Make all the Guitar Hero jokes you want. Whatever it is that's kept ZZ Top and Aerosmith in the public eye for almost four decades - video games or beards-n-babes videos, Back to the Future cameos or Michael Bay ballads, bee-stung lips or cheap sunglasses - they've never forgotten that eventually it all circles back around to the stage. And never been unable to deliver when it does.
Formed half a continent but not many years apart, ZZ and Aerosmith found common ground early on. After Jimi Hendrix's death, American rock musicians' natural birthright to the blues was in real doubt, and the most overt disciples of Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Lightnin' Hopkins, etc. - and certainly the ones who filled the most seats in U.S. coliseums and sports arenas - usually spoke with British accents. Others did their part, sure, but no Yanks plugged back into rock's primal urges and origins in the early '70s like these two.
All these years later, in the middle of what is politely still being called a recession, about 20,000 people plunked down money that otherwise might have gone towards rent or savings or college for tickets, parking, yard margaritas and "Beer Drinkers and Hell Raisers" T-shirts. Many on hand no doubt already saw ZZ at the rodeo in March and/or helped Aerosmith set the all-time Pavilion attendance record back in 2003, proof enough how well the the groups have succeeded.
Enjoying home-field advantage Friday - but playing outdoors during daylight hours and opening for someone, period, in Texas for the first time in God only knows how long - ZZ Top didn't make a big deal out of it either way.
Obviously glad to be presiding over "bluestime in Houston, Texas," Billy Gibbons reminded everyone he was a reverend by laying down the rules of "Number 1, no drinking during the gospel songs" and "Number 2, no gospel songs," and told an amusing anecdote about why he had on one red and one black Converse, but other than that the trio was reliably businesslike about enjoyin' gettin' it on.
The only real set surprises Friday were sticky deep-cut Eliminator ballad "I Need You Tonight" - that was prime bluestime, as were "Jesus Bus" and "Cheap Sunglasses" - and an explosive version of Hendrix's "Foxy Lady." Gibbons dedicated the latter to Houston's "prettiest girls on the planet," of whom there were many, and who showed their appreciation by shaking what the Good Lord and their mama gave 'em all the way through a dirty-boogie suite of "Gimme All Your Lovin'," "Sharp Dressed Man," "Legs," "La Grange" and "Tush."
How was it? How do you think it was? All Aftermath will say is if you ever get the chance to witness a pink-violet Texas sunset while ZZ Top how-how-how-hows "La Grange" from 25 to 100 yards away again... we recommend you take it, dumbass.
Whereas Gibbons and Dusty Hill onstage are the (literally) walking embodiment of Texas cool, never in much of a hurry to get anywhere, Aerosmith's Steven Tyler seems like he was born with a wind machine in his face. He can be more Tin Pan Alley/ragtime soft-shoe showman than rock and roller, scatting like Cab Calloway on "Rag Doll" and invoking Mae West ("sometimes I'm good but when I'm bad I'm better") in "Falling in Love (Is So Hard on the Knees)."
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Any throwback notions went by the boards as Aftermath scanned the blue-green sea of digital cameras and cell phones held aloft during "Dream On," and wondered how many of the under-25s holding them up and heartily singing along - and there were lots - first learned about the song from Eminem's 2002 semi-remake "Sing for the Moment." But hey, they loved the raunchy R&B of "Back in the Saddle," "Last Child" and "Walkin' the Dog," none of which get near the amount of radio play as "Dream On," just as much.
"We couldn't play on a bill with ZZ and not send out a little blues your way," said Joe Perry before a stout "Stop Messin' Round" that was pure sweet home Chicago. Perry's fab fretwork - which, on "Saddle," "Combination" and OMG closer "Walk This Way," made it pretty obvious he taught Slash everything he needed to know - dominated the second half of the set as Tyler either took a breather, toned it down a notch (if you can believe that) or blew some tasty harp on "Messin'."
The hits came and went ("Love In an Elevator," "Cryin'," "Livin' On the Edge"), the air steadily got thicker (with sweat and smoke), there was a bass solo and we were all pretty dazed and confused by the time "Sweet Emotion" rolled around. Then Aftermath saw one of the most fucked-up, heartwarming things in 15-plus years of regular concert attendance: a mother and daughter screaming the "can't catch me 'cause the rabbit done died" lyric - in other words, Tyler's absconding because he knocked up this sweet emotion - to each other. This is why we still do this.
And it's why Aerosmith and ZZ Top still do it, too. Friday, the train kept a rollin' all night long, and it'll be rollin' for a long, long time to come.