Here’s one for the music section of Guinness World Records – which band has had the longest continuous existence with the same line up? When I put this puzzle to friends ahead of this sole UK date marking ZZ Top’s 50th anniversary, no-one could think of a band, not least in the rock idiom, that has lasted as long as the ‘lil ole boogie band from Texas’.
In an international line up, support came from Jimmy Barnes, though with a near two hour gap after the doors opening it was disappointing to see him restricted to a 45 minute set. He has long been a favourite, though when I described him on this site as the ‘world’s greatest living Australian’ others were quick to point out that like the Young family he was born in Scotland and was originally a ‘ten pound pom’.
As he stomped on stage and growled ‘I woke up this morning and I’m in a bad mood’, I chuckled, thinking it was a reference to the Aussies’ hammering by England in the Cricket World Cup semi, but no, it was more literal than that as the first song was exactly that, an R n B influenced number with prominent piano playing from Clayton Doley.
There were more reassuring oldies in ‘I’d Die To Be With You Tonight’ and ‘Lay Down Your Guns’, either side of a cover of ‘Working Class Hero’ where he fairly spat out the lyrics, none more so than the ‘you’re still f—ing peasants’ line.
One of three new songs, he introduced ‘Shutting Down Our Town’ as an autobiographical one about the closure of the car factories that brought his family in search of work and reminded me of the ‘Australian Springsteen’ comparisons that were bandied about in his short-lived efforts to break the States.
In a short set, he boldly tried to span his lengthy career including a couple from Cold Chisel days and if ‘Flame Trees’ was a bit subdued for a crowd mainly unfamiliar with his work, ‘Khe Sanh’ was superb including successive solos from Clayton and a pair of tidy lead guitarists.
In between the Little Steven penned ‘Ride The Night Away’ was a highlight with the Benmont Tench-like keyboards giving it an almost heartland rock feel, while Barnesy closed with his anthem ‘Working Class Man’, face bulging and that trademark bellowing voice attacking every note and hitting them all.
It was a far cry from his usual headline shows here supported by a fanatical Antipodean Diaspora, but it seemed to go down well and will have deservedly won a number of new fans.
ZZ Top on contrast have reached the time of life where as a known quantity to their legion of fans they have nothing to prove, and they casually sidled on stage, to a minimalist stage show with good lighting but a virtually plain backdrop, and just started playing.
As for so many years they opened with ‘Got Me Under Pressure’ and it wasn’t long before Billy Gibbons’ solo was the first demonstration of that great tone and economical technique that made him a pleasure to listen to all show long.
There was then a slight surprise second song in ‘I Thank You’, he and Dusty Hill again sharing the vocals as they had down on the opener, before returning to the usual rhythm of a ZZ Top show with the classic 1-2 as ‘Waiting for the Bus’ led into a slightly extended ‘Jesus Just Left Chicago’.
However ‘Gimme All Your Lovin’, with Billy’s usual introductory guitar lick absent, saw a surprisingly subdued crowd response, the first sign that the effortlessness on stage was feeding a corresponding lack of energy off of it. It did not help that some of the material –‘Pearl Necklace’, despite a few knowing winks as people shouted the chorus, and ‘I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide’ – was rather samey.
Other than ‘I Gotsta Get Paid’, with Dusty messing with his bizarre keyboard contraption and a rather perfunctory ‘My Head’s in Mississippi’ the set ignored the post-‘Eliminator’ days. In one of his few spoken interjections Billy harked back to Jeff Beck’s guest appearance at their show here 4 years ago, but sadly this time the blues of their cover of ‘16 Tons’ was not accompanied.
I loved ‘Beer Drinkers and Hell Raisers’ which I hadn’t heard in a while, thinking it unfairly neglected in the ranks of singalong ZZ classics, and then Billy taking hold of a slide could only mean another favourite in’ Just Got Paid’.
I suspected this meant we were already moving into a hit packed home straight and sure enough ‘Sharp Dressed Man’ saw a forest of camera phones held aloft, which in the modern era has replaced the pogo or the fists in the air as the best proxy for crowd enthusiasm levels, followed by the synchronised moves (though neither moved more than a foot from their station) while playing fluffy white guitars during ‘Legs’.
However the pure, high pitched tones purporting to come from Billy’s mike beggared belief after he had been singing in that low down and increasingly raspy growl all set long.
They sneaked off stage with barely a word, but were soon back for the expected encores in the timeless pair of ‘La Grange’, turning into a swampy jam with some great guitar work from Billy, before he left Dusty to the vocals and allowed a roadie to light a cigarette while he played more tasty slide to ‘Tush’.
They left, then returned for the briefest of second encores in ‘Jailhouse Rock’, again barely staying to milk the applause before shuffling off, presumably to finish their evening with a bourbon-laced Horlicks.
It was an enjoyable canter through the legacy of this quirky band with a unique sound, but I left feeling distinctly uncomfortable and short changed. When the set stopped, the clock had barely tipped an hour and a quarter. For an arena headline, where £65 was the basic ticket price, that was unforgivably lazy – not least as they have a wealth of great songs from their long career that they could easily have played.
Admittedly I may have been spoiled 24 hours earlier by Kiss’ spectacular stage show, which is comparing apples and oranges, but their showmanship also compared unfavourably to the energy fellow southern doyens Lynyrd Skynrd brought to Wembley a couple of weeks previously to spark an enthusiastic atmosphere.
I accept their laid back nonchalance is part of their charm and it is hard to read what is going on behind those beards and shades. However ZZ appeared to be rather phoning in their performance with little effort to show the crowd that they cared, which in turn made the latter rather flat and itself lacking in energy. Maybe that increasing economy of effort is the secret to that 50 year longevity?
Review and photos by Andy Nathan
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