By 1973, ZZ Top already had two albums under their belts, ZZ Top’s First Album and Rio Grande Mud, both more-than-decent slabs of blues and hard rock with the promise of something more. Third album Tres Hombres easily delivered on that promise and proved to be the band’s first major breakthrough. With the band hitting a career-best as songwriters and performers, the end result is for many their finest moment, both a near-perfect rock album and a definitive contemporary Texas blues album.
Classic cuts abound: Waitin’ For the Bus and Jesus Just Left Chicago sit so well together here that they’ve stayed that way on compilations and in live sets ever since. Both are Texas blues anthems, with Jesus… in particular a standout featuring a stunning guitar turn from Billy Gibbons. In contrast, Beer Drinkers and Hell Raisers is, as you might imagine, as “straight ahead rock” as it gets. La Grange, celebrating a famous Texas brothel, starts out as a ringer for The Rolling Stones’ version of Slim Harpo’s Shake Your Hips before owning that arrangement’s John Lee Hooker heritage and taking it down a rocked-up road all its own.
That Stones influence is apparent too on Move It On Down the Line, a sort of lightweight second cousin to Street Fighting Man. Master of Sparks and Precious and Grace are great funky hard rock tracks while Sheik is a step or two further towards hard-edged funk, quoting the riff from Curtis Mayfield’s Freddy’s Dead and likely influencing Prince and the Red Hot Chili Peppers in the process (that Chili Peppers connection is most apparent in the ending, for which the intro to Aeroplane from One Hot Minute is a near soundalike).
There’s a religious element to the lyrics here and there but the themes are not shoved down your throat. Have You Heard is a gospel number which preaches its damnation-or-salvation message softly: ‘Which way are you comin’ from? Goin’ up or gettin’ down?” Countryfied blues Hot, Blue and Righteous employs a similarly light touch while Jesus Just Left Chicago flat-out delights with its mix of Delta and Biblical imagery (“… muddy water turned to wine”).
Everyone here is at the top of their game – Dusty Hill’s gritty bass, Frank Beard’s tough and deceptively intricate drumming, Bill Ham’s pitch-perfect production, the mix of Gibbons’ and Hill’s contrasting vocals – but really this is Gibbons’ masterpiece as a guitarist. Mixing fat Les Paul and wiry Strat tones, he even pioneers two-handed tapping, both with pick (or rather peso) and fingers, clearly planting the seeds for the likes of Edward Van Halen and Joe Satriani. His slide playing is masterful too, while the bluesier leads are a clear influence on Stevie Ray Vaughan.
ZZ Top have continued to produce genre-stretching recordings of sheer class over a further four decades (okay, there was a bit of a fallow period in the ’80s when Gibbon’s commendable tendencies towards sonic experimentation led them down a synth-and-drum machine cul-de-sac, and now a new album from them is like chicken’s teeth, but still). However, they never sounded better than on Tres Hombres. One of the Great Albums.