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ZZ Top not over the hill

Joey Kuhn | Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Last Wednesday evening, the classic rock band ZZ Top performed to a sold-out crowd at the Morris Performing Arts Center in downtown South Bend.The Sulentic Brothers Band, a South Bend-based group that plays Southern-influenced rock, opened the show. Unfortunately, I was not there to catch this sample of local flavor. I showed up between sets, just in time to witness the massive lines of baby boomers waiting for beer or loitering under the marquis for a smoke. My companion and I were probably the youngest people in the entire audience; most appeared to be over 40. Although a fair share of them looked pretty buttoned-down and conservative, the audience contained a preponderance of bandanas, black T-shirts and tattoos. This came as no surprise given the bad boy biker image of ZZ Top, billed on their Web site as “That Little Ol’ Band from Texas.”Anyway, we took our seats in the beautiful and ornate theater, which clashed ironically with the centerpiece of the stage. This was a monstrous drum set with leering skulls embossed on the heads of the twin bass drums. Soon enough, the lights went down and three leather-clad and grizzled men walked onto the stage. The audience’s response was deafening despite (or maybe because of) the fact that this band has been around for 40 years.Frank Beard, the only band member without a long and bushy gray beard, sat down behind the demonic drum set. Dusty Hill, the bassist, and Billy Gibbons, the guitarist and lead singer, took their positions at twin microphones fashioned like truck exhaust pipes. Then they started playing. The distorted guitar riffs hit me like a smack in the face while the bass throbbed throughout my whole body. It was almost like feeling the deep vibration through the gas pedal of the CadZZilla, one of ZZ Top’s signature classic cars.ZZ Top plays hard rock that is heavily influenced by such blues greats as B.B. King and Muddy Waters. (In fact, Gibbons himself says that the name “ZZ Top” is a play on “B.B. King”). With backup from Hill, Gibbons gruffly sang through lyrics to songs with titles such as “Cheap Sunglasses,” “Legs” and “Jesus Just Left Chicago.” These songs were shot through with impressive guitar solos by Gibbons. Gibbons played with Jimi Hendrix in the years before his death, and Hendrix even cited Gibbons as one of his own favorite guitarists. In a nod to the late Woodstock veteran, ZZ Top played a cover of “Foxey Lady” in which one could clearly hear the similarities between the two guitarists’ styles.Gibbons may have stolen the show, but the band’s chemistry as a group truly set their performance apart. It was obvious that they had been playing together for decades and knew each others’ most subtle differences inside and out. Gibbons and Hill often played riffs together in side-by-side power stances, and at one point they held a back-and-forth solo “conversation” between the guitar and bass. The two even swung their guitars back and forth in metronomic unison, one of ZZ Top’s famous moves.My only complaint with the concert was that it started to tire me out with its repetitiveness. The songs were all the same style of music, medium- to fast-tempo blues rock ‘n’ roll. I started to wonder how a trio of such great musicians did not get bored of endlessly repeating the blues pattern of the first, fourth and fifth chords. My problem was with the lack of diversity in the band’s musical repertoire rather than with the performance itself.It’s hard to find something negative to say about ZZ Top’s stage presence and musical chops, both of which were highly polished and professional. If anything, the band was too highly polished. At times their playing seemed almost automatic, like they had done this a million times before (which they have). Nevertheless, they were still having fun, joking around with each other and with the crowd. Before “Waiting for the Bus,” Gibbons lamented that he needed his “blues hat,” at which a pair of seductively-dressed women promptly came out from backstage and placed a fedora on his head. At another point, Gibbons signaled offstage during a song, and a boy ran out and lit the cigar in his mouth while he was playing. At the end of the concert, Hill and Gibbons brought out furry white guitars. These touches of humor signaled that ZZ Top is a band that doesn’t take itself too seriously.All things considered, ZZ Top did a good job meeting expectations. They played all their hits, they dressed to impress and they came through with their trademark gimmicks. For a band just starting out, their classic rock glimmer and sheen would have looked ridiculous, but ZZ Top has reached the level where they can do whatever they want to do. After all, they’re already in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Now they’re just riding the GravyZZilla – er, train.