After nearly 47 years as a band, 15 studio albums that sold a collective 20 million and a half-dozen compilation discs that sold 6 million more, and 34 singles that hit Top 40 on various charts, ZZ Top released its first full-length live album earlier this month.
“Live – Greatest Hits From Around the World” is exactly what its title says: a double-album of 15 of the band’s best-known repertoire recorded on several tours in North America, South America and Europe.
ZZ Top has been playing largely the same live show for the past several years – hit-laden sets of songs such as “Gimme All Your Lovin’,” “Sharp Dressed Man,” “Legs,” “Tush” and “La Grange.” That’s likely what they’ll bring to the stage Sept. 30 at the Ironstone Amphitheatre in Murphys.
Why release a live disc now – especially when the band hasn’t released an album of new material in four years, since 2012’s “La Futura,” and only one disc in more than a dozen years?
Guitarist Billy F. Gibbons, in an email interview, agrees it’s “an ironic twist.” But in a publicity statement, he says it was simply time.
“In an abstract surrealism style, this collection is a definitive chronicle of the band hangin’ together for four-plus deluxe decades, getting down to do what we get to do,” Gibbons says. “The true document of life de la ZZ.”
Gibbons notes the disc includes a couple of “splendid players” making guest appearances. There’s noted blues harmonica player James Harman, who played on the group’s 2003 disc “Mescalero” as well as on “La Futura,” “blowin’ some mean blues harp with us on ‘Waitin’ for Th’ Bus’ and ‘Jesus Just Left Chicago.’ ”
There’s also guitar-god Jeff Beck playing “fierce guitar slinging” on “Rough Boy” and “some greasy guitar searing” on the country and western classic “16 Tons” at a London show.
“We think it’s super,” Gibbons says. “Everybody gotta like that!”
The disc isn’t ZZ Top’s first foray into recording its live shows. It has released three DVDs, including the double-platinum “Live From Texas” in 2008. It most recently released “Live at Montreux 2013” in 2014.
Gibbons says it isn’t for a lack of new material that ZZ Top has chosen to release live material. He says the group has “a lot” of songs for a new disc.
“There’s quite a few songs rattling around from the never-ending studio sessions, and we continue to work things out,” Gibbons says, though he is noncommittal about when it will come out.
Asked what the new material sounds like, Gibbons replies: “It sounds a lot like ZZ Top. As the ZZ song says, ‘Country, Jesus, Hillbilly and Blues.’ We reach out for it all.”
That pretty much covers the career of the self-proclaimed “Lil’ Ol’ Band from Texas,” which also includes bassist Dusty Hill and drummer Frank Beard.
ZZ Top first made its mark as a boogie-rock outfit that released its first disc, “ZZ Top’s First Album,” in 1971, but didn’t see real success until 1973’s “Tres Hombres” and 1975’s “Fandango!,” both of which went Top 10 and sold gold with the hits “La Grange” on the former and “Tush” on the latter.
But the band had its biggest success in the 1980s, when its songs “Legs,” “Gimme All Your Lovin’” and “Sharp Dressed Man” dominated MTV with videos of the sunglasses-wearing, long-bearded guitar players.
The success of those songs helped the band’s 1983 album “Eliminator” sell more than 10 million, and the 1985 follow-up “Afterburner” sell 5 million.
The group’s last gold or platinum album was 1994’s “Antenna.” And it hasn’t had a hit since 1996, when “What’s Up With That” hit No. 5 on the Mainstream Rock chart. But its popularity had continued: “La Futura” hit No. 6, the group’s highest-charting disc in more than 25 years. ZZ Top was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004.
While taking first steps like their live disc this deep in its career, ZZ Top also in recent years has had to cancel shows and even parts of tours as its members were hit with health issues.
It canceled a 2014 show at Bethlehem’s Musikfest just 10 days before the show when Hill had to undergo surgery to remove two kidney stones. It played at Musikfest in 2015, but canceled some shows in April when Hill broke his shoulder.
And their tourmates have also been felled by illness. The Ironstone show was a originally a double bill with Gregg Allman of the Allman Brothers. But a health scare forced Allman to cancel his appearances through October. He has since been cleared to return to the stage later this month, though will not play the Ironstone show.
Blues rocker Kenny Wayne Shepherd will fill Allman’s opening spot at the Murphys show.
That raises the question of the health of ZZ Top frontmen Gibbons, 66, and Hill, 67. But Gibbons says they’re fine.
“Healthy, yes,” he says. “Yet the mystery question remains, ‘Wealthy and wise’? The ZZ machine is all tuned up and ready for some raucousness. Come on and check us out.”
Has the band made any plans for its 50th anniversary, now just three years away?
“As the saying goes, ‘One day at a time,’ ” Gibbons says. “With us, it’s more like a fast minute-at-a-time. Yet we’re totally dedicated to keep on keeping on all the while. Someone will have to remind us when the big five-oh is coming up. We’ll buy the cake.”
So how long will ZZ Top continue?
“As long as it takes, we do believe,” Gibbons says. “Like Muddy Waters once said, ‘Let’s do this thing!’ ”
Bee reporter Marijke Rowland contributed to this report.