For a brief moment on Friday night at ACL Live, near the end of the set during “You’re What’s Happenin’, Baby,” it was all rhythm behind Billy Gibbons and his signature guitar playing. Keyboardists G.G. Martine and Mike Flanigin both switched to maracas, joining percussionist Alx “Guitarzza” Garza and drummers Sozo and Melanie DiLorenzo to create a wall of beats that was as glorious as it was unusual.
The song was the night’s highlight, in fact, thanks in part to Garza’s hip-hop vocal cameo midway through and the visual spectacle of the two female drummers in full synchronization near the end. “Yes, I’m feelin’ it,” Gibbons affirmed in his trademark good-natured growl at the end, concurring with the audience’s own joyful assessment.
It was that kind of night, with Gibbons feeding off the crowd’s good nature and reveling in the visit to Austin, where he has many good friends — including Flanigin, the B3 organ ace he befriended a few years ago and eventually recruited for his new album “Perfectamundo.” Working outside of ZZ Top, Gibbons struck a familiar yet different tone; Friday’s set included most of the songs from that record, from the Cuban-inspired originals “Sal y Pimiento” and “Quiero Mas Dinero” to classic bluesy covers of Roy Head’s “Treat Her Right” and the standard “Baby Please Don’t Go.”
Surrounded onstage by a smartly arranged symmetrical boy-girl-boy-girl-boy crescent of keyboards, drums, percussion, drums and keyboards, Gibbons radiated in the center with gravelly vocals and down-and-dirty guitar barbs. Though the new album was front-and-center, he tossed a bone to his ZZ Top faithful early on with “Ten Foot Pole” (from 1981’s “El Loco”), and he heaped praise upon Flanigin before embarking on the epic Gatemouth Brown tune “The Drifter” that the two recorded together for Flanigin’s recent album of the same name.
Gibbons’ genuinely gracious and gregarious personality was the key throughout. He repeatedly tossed out warm asides such as “Y’all sure made me feel good tonight, I gotta tell you it’s all right,” and he avowed his appreciation for being in Austin, giving shout-outs to guitar-player friends such as Jimmie Vaughan, Van Wilks, Eric Johnson and Willie Nelson (in whose band he played on this very stage last New Year’s Eve).
The performance, which followed a well-received 30-minute opening set by Tyler Bryant & the Shakedown, was perhaps a bit too short. It clocked in at about 75 minutes after a predictable but quite satisfying encore of “La Grange” (with Flanigin on bass and a brilliant keyboard solo from Martine) that segued into Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love.”
But no one expected this to be a ZZ Top career retrospective. As a detour down another path for Gibbons, it was illuminating and entertaining, a welcome return to a place where “the Reverend Willie G” (as he dubbed himself in a classic recitation near the end of the set) always feels at home. As Gibbons said of the city’s allure, in response to his two drummers who were excited about playing here for the first time: “I can take you into Austin, but it’s up to you to try and get out!”