ZZ Top RodeoHouston, Reliant Stadium March 8, 2012
See more photos from Thursday, even some without beards, in our slideshow.
I admit, I had almost given up on waiting for ZZ Top to show me something new. Not even something from their new album - which is finally completed but caught up in the music business' equivalent of Hollywood's "development hell" - just anything that might make hearing "Gimme All Your Lovin'," for example, for the umpteen thousandth time interesting.
But it has been coming up on 18 months since I saw them with Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, which is a long time for a Texan to go without a Top fix. What I guess I forgot, again, is how great of a musician Billy F. Gibbons really is, and what expert support his bandmates Dusty Hill and Frank Beard give him.
Hill often plays the straight man and foil to Gibbons' mugging and showboating, but his bass often carries the melody when Gibbons is off scratching out some rhythm chords and he's an equal partner on the vocal chores. And the pistons of a Cadillac V-8 engine like the one they rode off in Thursday night couldn't drive ZZ Top's songs any better than beardless drummer Frank Beard.
But Gibbons is the man. He is such a master of his instrument that it's as fascinating to watch him play it as it is to listen to. In his case it just happens to be the blues, but it's the same in jazz or a great classical soloist. He freezes time and suspends his surroundings, completely caught up in the moment. The 10,000th time he picks over his fingerboard during "Sharp Dressed Man" or "Jesus Just Left Chicago" is just as different as the other 9,999 times he's played it. But who's counting?
There are a lot of other things to like about a ZZ Top show too. Any ZZ Top show. Their cheeky attitude and undying love of Texas, or genuine gratitude to be playing the rodeo in its 80th year. One of the many little details that made Thursday memorable was the custom T-shirt with the old-school Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo logo on the back. A personal favorite was the Texas Longhorn emblem like you'd stick on the bumper of a car on one of his guitars.
Another was bringing out burly Nashville renegade Jamey Johnson, whose own beard is approaching the level of ZZ producer Rick Rubin, if not Gibbons and Hill themselves. Guesting on a pair of honky-tonk songs about being in the slammer, Johnny Paycheck's "11 Months and 29 Days" and Jimmie Rodgers' "In the Jailhouse Now."
Johnson held his own among his idols, although the lot of them were probably upstaged by steel player and Gibbons' guitar tech Elwood Francis, whose own magic fingers had a pretty firm grasp on how to get inside a country-blues tune.
Especially when all of them minus Francis cranked into "La Grange," sometimes you get the feeling that ZZ Top only puts words in their songs because they have to. (How-how-how-how.) Maybe it's because they don't want to be Yes - three other old guys who can play rings around each other all night.
But if you're not a guitar geek, just look at all the wisdom you can pick up from the narrator of "Tush":
- He's been bad.
- He's been good.
- He's been to Dallas, and also Hollywood.
- He'd rather be way back home, but not alone.
- He's not asking for much.
- He is looking for some tush, and downtown is a good place to look.
Words to live by. If you want to lead a well-rounded life, there are worse examples you could follow.
Personal Bias: Oh gosh. I don't know. I guess they're pretty good.
The Crowd: Dudes who dig ZZ Top, and the women who put up with them.
Overheard In the Crowd: "Fuck yes!" - during "La Grange"
A Close Second: A friend of mine telling me someone in the men's room threatened to fight him because he was not wearing a cowboy hat.
Mutton Busting Report: Disappointing. No one could hold onto the sheep. The highest score of the night was less than a 90.
Final 2012 Rodeo Observation (for me): After sitting in rodeo traffic for much more time than ZZ Top was actually onstage Thursday, I feel confident in saying that anyone who doesn't take the MetroRail is a fool.
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Got Me Under Pressure Jesus Just Left Chicago/Waitin' for the Bus Pincushion I'm Bad, I'm Nationwide Gimme All Your Lovin' Sharp Dressed Man Legs Viva Las Vegas (Elvis Presley cover) 11 Months & 29 Days w/Jamey Johnson & Elwood Francis (Johnny Paycheck cover) In the Jailhouse Now w/Jamey Johnson & Elwood Francis (Jimmie Rodgers cover) La Grange w/Jamey Johnson Tush w/Jamey Johnson