Review: ZZ Top revs up ageless chops, hits at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater
I’ll admit it: Part of the reason I wanted to see ZZ Top at Ruth Eckerd Hall Friday night was that I wasn’t sure how many more chances I’d get.
Three times in the last three years, the band has postponed a Tampa Bay concert due to health issues, including this one, which had been rescheduled from April. Billy Gibbons, Dusty Hill and Frank Beard have played together since 1969, but they’re in their late 60s, and no one’s getting any younger. Gibbons released a solo album last year. At some point, their tireless roadshow has to come to an end, right?
Well, shame on me for doubting the rejuvenating power of the Eliminator.
Nearly five decades into a one-of-a-kind career, ZZ Top proved their mighty engines are still running smoothly, and they aren’t ready to pump the brakes on their Hall of Fame career.
“We’re just making this stuff up as we go along,” Gibbons said, though that’s clearly not the case with their well-oiled roadshow.
It's pointless to point out how skillfully ZZ Top still slings all their signature hits. They've got a sound -- literally ONE sound; almost every tune feels like a variation on the same general riff (Sharp Dressed Man and Gimme All Your Lovin' might ACTUALLY be the same song) -- and they absolutely know how to use it. It's dirt-draggin' butt-rock, soaked in tequila and lit up with a Zippo. You've heard each song a million times, and they sound zero percent worse for their decades of wear.
At 66, Gibbons has the look of a mystic, lean and angular and draped in rocker accoutrements, but with none of the accompanying insufferableness. (During Cheap Sunglasses, he flipped over his guitar to reveal one four-letter word in bold print: BEER.) He still grins and shuffles and shouts out Beard and Hill, swaying in step with the latter just like in the old days. He plays all those iconic hot-rod riffs with the care of a proud papa, and saves his showoffy noodling for the blues tracks that really call for it, like Catfish Blues and the twang-tactic La Grange. And his grumbly croak -- put to sinister use on a cover of the old country nugget Sixteen Tons -- fits like a mud-caked work glove.
Hill, broader in stature with a higher, more biting snarl, ambled around the stage just like Gibbons, nailing his lead vocals on their all-time ode to the almighty patootie, Tush. And through it all, the beardless Beard pounded away at his workmanlike pace, drumming out a steady boogie beat and lighting up a cigarette on Sixteen Tons.
The band played familiar tunes old and new, including the slinky, sizzling brisket biscuit I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide; the slow-burning blues number Jesus Just Left Chicago; and covers of Foxy Lady and Jailhouse Rock (both of which I could have done without, though I’ll give ‘em a pass considering Gibbons was actually inspired to play rock ‘n’ roll by watching Elvis on Ed Sullivan, and he actually did tour with Jimi Hendrix).
You watch Gibbons and Hill up there, brushing their beards, swiveling in their matching Nudie suits, smashing out Legs on white fur-lined guitars, and it’s mesmerizing, even a little transportive. Like Kiss or the Beastie Boys or "Weird Al" Yankovic, ZZ Top are almost too implausible an idea for this world. They're like living cartoons -- awesome Big Daddy Roth cartoons, but cartoons nonetheless -- and as such they seem inhumanly immortal, exempt from all reasonable expectations of how rock stars should act and sound in old age.
And the thing is, take any one of them out of the equation, and the illusion of ZZ Top falls apart. The whole thing doesn't work. It’s the combo, and their familiarity with one another, that makes the wheels turn. So you can see why those recent health setbacks had fans biting their nails.
The good news is, all seemed well in the ZZ Topiverse on Friday. So if you didn’t catch them then -- and considering Ruth Eckerd Hall was very, very sold out, there’s a good chance you didn't -- definitely try to the next time they come through town. Or the time after that. Or the time after that.
Because something tells me they're not going away anytime soon.
-- Jay Cridlin