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ZZ Top's latest record, XXX, includes ambient sound recorded at a surprise Fitzgerald's performance a few months ago. The show was by invite only and was supposed to give guests a glimpse at the new direction these hirsute boys from Houston would be taking into the millennium. It had been rumored that the trio was once again returning to its roots, blues-based rock, and getting rid of its techno-y tendencies. The band also was supposed to perform at 9 p.m. It didn't go on stage until well after 11. So for three hours, patrons at Fitz's were prompted to scream their heads off by some local radio joker in the spotlight armed with a mike. And they did. ZZ Top production folk recorded the results.

Those in the crowd who had left early looked like geniuses once Top finally took the stage. Not only was the band completely uninterested in performing, but lead singer/guitarist Billy Gibbons, bass player Dusty Hill and drummer Frank Beard were solemn, out of tune and, especially Gibbons and Hill, still obviously enraptured with their personae as larger-than-life outlaw chick magnets. How could we tell? Well, both Gibbons and Hill were sporting cheap sunglasses and those silly-ass, long-ass beards, symbols of a long-lost hedonism that hasn't been seen since the '70s, when ZZ was indeed bad, nationwide.

Here's the problem: As good as XXX is, as great a band as ZZ Top is and as fine a show as ZZ Top with Lynyrd "Free Bird" Skynyrd this New Year's Eve sounds, there's little doubt the trio has slowly evolved into a mediocre classic rock act. So long as ZZzzzz Top lives in its glory days, and aligns itself with a pure nostalgia act like Skynyrd, it also runs the risk of cheapening its legacy and stunting any sort of musical growth.

It's at yet another crossroads in the band's post-Eliminator career: Should ZZ Top maintain the old tres hombres image or follow its artistic heart to new sonic territory? Even though ZZ has tried to re-establish its musicians' credentials before, it has never completely let go of its silly bad-boy posturing.

XXX was the perfect opportunity for ZZ to jump into the '00s and start acting its age. Too bad the guys flopped. They did well musically; XXX is a strong record. But they disappointed again, sticking mainly to songs about chicks and booze and pushing that tired image of three fellows, two beards and a lot of bad attitude.

Image breeds success, and ZZ Top without the beards and songs about bosomy beauties is like Alanis Morissette without the pretension. If ZZ had chosen to continue modernizing its sound, the band would have alienated its diehards and consequently would have booked the Aerial, not Compaq, this weekend. But ZZ neglected to see the benefits of the flip side: By telling diehards to fuck off and making adventuresome music, the guys might have gained new listeners, a spot on MTV or a dime or two from new CD sales. Look at Madonna. She hasn't worn a wedding gown since 1984, and she still sells lots of records. There is great freedom in not being tied to images and expectations.

XXX, eight studio and four live tracks, is not "excellent" by any stretch, but compared to all the garbage Top has released over the years, it's a vast improvement. The tempos of the songs are varied, the production is clean, and content isn't as banal as one would expect from three dirty old men.

In fact, the record confirms one indisputable fact: Top is distinctive. And isn't that the true sign of artfulness? Sure, some of the songs sound exactly the same, but at least all of the songs sound like ZZ Top. After two or three instrumental notes of a ZZ Top song, you know immediately -- thanks mainly to Gibbons's fuzzed-up, toned-down guitar -- it's a ZZ Top song. Not many other pop bands can pass the same listening test. Others, like the Doors (with Ray Manzarek's hallmark Hammond B-3 ring), Beck (with his country-western funk-rap) and Rush (with Neil Peart's signature triple-drum fills), pass the test and have been or are all pretty successful acts. That's not bad company to keep.

Too bad at the crossroads Top chose to play it safe. The tough-guy pose that brought the band so much success has now become its greatest liability. Mention ZZ Top, and you immediately think of three goofy guys twirling their fingers in sync at passing hot rods or babes with great gams. There's nothing inventive here for MTV or the local commercial radio rock station to shove down people's throats as something "spankin' new." If it weren't for this dogged appearance of the band, that of three man-sized houseflies, XXX would probably have been accepted by more listeners. No shit. In reality, it spent only a couple minutes on the Billboard Top 200 album chart.

As a result, Top's future looks like a downer. XXX can't compete with the sounds of Limp Bizkit, Kid Rock (curiously enough, an avowed ZZ Top fan) or Marilyn Manson, artists who command the attention of ZZ Top's apparent target audience, pimply-faced teens and frat boys. Unlike the men from the Grateful Dead, who aged gracefully, ZZ Top is still playing that trite Rolling Stones game: "Look at us, young people! We're really hip and happening! We use a couple of samples on our new record! And one of the Dust Brothers sat in our studio! Really!..." No, old heads, you're just... creepy. And though ZZ Top will sell out its performance this weekend, it won't be breaking any new ground. In fact, one of the guys in the band might even end up on the business end of a tossed Night Train bottle if "I'm Bad, I'm Nationwide" or "Tush" or "La Grange" or any other of ZZ Top's dinosaur rock radio hits isn't performed. Simply, all the pyrotechnics of ZZ Top's past shows are gone, but so is the drive that kept these guys dedicated to performing good boogie-woogie for 30 years. (See previously mentioned Fitzgerald's performance.)

XXX leads us to believe ZZ longed to lose its image and write decent material. But the content of the songs, the publicity photos and public appearances lead us to believe Top is content with satisfying its diehards, simply because they buy lots of concert tickets. It's no wonder ZZ Top can't sell any new records. The band exists only in memory.

The Top-Skynyrd show takes place Friday, December 31, at 8:30 p.m. at Compaq Center, 10 Greenway Plaza. Call (713)629-3700 for tickets.

Whose New Year's Eve?

Not one, but two New Year's Eve bashes will take place this weekend in town. Both have music. Both have booze. And both will be littering the sky with bright lights. In addition to the city-sponsored event near Bayou Place, a block party called Downtown-Countdown is happening at Main and Prairie. It promises a light show at around the same time Bayou Place's fireworks will be going off. Great. But don't fear. Keep your money, stand somewhere down around Warren's, and enjoy both shows. But if you want to fork out the $35 for Downtown-Countdown, you might still make out. Spank the Monkey will perform, and DJs Chris Duke, Ducky & Skinner and Static will spin.

But if either party fails to arouse, you can always stay home and prepare for the Y2K battle.

Got a band to plug? A bitch to pitch? E-mail Anthony Mariani at anthony.mariani@houstonpress.com.

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