ZZ Top's secret has always been making it look easy.
Finding a way to blend the blues, rock, and pop while honoring tradition and looking forward, all at the same time, is a daunting musical challenge, one that very few bands have ever pulled off with any kind of staying power.
Then you watched those three Texans strolling on the Stranahan Theater stage Thursday night, ambling out before a nearly sold out, loud, enthusiastic crowd carrying four decades of rock and roll experience on their shoulders, and the trick becomes obvious:
Just be cool.
Frank Beard, the beardless drummer, was almost laconic when he settled in behind his massive drum kit, checking things out while a video played behind him in the dark. Bass player Dusty Hill, squat, and solidly-built with thick, meaty paws that seem designed perfectly for his instrument, was loose and happy, a prize-fighter who knows he's already won the bout. And Billy Gibbons, the lean guitar player with enough weird bling to break a bigger man's neck and a red kerchief hiding behind his long beard, was positively gleeful when he hit the stage.
For the next 90 minutes the power trio plowed through hits such as “Sharp Dressed Man,” “Gimme All Your Lovin',” and “Legs,” a few deep cuts such as “Pin Cushion,” old classic rockers like “Tush” and “LaGrange” and two songs from their new disc, “La Futura.”
Kicking off with the deep soul groove of “Thank You,” ZZ Top laid out the template that has driven their success and that kept the audience on its feet most of the show. Gibbons' guitar tone is a unique weapon: sludgy and clean at the same time, with a funky, slurry vibe that is raunchy but bright. He plays with a combination of economy and virtuosity, often nodding at Beard and Hill to kick songs into another gear.
He hangs his guitar practically down to his ankles and he and Hill engaged in choreographed dance steps that steered clear of schtick. Throughout the show video screens provided slightly tilted perspectives of the musicians, often peeling off multiple images of Gibbons and Hill, making it look as if they'd been cloned.
Of course there were a few of the props that hearken to the band's MTV-era halcyon days. They broke out the fuzzy guitars for “Legs,” Nudie sparkle suits for “Tube Snake Boogie” and Gibbons enjoyed a cigar during “Tush,” the set's last song.
But it always came back to the music: “Pin Cushion” swinging like a boogie band on steroids rocking a little honky tonk, “Heard It on the X” barreling like pile driving blues punk, “Beer Drinkers and Hell Raisers” tearing the joint up.
Gibbons worked in plenty of Toledo and Ohio references, gave a shout out to military veterans, and generally having a good old time while making it all look remarkably easy. At one point he launched into a flashy one handed guitar solo before he stepped up to the microphone, grinned and said, “Somebody said, 'How's that guy playin' that guitar with one hand?”
Then he flipped the guitar over and on the back the word "Beer" was written in large letters.
Maybe that's the secret. Contact Rod Lockwood at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6159.