Years before "Eliminator" put them into regular rotation on MTV and Top 40 radio, ZZ Top released "Tres Hombres", one of the best rock albums of all time.
All you've got to do is look at the center fold from Tres Hombres and you know it's a great album. The photo of a messy, albeit tasty looking, serving of Mexican food is enough to let you know you're in for a feast - in this case a musical one. The 1973 album is definately the Texas trio's best and possibly one of rock music's best of all time. One listen to Tres Hombres and you begin to understand why ZZ Top is still one of the staples of classic rock radio.
Tres Hombres Track by Track
This classic album kicks off in fine fashion with the gritty "Waitin' for the Bus". You can almost smell the tubes in Billy Gibbons' amp burning as the threesome chugs their way through the familiar riff. As is the case on several songs on the album, the lyrics of "Bus" are kept to a minimum as to allow Gibbons to open up on some extended solos. Notice also the bands penchant to change keys during the guitar solos. As early as 1973 Billy is already sounding like an old blues man - not bad for a guy who was still in his twenties at the time. And bassist Dusty Hill is in fine form as he provides the vocal harmonies.
Next up is the medium slow blues of "Jesus Just Left Chicago". These first two songs have been played as a pair for so long it's suprising to learn that the two songs weren't intended to run into each other as they do on the album. A recording engineer accidentily shortened the break between the two songs on the master tape and the rest is history. This is blues soloing at it's finest with one of the classic turnarounds in blues/rock history.
"Beer Drinkers and Hell Raisers" has been covered by the likes of Motorhead and Van Halen and is a ZZ Top concert fave to this day. The give and take of Billy and Dusty on vocals is awesome and the beardless Frank Beard sneaks in some tasty drumming - as usual. Listen close to the lyrics and you'll get a chuckle. Again Billy rips out a feisty solo with some really nice licks.
Perhaps one of the coolest songs never heard, "Master of Sparks" showcases just how musically tight ZZ Top is. Combine that with a crazy story (some claim it's at least partially true) about a guy getting in a metal cage and being thrown off the back of a truck at high speed and you've got a Texas sized tall-tale set to a mess of Gibson Les Paul swagger.
The blues is never too far from gospel and that is evident on a few tracks. "Hot, Blue and Righteous" has the passion and feeling of an old spiritual. Again, Billy and Dusty team up on vocals to great effect and the cleaner guitar tones of Mr. Gibbons are beautiful.
The album's second side (for those of us who remember when albums had two sides!) kicks off with "Move Me On Down the Line", perhaps the catchiest and most upbeat track on the album. The song features the familiar vocal give and take of Billy and Dusty with some tasty slide guitar work by the former. Again, listen for the key changes during the guitar solos - a ZZ Top trademark always used to good effect. I dare you not to sing along to this one!
Similar to "Master of Sparks" in it's tightness (and sheer coolness) "Precious and Grace" is another "story song" - this time about meeting up with two young ladies named, you guessed it, Precious and Grace. It seems as if a good time is about to be had by all when all of a sudden one of the gnarliest guitar solos on the album breaks out.
The most iconic song on the album (and possibly of all-time!) is track number eight. "La Grange" starts with Frank Beard's now famous "clickety click" as Billy grumbles out his ode to that "shack outside La Grange". Again, the lyrics are "briefy" and the guitar parts "beefy" as everyone and their grandma knows when to sing along with the "how, how, how". It's hard to imagine this song ever being new as it has become so familiar over the past 35 plus years but here it is. You really are hearing history in the making here.
Juxtaposed against the pounding boogie woogie of "La Grange" is the funky-cool "Shiek". Billy's guitar tone is clean yet slinky and Beard's drum work is especially tight on this one. This song also features a trippy extended ending that is pretty cool.
The album closer, "Have You Heard?" is another nod to ZZ Top's gospel influences. But unlike the mellower "Hot, Blue and Righteous", this one has some scorching slide guitar, growling vocals and tight three part harmonies. Again, this is another one that is hard not to sing along with.
Tres Hombres in retrospect
One of the things that sticks out about this album is the sheer sonic variety. It's been said that blues is about the lowest of the lows and the highest of the highs. It that's true then ZZ Top really does pay homage to the music form. From singing about beer drinking and hell raising to singing songs to heaven, the trio really does run the gambit of the blues. Unlike their future 80's blockbusters Eliminator and Afterburner which seemed to fall into a formula (albeit a very lucrative one!) Tres Hombres is such a great album because it does just the opposite. This 1973 album showcases three musicians who apparently love the blues/rock idiom but are not afraid to mix things up a bit. And compare this album to some of their contemporaries at the time. Tres Hombres still sounds fresh even all these years later. That can't be said for a lot of the rock music from the early 70's. If you had to pick a handful of the greatest rock albums, Tres Hombres would definately be on that list.
Originally published at Suite101.com.