Many of my decisions boil down to “Why the hell not?” So when I was invited to a live taping of ZZ Top’s Storytellers VH-1 special I found myself thinking just those magical words. I’m no ZZ Top super fan but I certainly enjoy their work and respect what they’ve accomplished over the course of their forty year career.
So after work yesterday, David Wuhllinzky, his delightful girlfriend, my dad and myself trekked on over to the crumbing Congress theater smack dab in the middle of a neighborhood where hope fled decades ago to watch ZZ Top perform its greatest hits in an intimate setting and listen to Reverend Billy Gibbons and company tell the stories behind classics like “Tush”, “Legs” and “Sharp-Dressed Man”.
The stage of the Congress had been transformed into a makeshift Texas juke joint while red Christmas lights bathed everything in the war, nostalgic, endlessly flattering glow ubiquitous in VH-1 specials. Before the trio came on we were instructed by VH-1 people to offer three different levels of applause for editing purposes: first, “Hey, ZZ Top. I like that band” mildness, then “Woo hoo! ZZ Top!” enthusiasm, then “OMG! OMG! I am going to faint from excitement at being thirty feet away from the greatest group of all time!” ecstasy.
The crowd was overwhelmingly middle-aged and up. Three rows ahead of us sat a pair of fifty-something trollops who looked like like they were were celebrating three long decades of low self-esteem, overly revealing outfits and closing-time hook-ups. They were a sad vision of what the future holds for various Rock Of Love skanks.
Then the group came on. There’s something appealingly timeless about ZZ Top. They were grizzled old men during their eighties heyday and they’re grizzled old men today. They’re far from eye candy but like Run-DMC and The Ramones they glommed on to a great image and sound early on and have been riding it hard ever since.
As we were walking out Wolllinzkeee noted that they seemed to be playing one song the entire time. It was a great fucking song though. No one seemed to mind.
Of course there’s more to ZZ Top than wizard beards, trenchcoats, Eliminator cars and furry guitars: they are a kick-ass blues band who favored us old-timers with a thundering set of filthy, visceral, ass-kicking blues-rock, with monster renditions of the hits (“Legs”, “Sharp-Dressed Man”, “La Grange” and “Tush”) and a ferocious cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Foxy Lady”.
ZZ Top aren’t exactly racounteurs but they proved game during the question and answer period. A middle-aged couple asked Gibbons to preside over the renewal of their marriage vows in a way that was both sweet and a little bit awkward. Gibbons happily acquiesced, and ad-libbed a brief spiel that ended with, “I now pronounce you still married”. Sadly, no one asked Gibbons to circumcise their newborn or be a godfather to their children.
ZZ Top told amusing if brief stories about their early years, like a gig where they played in front of a single person. I imagine that solitary man (he didn’t even have a date) has been sadistically rehashing that story ever since. A kid with an unfortunate resemblance to the Dell Dude began his question with a freaked out, “Dude, I can’t believe I’m talking to ZZ Top!” Alas, the band did not return the favor by beginning their answer with, “Dude! We can’t believe we’re talking to some random guy!”
A moment of ambiguous awkwardness ensued when a member of ZZ Top talked about taping the “Sharp Dressed Man” video in LA late at night and having a “homo” stroll by and complain that the lighting and costumes were all wrong. My hearing isn’t particularly good so I initially thought he might have said “hobo” though it doesn’t really make any sense for a hobo to show up on a music video set in the middle of the night and start offering fashion advice.
After the set was over the band left, only to be beckoned back onstage both by the audience’s rapturous applause (ah, the empty ritual of the mandatory encore) and by the need to redo some songs for the sake of editing. It was nothing unusual but ZZ Top exude such scuzzy authenticity that it somehow felt like cheating to redo songs solely for the benefit of television.
Nevertheless the show kicked major ass. I’m glad I went. So look for the ZZ Top Storytellers special sometime this Summer. It’s gonna be pretty good.