Monday, December 30, 2013

Short but sweet: ZZ Top at Hard Rock Live, Hollywood, Florida

© Simon Poulter 2013
Before they retired from touring, a typical show by The Beatles lasted just 30 minutes. Famously, an American businessman, Charles O. Finley, paid Brian Epstein $150,000 to have them play an exclusive gig in Kansas City in 1964.

Having paid $100,000 more than his opening offer for their services, Finley then tried to persuade John Lennon to play for 35 minutes. Finley offered $5,000 (which, in 1964, would buy you two Ferrari 250 GTOs - one recently sold for $52 million). Finley raised his offer to $50,000. Lennon continued to reject his money. A 30-minute set it remained.

In contrast Bruce Springsteen played non-stop for almost four hours at the Stade De France this summer. Some have stupidly tried to explain this as blue collar ethic agenda. It’s not. It’s just what Bruce does.

Somewhere in between these extremes, though clearly closer to the former, are ZZ Top, who played for just over an hour and a quarter on Saturday night at Hard Rock Live, a school gym-sized arena within a Vegas-style casino "resort" 40-minutes' drive north of Miami.

For a band that's been going almost 45 years, and with a back catalogue voluminous enough to have generated 15 studio albums, a 75-minute performance comprising 17 songs - two of which were covers - seems a meagre return on the price of my ticket. Or maybe I’m just being greedy, after feasting so substantially on the super-sized bargain bucket that was Springsteen.

The thing about the Top is what you see is what you get. For a start, every song is played as if straight from the record. Little embellishment, a merciful lack of drum solos, bass solos, or meandering guitar solos. But then their album material is simple to begin with - three or four-minute songs constructed from the simplest of verse, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus, chorus traditions.

© Simon Poulter
Thus, it would be totally fair to say that ZZ Top are a music brand as simple as their name, their Texas blues-boogie and, indeed, their compositions. "Same three guys…same three chords,” guitarist (and a much under-rated one, too) and principle songwriter Billy Gibbons deadpans midway through the show.

The stage setting is simple, too: the lighting is basic, the background comprised of two LED displays that look like the sort of portable projector screens salesmen used to hawk their slideshow pitches on.

With a pair of smallish amps either side of the screens, drummer Frank Beard in the middle (helpfully identified as “the one without the beard”), and rock’s most famous pair of hirsute gonks, bassist Dusty Hill to the left and Gibbons to his right.

With no bombastic showbiz introduction, and no support band either, the Top appear, Gibbons and Hill sporting matching purple outfits and matching purple guitars, launching straight into Got Me Under Pressure

It’s the start of a set that they whip through with military efficiency. The set list for this tour has been, more or less, the same every night. 17 songs, in the same order, with the same two encores. Inevitably it brings a few boos as it ends with a somewhat unspectacular cover of Jailhouse Rock, as it probably has done for every single performance.

But that appears to be how these tres hombres roll. It’s probably how they’ve rolled since the beginning, like every other bar room blues band: turn up, set up, perform, break down, back in the van, back on the road to the next town.

The set list meanders across their canon, from the deliciously southern blues-infused Waitin’ For The Bus and Jesus Just Left Chicago from their 1973 album Tres Hombres to the hits that made them MTV stalwarts in the mid-1980s. But it’s on the 40-year-old Waitin' that you see more than four decades as a trio have bonded Gibbons, Hill and Beard into an unrelentingly syncopated trio, guitarist and bassist perfectly synchronized as they simultaneously swing into their microphones to growl "Have mercy…".

For those who’ve only known ZZ Top as Muppet-like stars of of-their-era promos featuring babes and hot rods (a type of car, before you complain), the early blues material challenges any notion of ZZ Top being a rock novelty act, a rival to Kiss with long beards instead of long tongues. They have, for a long time, been jobbing blues-rockers, their early material testament to a more earnest era of American rock.

© Simon Poulter 2013
Not that their MTV heyday was necessarily bad: I bought the single of Gimme All Your Lovin’ purely on its opening drum riff after I heard Annie Nightingale play it on Radio 1. Singles aren’t generally bought on account of their opening bar. But then that’s how roll. Subsequently, Gimme All Your Lovin’, shifts the gears somewhat in Hollywood, Florida, as the fourth track in, an early treat for those who’ve come for the hits. Perhaps due to lousy sound engineering, or perhaps as a way of masking Gibbons’ rasping voice, it comes across as more of an instrumental than an 80s pop hit, any recognisable lyrics obscured by over-exuberant bass and guitar levels.

As the beards and fluffy sheepskin guitars clearly underline, humour plays a big part in the ZZ Top oeuvre, as demonstrated by the more audible words to Pincushion, a chart hit from 1994’s Antenna: "I'm a pincushion, gotta face the facts, I'm just a pincushion, do everything she asks. I'm getting pricked around and punctureated. I let my ya ya down, I got penetrated." I’m not entirely sure what happens when you get "punctureated", but it sounds both painful and funny.

If you were to have seen, in advance, this show’s set list, and had missed the release of 2012’s Rick Rubin-produced album La Futura, you would have sworn I Gots'ta Get Paid would turn out to be an updated old Delta blues number. Instead it actually turns out to be based on an obscure, drugs trade-referencing song, 25 Lighters, by Houston rappers DJ DMD Feat Lil Keke & Fat Pat. Gibbons heard the line “I got 25 lighters on my dresser, yessir, I gotsta get paid” and it stuck, and ended up as the quirky, jolting opening track of an album that ended a near-nine-year dearth of new ZZ Top material.

Whether due to Rubin’s influence or not (which has recently been working its magic on Jake Bugg’s sophomore effort), La Futura reconnected the trio with the sort of creative sass that made Eliminator and Afterburner fertile hit albums almost 30 years ago, an entertaining cocktail of blues, infectious riffs and an unpretentious side salsa of Gibbons’ trademark, double entendre-infested humour. The album rendered ZZ Top, as one critic put it, finally sounding "like themselves again”.

© Simon Poulter 2013
After another track from La Futura, Flyin’ High, (to my disappointment, not the Stamford Bridge terrace favourite based on the socialist anthem Keep The Red Flag Flying High), ZZ Top head back in time, stopping first with the foot-twitching Certified Blues from 1971’s blissfully simply-titled ZZ Top’s First Album, before - indulging a riotous cover of Jimi Hendrix’s Foxy Lady, accompanied by a still image of Hendrix on the display screens.

It’s hard to tell whether this is knowing homage or an authentic hats off to the legend, but given that Moving Sidewalks, Gibbons’ band before forming ZZ Top, opened for Hendrix in 1968, the respect paid is genuine.

With that, another dip into La Futura with the bright Chartreuse (and a line open to all kinds of interpretation: "You got the colour that turns me loose - Chartreuse”) before setting off the '80s MTV heads in the audience with Sharp Dressed Man and Legs.

© Simon Poulter 2013
Political correctness, and the thankful retirement of David Lee Roth from promotional video making, have rendered such songs somewhat anachronistic. But no one’s complaining, thank goodness.

Questionable intent notwithstanding, this is prime ZZ Top hit territory, something not lost on the somewhat generously proportioned lady three rows in front of me, who manages to eclipse our stage view by persistently leaping from her seat to wave her hands enthusiastically in the air throughout both frug-friendly songs.

With that, the briefest of interludes before the trio return to delve into their history for two of their most popular classic rock radio hits, the John Lee Hooker-influenced La Grange and Tush, two songs that respectively and best represent the Texas blues and the lightly ribald humour that runs through ZZ Top’s entire career.

At this point I couldn’t have been the only member of the audience wondering what had happened to the likes of Cheap Sunglasses, the dodgy duo of Tube Steak Boogie and Pearl Necklace or even Viva Las Vegas. With a fifteen album catalogue to draw from their four and a half decades of material, a library of efficiently capped three and four minute marvels, I’m sure they could have gone on for another hour at least.

Instead, and to some disappointment (though not to my surprise, as I’d done my homework), the evening ends conveniently early for those with baby sitters, and that Jailhouse Rock cover. Unlike its origin as one of Elvis Presley’s signature songs and, indeed, the bouncing closing number of The Blues Brothers movie, ZZ Top’s treatment makes it a forced, almost parodic version, and somewhat anticlimactic, too, ending this breathless run through what could be politely termed a “selection” of the band’s history.

Gibbons, Hill and Beard - a trio of names that wouldn’t have been out of place in a Mad Men-style advertising agency - take care of the goodnights and traipse off stage, mostly to rapturous, appreciative applause, but a few booing dissenters feeling short changed.

I’m somewhere in the middle of this sentiment. Pre-gig due diligence had warned me of a short and, potentially, unsatisfying show. The Beatles played half-hour shows because that’s what you did in 1964 when you had thousands of screaming teenage girls drowning you out and, let’s face it, that’s about all they could manage before bladder control gave out. In 2013, a premium-priced arena show by one of rock’s most enduring bands should, probably, last longer than an episode of VH1’s Behind The Music.

Either way, this show has at least reached the inconsequential achievement of completing a unique personal ‘double’ for me. Because, you see, this was the first Saturday night of my latest visit to the United States. On the first Saturday night of my last visit I went to see The Eagles. These two utterly irrelevant facts are betrothed by the fact that I took both bands’ complete studio recordings sets on my Route 66 drive in August. And, it would seem, both bands are going through the same process of presenting somewhat dispassionate jukebox trawls through their back catalogues. That said - and not wishing to sound stoic - I can, at least, now tick ZZ Top off the bucket list of rock’s venerated hall of fame. And, to be fair, it was quite fun doing so.

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