Almost 50 years after their first record, a legendary Hall of Fame trio is largely still the same little ol’ band from Texas we saw back when.
By Steve Houk
I look back now as a parent and say, flabbergasted, how did our parents let us drive an hour-plus to this show, in a shady part of a small city we’d never been to, all at only 16 years old?
Well, they did, it was 1977, the freewheelin’ Ice Storm-style suburban parenting style was the vogue, so we piled into one of our parents’ cars, pirated beers and all, and headed north on 84 up to Waterbury, taking a brief pee break on the way not knowing it was a police substation wall we were peeing on. Somehow we made it.
And what we found in the Palace Theater at the end of this teenage party drive was exactly what we were all about back then, pure guitar-driven, kick-ass blues soaked rock and roll, set on absolute fire this spring night by a trio we’d just become familiar with, which at the time was three cowboy-hatted, plaid-shirted, jeans-wearin’, less-bearded Texan boys, replete with cattle galloping across the stage, and their guitar, bass and drums rampaging into our vernacular like a stampede of mustangs across the plains.
As we would grow and change and find our way through life over the next 40 years since that night in Waterbury, so would ZZ Top. The ‘little ol’ band from Texas’ as they were called, and still are in most fan circles, would always retain and convey their blues rock and roll soul, would add an almost cosmic vibe and sonic boom to some of their later work, and would be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame in 2004.
But in the end, all these years later, according to ZZ’s top dog Billy Gibbons, other than the slow graying of their magnificent beards, they are still those same three guys that galloped into our Connecticut hearts from Texas decades ago, still rocking the house every night, and enjoying it more than ever.
“To be honest, there’s not all that much difference from then to now,” Gibbons, 68, said on opening night of ZZ’s Blues and Bayous Tour with John Fogerty, which sidles up to Wolf Trap May 29th and 30th. “We’ve been doing what we’ve been doing for quite a while, and like we say of ourselves, ‘same three guys, same three chords’ and that’s the ZZ Top essence. Another slogan we’ve added to the mantras: ‘Tone, taste and tenacity’ and it’s that last part that covers the topic of our endurance. To that end, it’s certainly helped that, over the years, we’ve graduated from going to gigs with us and the gear crammed into a station wagon to traveling in separate coaches. So when we do get to a venue now, it’s something of a reunion, and we’re genuinely glad to see each other. We couldn’t have foreseen this endeavor taking the better part of four decades, however. We just like to get out there, turn it up and get down, and that’s still the case.”
And if their last gallop through town in 2017 at Maryland’s MGM Grand is any indication of their continued stage power, they do still turn it up and get down whenever they get out there. It was a show that featured a sizzling swath of material from their always-impressive catalog, as well as three consecutive covers from Jimi Hendrix, Robert Petway and Merle Travis. And of course blues masters like Petway and Hendrix would be in the band’s repertoire not only now but throughout the last 40 plus years, given how deep the blues has always run for Gibbons and lifelong bandmates Dusty Hill and Frank Beard. It’s great to hear Gibbons riff through not only his influences, but the up and comers of the current blues scene.
“The blues is eternal, and it corresponds to the those inner human rhythms,” Gibbons said without hesitation. “It’s so elemental that it’s undeniable. ZZ just stayed with it because it’s, literally, within us. The big influences are of course the usual lineup of familiars, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Jimmy Reed, Lightnin’ Hopkins, the three Kings — B.B., Albert and Freddie. These days, we’re diggin’ Buddy Guy’s protege Quinn Sullivan, our old buddy James Harmon, Shemekia Copeland who is Texas bluesman Johnny Copeland’s mega-talented daughter, and Sue Foley. It was our pleasure to guest on recent releases by those two great ladies of the blues, by the way.”
And it seems only fitting that the three ZZ’s would saddle up with fellow legend and Creedence Clearwater Revival founder Fogerty for not only a 2018 summer tour that features two Hall of Famers (Fogerty was inducted in 1993), but also a classic rock-laced studio collaboration between the blues and the bayou. “It’s just terrific,” said a clearly excited Gibbons. “We’ve been mutual fans of each other since forever, so it was only a matter of time before we got together and did a collaboration. Speaking of which, we just guested on a new track from John called “The Holy Grail.” Go out and, ahem, search for it.”
Gibbons, Hill and Beard have truly conquered the world these past four plus decades, making a killer living at music longer than most bands ever dream of while retaining their integrity as a good ol’ rock and roll band. So is there anything that Gibbons wished he’d done or hopes to do, 40-plus years after the Top blew our teenage minds at the Palace? “I’ve played with Jimi Hendrix, and we were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Keith Richards. Who could ask for anything more?”
ZZ Top and John Fogerty with special guest Ryan Kinder perform Tuesday May 29th and Wednesday May 30th at Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts, 1551 Trap Rd, Vienna, VA 22182. For tickets, click here.