By Paul Robicheau
Apart from predilections turned into marketing hooks, both ZZ Top and Cheap Trick know how to rock as a base instinct – and that also hasn’t changed since they first burst to fame in the ’70s.
The past week’s been quite busy locally for classic rock bands that have reached their 50th anniversary, notably British icons the Who and King Crimson. But don’t forget the Little Ol’ Band from Texas, ZZ Top, which brought its trademark beards and blues-rooted rock to Rockland Trust Bank Pavilion on Wednesday for an all-American double-bill with fellow Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall-of-Famers Cheap Trick.
Both bands still perpetuate somewhat gimmicky images. ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons and bassist Dusty Hill both sported long beards, tall hats, and dark sunglasses on Wednesday while screening snippets of their MTV-pumped videos of hot cars and women. And the aptly named Cheap Trick still ride Rick Nielsen’s parade of odd guitars (including a double-neck shaped like a cartoon character), checkboard-designed amps, and singer Robin Zander’s military officer’s hat.
However, apart from predilections turned into marketing hooks, both ZZ Top and Cheap Trick know how to rock as a base instinct – and that also hasn’t changed since they first burst to fame in the ’70s.
ZZ Top prefers to play in a tightly knit center-stage formation, perhaps echoing the hell-raising bars where they started – except for the size of their amp walls and Frank Beard’s drum kit, which sported keg barrels protruding from double bass drums and a yard-long middle tom, more than necessary for his steady, basic groove.
The trio swung between dirty blues (“Jesus Just Left Chicago” and a cover of the Merle Travis standard “Sixteen Tons”) and such ’80s MTV favorites as “Gimme All Your Lovin’,” “Sharp Dressed Man,” and “Legs,” which saw Gibbons and Hill switch to white, fuzzy guitars just like its famed video.
But simplicity – and volume – ruled the 75-minute set, as Gibbons and Hill kept plucking licks to blustery elementals. When Hill spaced single-note bass tones that rattled in distortion against Gibbon’s biting bursts, the effect was primal but way too loud. Lines became blurred between the band’s early boogies and pop-savvy hits.
Musically and visually (apart from a mix of videos, live-feed footage and a huge “50th anniversary ZZ Top Live in Concert” message on the back screen), there wasn’t much variation to ZZ Top’s presentation. Gibbons finally switched to a sunburst Les Paul to lend saucy slide guitar to “Just Got Paid,” before he and Hill each knocked their knees in a brief dance to “Sharp Dressed Man.”
It was pretty much about the gritty boogie, capped by encores of the stuttering “La Grange” and Hill-sung “Tush.” A roadie came out to light a cigar in Gibbon’s mouth like he was a character in an old Clint Eastwood western. Yet ZZ Top wasn’t content to leave with that victory smoke, adding a cover of the Elvis Presley hit “Jailhouse Rock,” which contrasted “Tush” in a live version on 1975’s Fandango.
Cheap Trick showed a flair for more variation beyond Nielsen’s guitar collection. “Are you ready to rock?” Robin Zander belted in perfect opener “Hello There,” and the Illinois-bred group slowly built to crowd-pleasers “I Want You to Want Me” and “Dream Police,” where the well-preserved singer even handled the high notes.
But the middle of its 70-minute set also delivered such covers as the Beatles’ “She Said She Said,” Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame,” and the Velvet Underground’s “I’m Waiting for the Man,” a distinctive version sung by Tom Petersson after an impressive solo on his 12-string bass.
The trouble was that, like ZZ Top, Cheap Trick’s sound mix was too loud, as the set’s opening stretch foundered in a shrill wash of instruments and vocals. But unlike ZZ Top, Cheap Trick no longer boasts its original lineup. Drummer Bun E. Carlos has been long replaced by Nielson’s son Daxx, who has proven to be an asset with his powerhouse strokes, even if he lacks Carlos’s distinctive style. In turn, Zander’s son Robin Taylor added guitar and vocals for a near-full family takeover.
Nielsen still commands the most attention with his spark-plug guitar turns and frequent mugging – and pick-tossing to the crowd. And when it was time to “Surrender,” the band invited a few friends, including opening blues upstart Marquis Knox, onstage to join in. “Mommy’s all right, daddy’s all right, they just seem a little weird,” they all sang along with fans – and the retro-savvy rock ‘n’ roll family just got a little bigger.
Paul Robicheau served as the contributing editor for music in The Improper Bostonian in addition to writing and photography for The Boston Globe, Rolling Stone and other publications.