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Tres Hombres

Discovering why ZZ Top is "critic-proof"

ZZ Top. Typing those five letters into any search engine brings forth a Texas flood of results. Beards, babes, blues, boogie and booze. Cheap sunglasses and low-riding cars. Pearl necklaces, manic mechanics and whiskey 'n' mamas. Heaven, hell or Houston.

Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004 by none other than Keith Richards himself, the Lil' Ol' Band from Texas has been peeling down the blacktop for 40 years now, accumulating a mythology bigger than the Lone Star State itself. Have mercy.

ZZ's ongoing popularity with its core audience — and now their kids, and even grandkids — and lack of interest in anything outside fucked-up, fuzzed-out blues-rock has occasionally led writers to describe them as "critic-proof," which sounds like a compliment but really isn't. As early as 1977, The New York Times pegged the trio as "the kind of group the rock press tends to overlook or ignore."

Nevertheless, searching "ZZ Top" on the Times's Web site returned more than 1,800 entries. A lot of them were offhand references to facial hair — if nothing else, ZZ Top has been a boon to anyone writing about beards — but there was also this pearl by Ann Powers from back in 1999: "The patented growl of Billy Gibbons echoes loudly in the archives of classic rock."

Indeed it does. YouTube is full of bands, from Van Halen, Iron Maiden and Phish to Queens of the Stone Age and Ministry, covering ZZ Top. Bands headed to Houston soon that bear ZZ's unmistakable stamp include Jonathan Tyler & the Northern Lights, Davy Knowles & Back Door Slam and Nashville Pussy. Unlike their current tour partners Aerosmith, they don't need their own Guitar Hero game to reach younger listeners; the thousands of tweens, teens and twentysomethings at ZZ's RodeoHouston appearance back in March (attendance: 64,048) was proof enough of that.

Honestly, spending too much time pondering the deeper meanings of songs like "Tube Snake Boogie," "Tush" or "Woke Up With Wood" is pretty silly. But even that downplays how funny, clever and sometimes even romantic ("It's Only Love") their lyrics can be. But even when they're singing about underage liaisons ("Francine") or prostitutes ("Mexican Blackbird," "Precious and Grace"), nobody would ever call ZZ Top misogynistic.

"If I thought too much about messages within [classic rock] or about the behavior of some of its icons, I'd probably dislike every act in the genre," says Noise's counterpart at St. Louis's Riverfront Times, Annie Zaleski. "With any music, you have to think about intent, and I've never had the impression that anybody in ZZ Top is sexist. If, say, Buckcherry or Mötley Crüe sang the same lines, I might think differently."

The only social issues ZZ Top has ever stood up for in its music are beer drinking and hell raising. The band's body of work is a San Jacinto-size monument to life, liberty and the pursuit of ass. There's a good reason for that, it turns out.

"We tried to write heavy, underlying, socially viable message pieces," Billy Gibbons told the Times's Jon Pareles in November 1985, around the time the band's Afterburner LP sold two million copies in two weeks. "But they sound terrible, and it's hard to believe them from guys with two-foot beards."

ZZ Top's merits come into even sharper focus if you look at them as what they really are, and always have been: a blues band. Unlike rock and roll — to a certain extent, anyway — longevity is a major asset in the blues. So is tradition, and like baseball, ZZ Top fandom is now something that gets handed down from fathers to sons.

And technique. Though Gibbons is recognized around the world as a guitar god — and has been ever since Jimi Hendrix gave him a shout-out on the Tonight Show when Gibbons was still in the Moving Sidewalks — the blues-based structure and lighthearted tone of ZZ Top's music often covers up how much is really going on in there.

"If anything, I think the band is quite underrated," agrees Zaleski. "If you think about its sound and the influences it distills — blues, rock, country, honky-tonk, hell, everything in between — there is no other band that sounds like ZZ Top. The band isn't afraid to embrace the baser, rawer, primal parts of those genres, either, and that's something most people shied away from (probably because they were afraid of losing commercial success)."

But most of all, of course, ZZ Top is ours. Houston's and Texas's. They've never pretended to be otherwise — quite the opposite, in fact. Musically, they're a vital link to the International Artists days of the 13th Floor Elevators, Bubble Puppy and Red Krayola, and continue to influence contemporary bands like the Raconteurs, Earl Greyhound and Wolfmother. Culturally, 40 years of touring "La Grange" and "I'm Bad, I'm Nationwide" almost constantly means that, to millions around the world, ZZ Top is Texas.

"I can tell you as a Texan whose brother has been obsessed with ZZ much of his life, any non-Texas perspectives on the band are invalid," offers Jason Harper, music editor of the Press's sister paper in Kansas City, The Pitch.

Well said. And let's not forget that there's always a place for the blues in hard times, and for rock and roll to help shake the pain and fear away for a few hours. That's why there's room for ZZ Top tickets in the overtaxed budgets of about 20,000 of their fellow Texans Friday night.

Oh, and about that new album, the one reportedly produced by longtime fan Rick Rubin and featuring collaborations with young acolytes like the Black Keys. (Yes, ZZ Top still does make new albums — occasionally.)

"They've been writing songs and demo-ing some stuff but have not, as yet, gotten into the studio to record, and I don't see that happening until very late this year, with a new album out sometime in 2010," says ZZ Top's longtime publicist Bob Merlis. "Gibbons, as usual, has been screwing around with new gear, etc., but the tour schedule has precluded getting down to biz in terms of getting the album underway."

No rush, guys. At this point, ZZ Top is as much of a constant around here as heat in the summertime or good greasy Mexican food. But even though it seems like they've always been around, and always will be, by no means is that an invitation to ever take them for granted. CHRIS GRAY

ZZ Top and Aerosmith play at 7:30 p.m. Friday, July 17, at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, 2005 Lake Robbins Dr., The Woodlands, 281-363-3300 or www.woodlandscenter.org.

chris.gray@houstonpress.com

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