“Same three guys. Same three chords.”
That’s the credo guitarist Billy F. Gibbons long ago adopted to describe the make-up of ZZ Top, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame-inducted Texas trio he has spearheaded with bassist Dusty Hill and drummer Frank Beard for over 45 years.
It’s also a simple, honest and ever-reliable summation of how three guys out of Houston took Lone Star blues and boogie tradition and re-fashioned it into an internationally popular sound of its own. For ZZ Top’s entire history, music has remained elemental – albeit, in often strikingly varied and distinctive ways.
The foundation of the band’s popularity is two-fold. Most fans either flocked to the trio’s lean boogie groove during the early ‘70s (defined in 1973 by the Tres Hombres album and its massive radio hit La Grange) or the MTV-savvy, electro-heavy hipster music that grabbed ears a decade later (1983’s Eliminator and its monster singles Gimme All Your Lovin’, Sharp Dressed Man and Legs).
Obviously, the Tres Hombres era is more overtly blues oriented (that album’s Hot, Blue and Righteous remains one of ZZ Top’s finest, most unadorned slow blues tunes). But all of the Elimintor hits were based around lean guitar hooks and Gibbons’ elegantly seedy way singing a lyric. Even when the band’s fascination with synths, sequencers and drum loops reached an apex with 1990’s Recycler album, the blues were never out of reach, as typlified by the record’s roots-iest song, My Head’s in Mississippi (“I’m shufflin’ through the Texas sand
/But my head’s in Mississippi”).
Still, the same three guys and their chords persisted. Their commercial visibility is considerably more modest these days, however, despite the Top 10 success of 2012’s Rick Rubin produced album La Futura (the band’s highest charting album since Recycler).
Of course, in the school of pop culture opinion, maintaining a level of commercial sustainability that equals the most earnest of artistic integrities is just about impossible. As such, the ZZ members, all of whom are now 65, have not had a radio hit capable of competing with younger pop generations since Sleeping Bag became a Top 10 single in 1985.
That’s certainly not a reflection of the band’s creative output. A decade-long tenure with RCA Records yielded a quartet of fine studio albums (culminating in 2004’s devilishly funky bordertown mash-up Mescalero) that quickly faded from fan memory. Only Pincushion, the lead single from 1994’s Antenna, remains in the band’s current concert repertoire from the RCA years.
But like so many of its still-active contemporaries, ZZ Top continues to thrive as a concert act. While it doesn’t headline arenas anymore (once a frequent Rupp Arena visitor, the band hasn’t played in Lexington since 1991), more consolidated sized venues – theatres and festival stages, especially – have become the new norm. That includes arts centers, which have brought the band back to Central Kentucky in recent years. The trio performed at the EKU Center for the Arts in Richmond in 2013. It will play the Norton Center for the Arts on Saturday.
This weekend’s show is a make-up for an originally scheduled date last fall that was postponed due to a hip injury Hill suffered after falling in a tour bus. The bassist has joked on ZZ Top’s website that the Slim Harpo blues classic Hip Shake, which already echoes within the guitar groove of La Grange, should be added to the band’s performance playlist.
What was striking about the EKU show was how ZZ Top was essentially perceived as a family act, with high numbers of parents and children attending together. Perhaps for them, ZZ Top exists as video representation of the ‘80s. Certainly, the waist-length whiskers and shades Gibbons and Hill still don onstage maintain a distinctive hipster profile that compliments the band’s stage presence.
But the music hasn’t changed. While several hits (La Grange, Tush, Pearl Necklace) are still saturated in a level of innuendo that likely seems more benign over time, the album track entries peppering concerts – from Tres Hombres’ tireless Waitin’ for the Bus/Jesus Just Left Chicago medley to La Futura’s ultra-fun Chartreuse) still point to the three-guys/three chords mission statement – that, and a substantial amount of performance fun.
“It’s a dream job to get out there and play La Grange every night, singing ‘haw, haw, haw,'” Gibbons told me in an email interview prior to the 2013 concert. “Don’t get much better.”
ZZ Top and the Ben Miller Band perform at 8 p.m. March 21 at Newlin Hall, Norton Center for the Arts at Centre College, 600 West Walnut St. in Danville. Tickets: $85, $95. Call (877) 448-7469, (859) 236-4692 or go to nortoncenter.com.