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Thursday, Aug. 25, 2016 12:07 am

ZZ Top returns to Springfield

Little old band from Texas closes fair

 

For ZZ Top, Oct. 23, 2013, was, in part, the measuring stick for last Sunday’s grandstand show to close the state fair.

It was barely three years ago that the three-same-guys-three-same-chords (just two beards) played at University of Illinois Springfield in the fall of 2013. Would they bring the same show? And how would they sound after 47 years of touring?

When ZZ Top last came to Springfield, the band was three-fourths through a year that saw them play a crushing 111 gigs. Sunday was the fifth concert in a scheduled 56-show tour that won’t end until November. After nearly a month off, the band sounded fresh this time around, albeit with a few caveats.

The mix was overly heavy in favor of instrumentals, perhaps an indication that voices aren’t as strong as they once were, and there were a handful of bass punches, the kind you feel in your stomach, pulled out to great effect by Dusty Hill, and used sparingly – he’s been on the road long enough to know not to overdo such things. There was plenty of energy and some fabulous guitar playing by Billy Gibbons, particularly on “I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide,” which was a welcome addition that was missing from the 2013 setlist.

As much as anything, though, there was attitude, as Gibbons’ guitar snarled just right against a nothing-fancy foundation laid by Hill and drummer Frank Beard. You can often tell when things are going right by the expressions on players’ faces, and Gibbons, rightfully, smiled plenty of times on Sunday.

The show was short, less than 80 minutes, which is hard to forgive, especially given that opener Gregg Allman had canceled and the band’s last gig here wasn’t very long ago. They played just one encore, leaving out “Jailhouse Rock,” which they often play as a second encore (they did so at the 2013 concert). This was mitigated somewhat by the paucity of mindless banter. ZZ Top shows up to play, going straight from one song into another without pausing to jaw at the audience. But still.

ZZ Top is an act that comes up with a setlist and sticks to it, and this was evident at the fair. They’ve opened with the same five tried-and-true songs for years, and it’s tough to argue with the selection, save, perhaps, for “Pincushion.” Everyone who’d rather hear “Pearl Necklace” raise your hand. Thought so.

All told, there were four additions to the 2013 setlist, including the aforementioned “I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide,” “Rough Boy,” “Cheap Sunglasses” and “Sixteen Tons.” Gibbons did an admirable job on vocals during “Rough Boy,” a Journey-esque power ballad that has guitar as second fiddle, but he’ll always be more a player than a singer. “Sixteen Tons” was flat-out fun, a reminder that this band can cover a lot of territory and make covers their own. “Foxey Lady,” not so much. While the tune serves as a vehicle for Gibbons’ guitar prowess as well as a reminder that he once opened for Jimi Hendrix as a member of the oft-overlooked Moving Sidewalks, Sunday’s version came off as predictable, as if they’ve played it a zillion times before. Which they have.

On the other hand, ZZ Top also has played “Sharp Dressed Man” at least as often, with the band sounding completely in its own skin during Sunday’s rendition as Gibbons raised his arm to flash an OK sign midway through a solo, the consummately subdued guitar hero. Talk about cool.

You went home satisfied, but still wanting more. With such classics as “I Thank You,” “Tube Snake Boogie” and “Party On The Patio” left unplayed, ZZ Top doesn’t sound ready to call it a career by becoming a nothing-but-hits nostalgia band. But they have learned what it takes to make an audience have a good time.

Brought in on short timing to replace Allman, 3 Doors Down, the opening act, did a fine job, perhaps inspired by the death of founding guitarist Matt Roberts, who departed the group in 2012, of a suspected drug overdose the previous night. The post-grunge band that made it big in the late 1990s never mentioned Roberts’ name, but his spirit was in obvious effect during “When I’m Gone,” a full-on version that closed their set.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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