Headliner ZZ Top along with opening act Jeff Beck recently rocked a full house of ecstatic old and young fans alike at the Cedar Park Center, proving once again that great music is ageless. This Texas leg of the tour, in fact, along with concert dates in Florida and Oklahoma, was rescheduled due to the hip injury that bassist Dusty Hill sustained on the band’s bus last summer. He’s back now and better than ever.
ZZ Top and Beck actually have a long history together. Legend has it that back in 1969, Jeff Beck, the British virtuoso, gave ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons and Hill Marshall amplifiers in trade for use of their touring van throughout America. And though they hail from opposite sides of the Atlantic, the artists’ respect for each others’ talents was on display for fans in Cedar Park this night, many moons past that original accord.
Beck, who turns 71 this June, started his set with a white Telecaster and his trademark thumb-picking style. With Rhonda Smith on bass, Jonathan Joseph powering the drums and Nick Meier on rhythm guitar, the Jeff Beck Band opened with “Loaded,” a drum-pumping, gritty, rhythmic rock instrumental to capture the crowd’s attention and warm up Beck’s lobster-claw of legendary leads. Quickly switching to his white Stratocaster with its overworked whammy bar, Beck plucked pure, melodic tones and stretched strings to create electric shrieks and air whistles that howled from his hands. Vocalist Jimmy Hall joined in later to take us to church with soulful renditions of Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing” and a groaning version of the great Delta Blues classic “Rollin and Tumblin.”
Beck, who once experimented with banjo strings to find his tone, interpreted a history of hits he has lived and played since the ‘60s. Playing a funked-up cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” and an extended jam of the Beatles “Day in the Life,” he chased notes up and down the entire fretboard with a two-handed tapping technique often mimicked by guitar gods such as Eddie Van Halen. Hall belted out Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” while Beck finger-picked the heart and tears out of that intense, cathartic classic.
Leaving his guitar pick behind in the ‘80s, Beck shifted to a fleshy thumb and fingertip playing style and hasn’t looked back. Awarded four Grammys and twice inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (with the Yardbirds in 1992, and as a solo artist in 2009), Beck has cranked his own guitar-god frequency to overdrive without conforming to any set formula, except his accomplished picking technique.
“I don’t care if I break the rules. If I don’t break the rules at least ten times in every song then I’m not doing my job properly,” said Beck, who is considered one of the most influential guitarists in the world.
Beck’s career first took off in the mid ‘60s when he replaced Eric Clapton as The Yardbirds’ lead guitarist via the advice of future Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page. Although he was also rumored to be a potential bandmate for both Pink Floyd and The Rolling Stones, Beck continued with a solo career that included 1976’s synthesized, hit album Wired, but also had periods of inactivity in the ‘80s due to his battle with noise-induced tinnitus. In 1992 he practiced with Guns N’ Roses but could not assist the band in concert due to the ear damage caused by years of the occupational hazard suffered by many musicians.
After a searing, instrumental rendition of the ballad “Danny Boy,” Beck ended his Cedar Park set as he started the night with a powerful drumbeat and the blues hit “Going Down,” popularized by the “Texas Cannonball” Freddie King and local Austin groups such as The Eric Tessmer Band.
With a new live album out this May named Live+, recorded while on tour last summer with ZZ Top before its hiatus, Beck and his band confirmed why Rolling Stone magazine heralded him as one of the top five guitarists of all time with a jazz-rock fusion performance that made for a very tough act to follow.
Although the beer drinkers and hell raisers might be more like wine sippers and mellow makers 46 years after they originally formed, ZZ Top, that bearded “Lil’ ol’ band from Texas,” still packs a punch of pinch harmonics and hard, fast distorted boogie that has been its recognizable sound for decades.
ZZ Top, reinvigorated and healthier since Hill’s injury recovery, upped the ante with a video presence and stage props to flavor their set. A “ZZ-rated” movie flashed scenes of Texas desert landscapes, beating hearts, reverse building implosions, spark plugs and hot rods as the band kicked off with their hit “Got Me Under Pressure” from the 1983 album Eliminator. With matching long beards, hats, and thick black frames, Gibbons and Hill revved the crowd into a frenzy with hand-scraped Fender guitars while beardless Frank Beard plugged along like a human drum machine.
Other hits from the Eliminator album were sprinkled throughout the set and accompanied by the original videos that played on MTV throughout much of the ‘80s. Gibbons’ classic harmonic-picking solos drove “Gimme All Your Lovin” home, while the crowd sang along to the extended jam of “Sharp Dressed Man.” The foxy models in the ‘80s video flashed their “Legs” during that song, as the undisputable ZZ Top blues-rock riffs and rhythm swirled through the arena normally used for Texas Stars home hockey games. Those songs rounded out the hits from the early ‘80s album that catapulted the bearded banditos with “three chords from the same three guys,” as Billy said to the crowd, to the national pop culture spotlight via television sets across the world.
Any venue would likely riot if ZZ Top did not play the classic hits they came to hear such as “La Grange,” “Jesus Just Left Chicago” and “Tush,” all three released on 1973’s album Tres Hombres. When a video showed a mini Jesus statue bobbling on a car’s dashboard, the crowd fired up like the pistons in the 1933 supercharged Ford hot rod dubbed “Eliminator” that was immortalized in the band’s ‘80s videos and adorned that ’83 album cover.
When Billy Gibbons flashed a sign on the back of his guitar that read “BEER,” the veteran crowd erupted to the riff that has its roots in many blues recordings, yet is most well known as the powerful intro of “LaGrange.” Billy spoke to crowd with one hand simulating a talking mouth while the other hand worked the fretboard of a red Gibson SG during the solo a la Buddy Guy. That greatness coupled with the most famous turnaround in blues music, that trickles throughout the song to redirect it like a flashing directional arrow, coursed its way through the happy ears of everyone and into the lead that helped solidify “Jesus Just Left Chicago” as one of the most popular blues-rock songs in the threesome’s arsenal.
Gibbons, who often uses a customized peso coin as a guitar pick, offers this explanation for his interesting accoutrement: “Tommy Carter of Jimmie Vaughan’s Dallas band, the Chessmen, used a quarter to play bass. He described the serrated edge of the coin as producing a delightful scratchiness as he scrubbed the strings. That gave me the idea, and our love of the Mexican border is what drew us to the peso. The peso coin is a rarity, but we’ve still got a few filed down for the ready.”
While Gibbons achieves his signature sound with a minimum of notes, much of ZZ Top’s overall sound is based on solid Texas boogie riffs and heavy, three-chord distortion that is immediately recognizable. But Gibbons admits, the heart and soul of their first few albums that set the stage for their success was obtained by his mythical guitar known as “Pearly Gates” which is “run through either a Marshall or an old Fender. That simple-but-deadly combination is still tough to beat.”
Though the band did reach into its bag of tricks with fur-covered, rectangular, spinning guitars, dance step routines and matching black outfits bedazzled in shiny shindigs to keep the crowd’s attention, the Texan trio, who describe themselves as “rooted in blues,” did pay their respects to the greats Jimi Hendrix and Muddy Waters with a deep, gravelly-voiced cover of “Foxy Lady” sung by Gibbons and the slow-thumping “Catfish Blues” sung by Hill.
These 65-year old rock and roll icons have sold more than 25 million albums since they started out in a van in 1969 and still sound sharp, vibrant and full of passion to share their art. For over 46 years they have sported the same lineup and have shot down the notion that over time all bands break up due to attitudes, egos and indifference. The trio is all about having a good time, making sure the fans have a good time with them and appreciating the ride.
If a delayed tour due to an elderly injury or the addition of flashing stage props to keep the aging fan base alert causes one to fret about the viability of today’s ZZ Top, all one has to do is listen for the licks Gibbons lays down with “meat on metal on wood.” And as sung by legions of fans over four decades about the guitar man known around the world simply as Billy G, “You don’t have to worry, ’cause takin’ care of business is his name.”
By Greg Lemen