VARIOUS ARTISTS: ZZ Top: A Tribute From Friends

At the beginning of ZZ Top’s fifth decade as recording artists (still featuring the original three guys as of 2011), the band have finally scored their own tribute album. The unimaginatively titled and poorly packaged ‘A Tribute From Friends’ is better than it initially appears and includes contributions from a couple of rock heavyweights alongside a couple of artistes you’d never expect to find on such a record.

With a steady blues-pop groove that’s so unmistakably the work of 80s ZZ Top, it’s out with the big guns first, for an all star rendition of ‘Sharp Dressed Man’. In the rhythm section are the incomparable John McVie and Mick Fleetwood. The pair get to rock harder than they have in many a year, but still bring their usual stately and solid approach to this session. Fleetwood’s drums never break from their groove – adopting the kind of slow pounding as heard through the band’s ‘Rumours’ – abetted all the way by McVie’s bass, similarly elephantine in its unshakable style. The pair have never felt any need to be flashy, always believing a rhythm section are exactly that – and this is no exception. Combined, they really are a force of nature. What band could befit such a pair? Step up blues prodigy Jonny Lang on guitar and Steven Tyler on vocals! Lang adds some gritty lines in the Billy Gibbons tradition while the Aerosmith mouthpiece clearly relishes yelping his way through the classic number. Rounding out the makeshift band is keysman Brett Tuggle, whose electric piano work brings with it plenty of flair. All-star collaborations don’t always work, but this band – credited as The M.O.B. – sound like a natural combination on a track which would make a near essential collection filler, especially for Aerosmith devotees.

Perversely, the often questionable Nickelback offer another of the best covers here with a really chunky version of the tres hombres’ world-wide hit ‘Legs’. The southern groove and general spirit of the original cut is still very much present; the only major change Nickelback have made is to play it about three times heavier. Shifting the tune away from its original mechanical eighties muscles and giving it a bigger crunch works strongly in its favour. Whether Nickelback chose ‘Legs’ because it suited their style or whether Chad Kroeger was amused by its blatant levels of sexism remains to be seen, but let’s not knock it too much, a good cover is a good cover. Balancing out the sexist elements of ‘Legs’, the even more sexist ‘Tush’ gets the once-over by the female led Grace Potter & The Nocturnals. Most of the swagger of ZZ Top’s 1975 cut is evident, but isn’t always quite as natural sounding when delivered by this Vermont based blues outfit. To make up for a slightly stilted drum part, Potter’s lead vocal comes with plenty of charm, stretching her range with relative ease. It’s good to hear a woman tacking this song; it would have been better if Heart’s Ann Wilson had recorded a cover instead, but as they say, you can’t have everything.

Duff McKagan’s upfront bass style and gravelly rock vocals put so much of a his stamp on Loaded’s version ‘Got Me Under Pressure’, it’s hard not to imagine this track appearing in their live sets from time to time. It’s meaty, it’s trashy – it’s not especially sophisticated, but then neither are most things by ZZ Top. In all, though, it’s another job well done. ‘La Grange’ is left in the hands of country rocker Jamey Johnson whom, thankfully, really delivers the goods on an eight minute extended workout of what could perhaps be the finest of ZZ Top’s tunes. The groove hits the mark consistently, over which Johnson’s slurred vocals are top drawer. Most importantly, during the instrumental parts, he and band really sound like they’re having a great time, especially once the two guitars trade solos with an old fashioned organ and harmonica. The eight minutes just zip by and, with at least five of those dominated by solos, you’ll wish this boogie rock tour de force had gone on for longer – perhaps even much longer.

Heavy-hitters Mastodon trade in their usual monolithic riffs for plenty of fuzzy southern grooves throughout a rendition of ‘Just Got Paid’ which showcases a loud drum kit, plenty of slide guitar work and a gravelly vocal. It’s like listening to seventies ZZ Top re-worked by a particularly aggressive Molly Hatchet and certainly none the worse for that. They ought to tackle southern rock more often, since it really suits them…while never losing the feel a band you’d never want to mess with. ZZ Top’s eighties pop hit ‘Rough Boy’ gets the once-over by one time Fugees man Wyclef Jean. As you’d expect, he takes the track and casts it in his own black pop style. The mechanical music is soulless empty – emptier than the now dated original version – so you’d hope that a decent vocal would balance things out. Sadly, you won’t get that either, since Wyclef’s voice has been horribly autotuned. It’s just nasty. Yes, there are a couple of non-rock inclusions to be found on this tribute, but how Wyclef made the cut with this atrocity is just baffling. There are a couple of artistes not represented here whom could have fit the bill nicely – and either Black Stone Cherry or Black Label Society would have been a more than welcome substitution for the woefully misplaced Wyclef.

Elsewhere, you’ll find enjoyable offerings from Coheed & Cambria (terrible vocal, top tune) and US talent show winner Chris Daughtry (a man with a great voice), alongside the seventies-inspired Wolfmother and industrial merchants Filter. All four acts achieve relatively decent results with their chosen covers, though not always reaching the peaks of this album’s best results. On the whole, as tributes go, ‘ZZ Top – A Tribute From Friends’ is all fairly respectful. That’s not to say that ZZ Top’s fans would like this tribute of course, but then, it wasn’t really created with them in mind. It could be argued that perhaps more of the bands could have remodelled these tunes into their own image – as per Wyclef Jean and Duff McKagan – since it may have made things more interesting, but that wouldn’t have necessarily made the album any better. Even if you’re not entirely convinced by this album as a whole, at least check it out for the Jamey Johnson track – you won’t regret it.

November 2011