by Paul T. Mueller
Legendary Texas blues -rock trio ZZ Top made a little history over Labor Day weekend. On Saturday, September 5, after more than four decades of touring and performing, the band played its first-ever show in La Grange, the south-central Texas town that lent its name to one of the band’s biggest hits.
Anyone who came to the Fayette County Fairgrounds expecting nuance from the Top probably left disappointed. But let’s face it, it’s unlikely that many in the huge audience – one unofficial estimate put the crowd’s size at 30,000 – were expecting any such thing. The trio – guitarist Billy Gibbons, bassist Dusty Hill and drummer Frank Beard – is known mostly for pounding out unpretentious, blues-based boogie dealing
with a variety of non-cerebral topics. That’s what the fans came for, and they got it. The band delivered a well-paced, 80-minute show featuring most of its best-known songs, plus a couple of covers. All of it was done with style and a refreshing absence of synthesizers and theatrics – if you don’t count a live buzzard perched atop a cow skull behind the drum riser.
Of course the set list included “La Grange,” a hit from the band’s 1973 breakout album Tres Hombres. The riff-heavy rocker is an ode to the Chicken Ranch, a brothel that operated for decades on the outskirts of town until it was shut down after an investigation by a flamboyant Houston TV news personality. The story was immortalized, if that’s the right word, in the musical (and later movie) “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.”
The opening act’s set featured several power failures, but ZZ Top’s performance was unmarred by such glitches. The sound, at least at a distance of 100 yards or so from the stage, was loud but not painfully so, and very clean. The band led off with “Got Me Under Pressure,” from 1983’s Eliminator. A parade of hits followed, from the earlier stuff – “Waitin’ for the Bus/Jesus Just Left Chicago,” “I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide,” Cheap Sunglasses” – to the MTV hits of the ‘80s, including “Sharp Dressed Man” and “Legs.” Newer selections included “I Gotsta Get Paid,” “Chartreuse” and “Flyin’ High” from the band’s most recent collection, 2012’s La Futura.
One unexpected bonus was a creditable rendition of Jimi Hendrix’s “Foxy Lady,” accompanied by images of Hendrix on two large onstage video screens. That was followed by the classic “Catfish Blues,” also recorded by Hendrix. Both gave Gibbons ample room to demonstrate his still-excellent blues chops, backed by the seldom flashy but always solid rhythm play of Hill and Beard (still the only band member who does not sport a beard).
The main set ended with a vigorous workout on “Tush,” an anthem about simple pleasures from 1975’s Fandango!. After a short break, the band returned for a one-song encore tailor-made for Labor Day weekend – a Top-ified blues-rock take on the classic “16 Tons.”