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Thursday, Oct. 24, 2013 04:26 pm

ZZ Top rocks Springfield

Opening act a gem

PHOTO COURTESY WWW.ZZTOP.COM

 

The problem with reviewing a ZZ Top show is that somebody has already written practically everything that could be written about the trio from Texas that’s been touring since Nixon was in the White House.

The essentials: Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004, it’s been, as guitarist Billy Gibbons is fond of saying, the same three guys, same three chords since 1970. Before that, Gibbons fronted a band that once opened for Jimi Hendrix, but Gibbons has never clarified whether Hendrix once called him America’s greatest young guitar player -- according to legend, it was either on “The Tonight Show” or “The Dick Cavett Show” – in any case, Rolling Stone two years ago declared Gibbons the 32nd greatest guitar player of all time. The only guy in the band without a beard is the drummer, whose name is Beard, first name Frank.

The band, which played the Super Bowl in 1997 and George W. Bush’s first inauguration four years later, is still crisscrossing America after all these years, typically playing casinos and smaller venues such as Sangamon Auditorium at University of Illinois Springfield on Wednesday night.

Like so many other rock ’n’ roll relics, ZZ Top has sworn off sins, or in this case synthesizers, of a past the band cannot possibly escape, but, as Gibbons noted near the end of a 75-minute show, they couldn’t leave the building without playing such MTV-age classics as “Sharp Dressed Man” and “Legs.” And so they did.

They also spent a fair amount of time playing cuts from “La Futura,” the band’s most recent album produced by Rick Rubin, a man famed for making allegedly past-their-prime artists such as Johnny Cash relevant again. In the case of ZZ Top, which hadn’t released an album in nearly a decade, becoming relevant meant going back to what they have always done best: Straight ahead, stripped down rock with heavy blues influences. And that’s what the audience got on Wednesday.

The newer selections, notably “Chartreuse” and “Flyin’ High,” got what could best be described as a polite reception from a crowd that came for the oldies, of which there were plenty. Gibbons’ voice sounded a bit strained on “Under Pressure,” which opened the show, but his trademark low-end growl was in soon in full effect, particularly on “Jesus Just Left Chicago,” which came early in the show.

Gibbons can do amazing things with a guitar, and he does it within the challenging confines of three or four-minute songs that require making musical points quickly and keeping everything tight. The closest he came to meandering was late in the show during “Foxy Lady” – he even showed off by playing one-handed – but he never strayed far from the reservation, which was just fine. Folks don’t go to a ZZ Top show to hear extended psychedelic solos.

The song selection suggested a band that isn’t ready to become a nostalgia act or caricature of itself. Fans who came hoping to hear “Cheap Sunglasses,” “Pearl Necklace” or “Tube Snake Boogie” left disappointed. On the plus side, stuff that may have once been OK but now comes off as cheesy – think “Rough Boy” – was also left on the cutting room floor. The choice of “Certified Blues,” an oft-overlooked song from the band’s first album, was pure genius that gave Gibbons a chance to shine during an extended solo that featured plenty of fast finger work on the frets with nary a wasted note.

The audience got a huge bonus with opening act The Ben Miller Band, a trio from Joplin, Mo., that plays drums, guitar, one-string washtub bass, washboard, spoons (hooked up to a wah-wah pedal, no less), mandolin, harmonica, trombone and likely a whole bunch of other instruments they couldn’t squeeze into a too-short set that lasted just 40 minutes. It was an eclectic mix of Appalachia, delta blues and folk with a hint of ska, and it was all very, very good. Doug Dicharry, the utility infielder of the group, started out on drums but kept switching instruments, with mandolin being passable and spoons and trombone transcendent. More than a few people gave them a standing ovation, and it was richly deserved.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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