Country stars, bluesmen, indie songwriters and arena rockers paid tribute to Billy Gibbons last night, during a live stream of the online concert series Skyville Live headlined by the ZZ Top frontman.
Gibbons both opened and closed the 75-minute show, kicking things off with the Tres Hombres tracks "Waitin' for the Bus" and "Jesus Just Left Chicago" before moving into a pair of songs from his Cuban-inspired solo debut, Perfectamundo. The bulk of the concert, however, focused on his special guests: Frankie Ballard, ZZ Ward, SteelDrivers co-founder Mike Henderson and guitar heroine Orianthi.
Sitting backstage before the show, Gibbons took off his familiar sunglasses and widened his eyes, impressed with the evening's genre-jumping lineup.
"Nashville is not the stiff place that it was," he says. "It's really blossomed into this extremely appealing gathering place for all kinds of music. No one is being shoved out. I remember coming here for the first time, 25 or 30 years ago, and the city closed at eight o'clock! There was nothing to do, unless you were in a studio or going to church or selling insurance. But now, it's 24/7. And that activity has a big effect on the music, too."
In a corner of Gibbons' dressing room sits a customized, cream-colored guitar amp, an outline of Texas cut into the front grill. Ballard had gifted it to Gibbons earlier that day, looking to show his appreciation for an artist whose mix of blues, Southern rock and guitar-driven boogie-woogie helped lay the groundwork for an entire generation of riff-heavy roots music.
"I met him for the first time at [producer] Marshall Altman's recording studio," Gibbons says of Ballard, whose Skyville set included a cover of Jim Croce's "You Don't Mess Around With Jim." "He impressed me, even then. He was on his way out when I walked in, and he was just finishing up a guitar solo. I remember him saying to Marshall, 'Well, maybe I'll come back tomorrow and play it like this instead.' He was blazing! That's the bottom line — all the players tonight have that kind of talent."
Back in the concert hall, the evening unfolded with a series of mini-sets from each performer, with Gibbons watching and nodding along from the front row. He joined Mike Henderson toward the end of the night, trading guitar solos during a barn-burning version of the blues song "Pay Bo Diddley," and returned to the stage several minutes later to perform "Sharp Dressed Man" with Orianthi and ZZ Ward. By the time the band kicked into a beefed-up "La Grange" to close the night, the rest of the guests artists were onstage, too, turning Gibbons' infamous "haw haw haw" line into a gang vocal.