It was a dream combination – a ZZ Top concert on Cinco de Mayo. After all, what better day (or way) to celebrate the blues and boogie music that the Texas trio has blasted forth with for more than four decades?
Guitarist Billy F. Gibbons, bassist Dusty Hill and drummer Frank Beard were on a roll Sunday night at Richmond’s EKU Center for the Arts, giving their set list a serious shakeup and having a ball with crunchy guitar workouts full of rootsy, rustic and highly economic drive. Sure, the fact it was Cinco de Mayo probably helped. It certainly gave the trio’s border-radio classic Heard It on the X a greater gravity. But it could have been Arbor Day and ZZ Top would have delivered the goods.
Musically, the 90-minute performance hasn’t strayed much from the elemental, blues fortified grinds the band has always favored. To that end, this was Gibbons’ show all the way. As the trio’s only soloist, he summoned up thick, angular solos that nicely worked off the plentiful boogie grooves at the heart of most tunes. When the music shifted strictly to the blues, as during 1975’s Blue Jean Blues (one of many surprises the band spruced up its set list with), Gibbons’ soloing was more fluid. But at no point did he overindulge. A jam band ZZ Top is not. Instrumental jaunts, and Gibbons’ rich soloing, favored brevity. Only on the still vital blues medley of Waitin’ for the Bus and Jesus Just Left Chicago did the band slow the melodic flow and take its time. Still, Gibbons’ solo was contained and immediate.
Then there were the hits, most of which have aged well – save for the static, syncopated Legs. The ’80s Eliminator singles Sharp Dressed Man and Gimme All Your Lovin’ possessed a crisp pop efficiency very much in keeping with the rest of the performance, while the ’70s boogie anthems La Grange and Tush (which closed the show) reflected a refreshing level of Lone Star wildness.
But what was featured around all that stole the show. The opening Precious and Grace (from 1973’s Tres Hombres) was unexpected. Ditto for Certified Blues (which was exactly that thanks to Gibbon’s soulful playing), an exquisite relic from 1970’s ZZ Top’s First Album and the roadhouse rumble Nasty Dogs and Funky Kings from 1975’s Fandango!
Hill piloted the last forgotten gem, the band’s 1992 cover of Viva Las Vegas, which it seldom performs anymore. It was a crowning, celebratory touch for a boogie band that manages to fashion almost any day – onstage, at least – into a holiday.