ZZ Top’s 50th Anniversary Texas Bash
Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion
May 18, 2019
“This is where it started, right chere, y’all,” said ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons to a raucous and capacity crowd gathered at Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion last night to celebrate the band’s 50th anniversary in music. “We’ve been coming around here with you guys for five decades.”
That was the lone moment Houston was singled out during the band’s celebratory set. Nary a further word was uttered by Gibbons or his bandmate Dusty Hill or drummer Frank Beard about Houston or its role in bringing together one of the state’s best-loved, most accomplished rock acts. The only other nod to the home base was Gibbons telling the crowd the band was happy to be home from the road because “we were about a quart low on hot sauce.”
All of this was just fine with the throngs of people who braved the scattered showers to hear the thunderous rumble of the band’s legendary blues rock songs as part of a set of Texas shows marking the anniversary. The show was sandwiched between Dallas and Austin dates this month, all setting up a broader national anniversary tour later this year.
The band chose to show its gratitude to Texas fans in musical terms rather than overly sentimental soliloquies. The best instance of this was the set’s second song, the Sam & Dave cover “I Thank You,” also a hit for ZZ Top going back to 1979’s Degüello. A slide show of photos from the band’s earliest days as a merger between members of the Moving Sidewalks (Gibbons’ band) and the American Blues (which brought Hill and Beard in) played on the Pavilion’s screens. As the photos scrolled and chronicled the band’s acclaimed career, its members literally and repeated sang “I thank you,” to some of the fans who’ve helped propel them into rock’s enduring annals.
The rest of the night was a ZZ Top concert, slight on chat and heavy on music. The band conjured up its version of the country classic “Sixteen Tons,” which could also have been the estimated weight of the amps stacked onstage . Those amps were tested by the muscle of songs like set opener “Got Me Under Pressure” and older stuff that hearkened back to an era before Eliminator, the 1983 record which took ZZ Top from bad and nationwide to bad and worldwide. “Jesus Just Left Chicago” and “Waitin’ for the Bus” from 1973’s Tres Hombres filled a niche for fans of the pre-MTV era music. The archival footage rolled during these songs and showed the band when the beards were smaller but the promise of rock and roll immortality was still big. “I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide” was a standout selection from those older songs, and Gibbons and Hill did some of the night’s best guitar work on that one, shredding the song to bits.
For those who caught onto the band when it went mainstream, Beard drummed up a dance party for “Gimme All Your Lovin’” and “Pearl Necklace.” The night closed with the songs the band admits it can’t leave without performing, “Sharp Dressed Man” and “Legs,” ahead of the encore tunes, "La Grange" and "Tush." Though they’ve played them innumerable times, they launched into them with smiles appearing through the thickets of face fur, no less joyful for the chance to once again roll them out for listeners who’ve been around for lots, if not all, of the 50 years the band’s been playing.
The Openers: The first thing I noticed about Cheap Trick was that everyone on stage but the drummer was wearing a cap (a trademark of guitarist Rick Nielsen since the band’s inception in 1973) or a hat, including cowboy hats adorned by bassist Tom Petersson and backup guitarist Robin Taylor Zander, son of the band’s vocalist Robin Zander. Maybe those Stetsons were an homage of sorts to the men of honor? Nielsen said the band felt lucky to accompany ZZ Top on its anniversary run and then ran through most of the hits from their own Rock Hall of Fame career (“She’s Tight” and “If You Want My Love” were noticeably absent). Like ZZ Top, Cheap Trick boasts the majority of its classic lineup, with only drummer Bun E. Carlos replaced by Nielsen’s son, Daxx. So, there was a definite family feel to Cheap Trick’s set, one which was reflected back by an audience made up of moms, dads, children and grandchildren taking in a stellar night of classic rock. Song highlights included the ballad “The Flame,” which allowed Zander to show off some still-working pipes, and set closer “Surrender,” which had the crowd up on its feet and dancing early in the evening.
“Wow, you’re singing good tonight,” said Bad Company front man Paul Rodgers to the audience, which, by that time, had joined in on some of the band’s biggest hits, stuff like the back-to-back set openers “Can’t Get Enough,” “Rock ‘n’ Roll Fantasy,” “Movin’ On” and “Feel Like Makin’ Love.” If Paul Rodgers tells you that you can sing, take it as a huge compliment because he has one of the best rock voices ever. His voice remains a powerhouse. It was soulful and sweet on “Seagull,” a standout tune from the set, and one that allowed him to mention Bad Company co-founder Mick Ralphs, who suffered a stroke a few years ago and no longer tours with the act.
Rodgers was generous with the spotlight, bringing drummer and band co-founder (and, like Rodgers, a former member of the originating act Free) Simon Kirke up front to play a song he dedicated to his wife. Guitarist Howard Leese got a turn, too, for Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower.” Then, the crowd was invited back in for sing-alongs to staples like “Ready for Love” and “Shooting Star.” The band encore was Free’s “All Right Now,” complete with archival footage from the pre-Bad Company days that stretched back to the same late 1960s era that launched ZZ Top.
Personal Bias: The first live music event I ever attended, the one I count because I had to earn my own money to see the show, was the Rolling Stones’ 1981 tour for Tattoo You. ZZ Top opened the show in Houston. From my seat that night, the Top looked tiny and far-off on a stage set in what would have been centerfield in the Astrodome. But, I was there, in my seat for their set, which included at least a few songs I heard again last night, the first time I’d caught them live since that first show nearly 40 years ago. When ZZ Top crossed into mainstream popularity during MTV’s music video heyday, it was always a source of pride to say I’d seen them live before the videos. As time went by and their legacy grew, that hometown pride grew and it was a full circle moment (for me anyway) when the Stones’ Keith Richards inducted ZZ Top into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 15 years ago. Though he mostly rambled off-script a bit, Richards remarked on the band’s consistency, longevity and preservation of Texas blues as key to their inclusion in the Hall. Then they came onstage and smashed the joint up with rousing performances of “La Grange” and “Tush,” the songs which closed last night's Anniversary Bash set.
The Crowd: One of the most telling moments of the night from my vantage point was catching a glimpse of the dad in the row behind me telling his adolescent son, “Look!” as Bad Company’s Simon Kirke gave his drum kit a workout on the end of “Bad Company.” That inspired both dad and son to air-drum along with Kirke.
Overheard in the Crowd: Post-Anniversary Bash edition, courtesy of a horde of music fans looking for the Pavilion’s crayon-colored parking lots after the show:
“See how easy it is to get lost out here? All these trees look the same.”
“Yes, I want some Jack in the Box tacos! And some egg rolls! And a sourdough Breakfast Jack!” said a possibly tipsy and definitely hungry woman, running through every concertgoer’s late night drive-thru dream order.
Random Notebook Dump: With apologies to our expert Houston Press food writers, allow me to momentarily turn concert venue cuisine critic. If you can’t wait for post-show sustenance from Jack in the Box or Taco Cabana and must select from the Pavilion’s pricey food options, your best bet is the $8 foot-long corn dog. I know, eight bucks is a lot to pay for a corn dog. You can nab two boxes at the Kroger for the same price; but, had you not passed all those fast food joints on the way to The Woodlands to not miss the opening acts, you wouldn’t be in such a predicament now, would you? At $8, you’re getting value for the money because you probably will eat the entire thing (except, of course for the stick). It’s really hard to mess up a corn dog. As long as it’s served warm (and it was), and slathered in mustard (never ketchup), you’ve got satisfying nom noms. The worst option is anything sold with waffle fries. The concession stand’s puny heat lamps just can’t keep these potatoes-in-waiting warm. Scads of uneaten baskets littered the Pavilion’s floor, morphing it into an Idaho spud farm, which would be sort of an awesome place to see a ZZ Top concert, come to think of it.
Cheap Trick Set List
California Man (The Move cover)
Baby Loves to Rock
The House is Rockin’ (With Domestic Problems)
Need Your Love
I Want You to Want Me
Bad Company Set List
Can’t Get Enough
Rock ‘n’ Roll Fantasy
Feel Like Makin’ Love
All Because of You
Ready for Love
All Along the Watchtower
All Right Now (Free cover)
ZZ Top Set List
Got Me Under Pressure
I Thank You
Waitin’ for the Bus
Jesus Just Left Chicago
Gimme All Your Lovin’
I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide
I Gotsta Get Paid
My Head’s in Mississippi
Beer Drinkers & Hell Raisers
Just Got Paid
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Sharp Dressed Man