March 5, 2015
One of the first thing you realize when you see Billy Gibbons, Dusty Hill and Frank Beard, the three 65-year-olds who make up genre defining boogie-rock act ZZ Top, is that in pinch it would probably be incredibly easy to fake a ZZ Top public appearance with body doubles.
With their long beards, ubiquitous cheap sunglasses and Tex-Mex headgear, lead guitarist Gibbons and bassist Hill could be easily swapped out by clones for any autograph session or car dealership opening and the public would be none the wiser. Beard, meanwhile, could wander straight through a Friday the 13th in Port Dover without a hint to distinguish himself from the thousands of other riders.
Ultimately, though, a ZZ Clone con could never succeed and the reasons why were on clear display when the veteran trio shuffled on stage to play Thursday night at Hamilton’s FirstOntario Centre.
Whether it was the trademark synchronized dances moves between Gibbons and Hill — which at this point are often little more than the act of lining up beside each other and nodding or dipping in the same direction at the same time — or the effortless churn of hits from their four-plus decade career, it was abundantly clear that what ZZ Top do is exactly, uniquely their own.
A cynic could’ve negatively viewed their relatively tight set (a casino circuit-friendly 80 minutes and gone), their “Hello Canada!” cheap pops, and their super-spare stage set-up (two moderate video screens, no backdrop or other ornamentation) as a classic case of paycheque rock from a dad band, but those same cynics would’ve missed out on what turned out to be a rock ‘n’ roll masterclass.
This, because ZZ Top delivered exactly what they were supposed to at a chilly early-March show in a Canadian steeltown. For one, they played most of their biggest hits: “Gimme All Your Lovin’,” “Sharp Dressed Man” and a surprisingly spirited version of “Legs” from the 1983 mega-album Eliminator all got their due. Give the people what they want, after all. Better was the mid-set blues rock tribute featuring a legit rip through Jimi Hendrix’s “Foxy Lady” and a respect-your-roots rendition of the Robert Petway’s “Catfish Blues.” Sure, the popularity of “Cheap Sunglasses” remains inexplicable and new song “Chartreuse” is mostly effective only in that it sounds distinctively like a ZZ Top song in the same way an AC/DC song sounds like AC/DC regardless of the era. That said, the encore one-two punch of best songs “La Grange” and “Tush” were legit in such a way that the wave ZZ Top gave as they strolled off the stage could’ve just as easily been mics dropping.
Very simple, ZZ Top showed up in a sleepy suburban city and proved exactly what they were — consummate, experienced masters of their specific blues rock domain.
Sometimes that’s all they’re supposed to do. And that’s an impossible thing to fake.