ZZ Top Melts Down Three-Chord Rock, Dinosaurs Prowl

ZZ Top
The band ZZ Top, from left, Frank Beard, Billy Gibbons, and Dusty Hill. The American rock group recently began a world tour, and will perform at the High Voltage Festival in London on July 24, 2010. Source: Duff Press PR via Bloomberg

“We’ve been coming here for four decades,” ZZ Top’s lead singer Billy Gibbons tells a London audience as the band gears up for the next leg of its world tour. “Same three guys. Same three chords.”

Gibbons smiles from behind the trademark shades and cowboy hat. He and bassist Dusty Hill still sport navel-length beards. Together with the neatly trimmed Frank Beard on drums, they demonstrate how to survive 40 years on three chords (and a few more -- they are being ironic).

There are hits, such as “Gimme All Your Loving” and “Cheap Sunglasses.” There are razor-sharp blues; backing visuals of car parts and girls; solos made electrifying because of their lack of flamboyance. The soundboards threaten to melt in the heat as the volume blasts out.

ZZ Top -- which plays across the U.S. and Europe this summer -- is the highlight of the High Voltage Festival at the weekend. As the dinosaurs prowl Victoria Park, it is as if the last 30 years haven’t happened. Gary Moore, UFO and Foreigner arrive with monster riffs and shampooed manes.

Hordes of long-haired men, their antique rock shirts struggling with more recent beer bellies, celebrate with vigorous nodding, two devil horn salutes and more beer.

Rock and metal is, in 2010, producing a vast amount of innovative exciting music. High Voltage focuses mostly on rock gods from a more distant age.

Saxon, a stalwart of the early 1980s new wave of U.K. heavy metal, says it all with a rip-roaring song about joining the 12th-century crusades.

Dio’s Memory

Tony Iommi and bassist Geezer Butler, who formed Heaven & Hell after Black Sabbath, deliver cast iron riffage in memory of singer Ronnie James Dio, who died in May. Glenn Hughes and Jorn Lande share vocal duties, followed by a speech from Dio’s widow.

The relative newcomers on the bill are better. Cathedral impresses with its monumental doom. The hairy Black Label Society has skull-adorned mic stands and takes hard-fried southern rock to deranged extremes. Opeth mixes metal and prog rock to delight goth onlookers.

Bands like Asia and Transatlantic seem oblivious to the progressions made by rock in recent decades. This is probably because they were busy writing intricate keyboard solos.

“This one’s called ‘Latex Solar Beef,’” announces one performer, so identifying himself as Dweezil Zappa.

Uriah Heep, sometimes described as Light Zeppelin, provide seriously guilty pleasures. Argent thrills with renditions of “Hold Your Head Up” and “God Gave Rock ‘n’ Roll to You.”

Marillion is pompous -- and then Sunday’s headliners Emerson Lake and Palmer take pomp to unheard-of levels. Carl Palmer’s drumming is rigorous, Greg Lake’s lyrics embarrassing. Keith Emerson confronts a battery of synthesizers and attacks them. His flash finger work is clumsy and out of time.

Rating: *** for ZZ Top; ** for most others.

The ZZ Top tour continues across the U.S., returning to Europe in October. There are shows in Paris, Oslo, Stockholm, Dallas, Houston and New York. Information: http://www.zztop.com/index.php?module=tour

What the Stars Mean:
****       Excellent
***        Good
**         Average
*          Poor
(No stars) Worthless

(Robert Heller is a music critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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