beer Drinkers and Hell Raisers" and it was the first time the band worked with engineer Terry Manning, who worked on all the group's most successful records. People were beginning to take notice, most notably Mick Jagger, who asked ZZ Top to open for The Rolling Stones in Hawaii. While ZZ Top won over the notoriously difficult Stones crowd, there was no mention of them in the local reviews, leaving the band a bit frustrated and showing them how far they still had to go.

After the ambitious Worldwide Texas Tour, a show that featured a stage shaped like the state of Texas, with actual livestock on stage, the group needed a break. Gibbons went to Europe, Hill took a job at an airport and Beard did a stint in rehab. When the band reemerged, Hill and Gibbons had both grown their now trademark beards and the group took a page from the punk attitude and began expanding their sonic palette with songs such as "Manic Mechanic."

This expansion continued into their MTV era. ZZ Top embraced keyboards and music videos and became international superstars, enlisting the aid of Tim Newman --brother of Randy and director of the "I Love L.A." video -- to further their vision. The band was presented as mystical superheroes, aiding the downtrodden with an assist from the Eliminator car and a bevy of beautiful women. It worked. Eliminator remains the band's biggest selling album to date and has arguably kept the group afloat and popular to this day. The group has since returned to their blues-based roots, but acknowledges all of their eras in concert. The group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004 and is still going strong.

The Blu-ray features new and archival interviews and footage and looks and sounds great. Bonus features include unedited Gruene Hall footage, including a killer "La Grange" that finds the band locked into a tight groove. It is an intimate enough setting that the listener can hear the band's amps humming. Also included is equally killer footage from the Ham estate from the band's pre-Eliminator era, including a blistering "Beer Drinkers and Hell Raisers". Between the two clips, it is nearly 40 minutes of footage worth the price of admission alone.

Fifty years on, ZZ Top shows no signs of slowing down. With a killer catalog and members that clearly love what they are doing, why should they? That Little Ol' Band From Texas gives viewers some insight into the mystique of this unique American treasure.