ZZ Top, ‘RAW': Album Review
Raw would seem to be part of ZZ Top's DNA, much less the title of one of its albums. But we've never heard the Texas trio quite this kind of raw before. There's a kind of brilliance that resulted in RAW: That Little Ol' Band From Texas Original Soundtrack. It's a live album without an audience, brought about when Banger Films, makers of the 2019 Netflix documentary, gathered the group at historic Gruene Hall, billed as Texas' oldest continually run dance venue, ostensibly for some still shots. But the band's gear was set up on the stage, and suffice to say that when Billy Gibbons, Dusty Hill and Frank Beard are in a room together with instruments, music is bound to happen.
That ad-hoc session was captured - gloriously - for the film and now for this belated companion. A decent argument can be made that this is the, or at least a, definitive ZZ Top document, capturing the band in its "native habitat," playing for each other, without overdubs or studio polish, just relaxed and having an audibly good time. It's a fly-on-the-wall-like glimpse into the rehearsal room, with some stage lighting or two attached, and while there have been a few ZZ Top live albums in front of audiences, from Side One of 1975's Fandango! on, none have captured the raw essence of ZZ Top like this.
The most pronounced feature of RAW is its mix. It's lean and mean, each of the instruments perfectly balanced and distinct from each other. That works to Hill's benefit more than the others; his chunky bass lines can be appreciated more than ever before, laying down a thick bottom that grooves in and out of Beard's solid meters. That, in turn, illustrates how key that rhythm section telepathy is to Gibbons, whose biting guitar tone jumps out of nearly every song, whether he's helping to hold down the rhythm or searing any of the solos on the 12-song set.
The circumstances allowed ZZ Top to do a couple of deep digs into its catalog - like the opening "Brown Sugar" (theirs, not the Rolling Stones') from ZZ Top's First Album in 1971, which Gibbons starts with some bluesy riffing and light drum touches from Beard before it builds into leaden, in-your-face rock. Gibbons and Hill engage in some unison vocals during the bouncy "Thunderbird," while "Blue Jean Blues" is a slow, almost pretty track that shows a tasteful restraint that's not often part of ZZ Top's makeup.
The staples benefit from the setting too, particularly ferocious takes of "Heard It on the X" and "La Grange," a stretched-out "I'm Bad, I'm Nationwide" and a lusty romp through "Tube Snake Boogie." Shed of Elminator's technological sheen, "Legs" and "Gimme All Your Lovin'" stand on their own three-piece feet as killer rock anthems, the grooves even meatier than on the studio recordings. RAW is possibly the last ZZ Top recording we'll hear from Hill, who died in 2021 and to whom the set is dedicated. If so, it's a fond, and deservedly raucous, farewell, proof that 50 years in ZZ Top can still blow the roof off any joint, whether it's in front of a crowd or just each other.