Back before the “Steven Tyler falling off the stage” incident, ZZ Top and Aerosmith were scheduled to tour the football stadiums of the CFL’s Western Division. With the pissing match that ensued, Aerosmith haven’t made up the dates yet, but ZZ Top came to Calgary for a headlining gig at the Pengrowth Saddledome on December 1st, just a couple days after the city played host to the 97th Grey Cup.
As a native Calgarian and lifelong Stamps fan, I had my plane ticket purchased well in advance of the big game. But we lost in the semis, so I’ve got nothing more to say about that. (Except for: How ’bout that 13th man on the field, Regina!?) Finding out that the Top was in town gave my trip a new itinerary, with something to do on an otherwise uneventful Tuesday nite.
There were two things that surprised me when ZZ Top took the stage. First of all, for a stadium rock band, their setup was fairly simple: three amps on either side, arranged in diagonal fashion, with the skull-adorned double-bass kit of Frank Beard serving as the centrepiece, and a lone video screen in the background. (To my dismay, Beard never made use of the gong placed behind his throne.) The second thing I found shocking was the lack of audience participation. I got the best seats I could at the last minute–seven rows up and right next to a railing–at a cost of $88.50, similar to seeing Iron Maiden or Heaven and Hell at the ACC, but cheaper than AC/DC or KISS. Although everybody on the floor–where there were assigned seats–stood up, everybody in the seats remained seated. I thought it was a given that you always stand up for the headliner, but apparently not in Cowtown…
The band opened with the familiar strains of “Got Me Under Pressure” as spark plugs (that’s right, spark plugs!?) flashed across the screen behind them. With the next song, the plugs gave way to hub caps, and later to images of the open road, Mexican food, and so on. After the opening song, ZZ Top got into the blues, playing tunes like “Cheap Sunglasses” and a Texified version of “Foxy Lady.” Hendrix, had he been alive, woulda turned 67 that nite, and apparently he took the Top out on their first world tour back in the day. Who knew?
At one point, Billy F. Gibbons asked for a technician to come on stage, as he was having technical difficulties. He was wearing a skullcap at the time, and needed a “blues hat” in order to play the next song. That’s when two young women in large hats and short dresses took the stage, fedora in hand. As they left, Gibbons asked “Hey, could I get another blues hat?” then introduced the next song as “This one goes back to 1932. We wrote it.”
After a solid hour of heavy blues rock, Gibbons announced that “We ain’t ready to go home yet,” and got (some of) the crowd on their feet with the trio of “Gimme All Yer Lovin’,” “Sharp Dressed Man” and “Legs,” for which they busted out the fuzzy guitars, while clips from their 80’s music videos played on the screen.
Although the Calgary crowd remained seated, they sure made some noise for the encore. Torontonians tend to half-ass it, as we know the band’s coming back, anyways. But these Cowfolks were LOUD, calling the band back for the songs we all wanted to hear: an extended version of “La Grange” and the evening-ending “Tush”.
To me, this show really illustrated the disconnect between ZZ Top, the heavy southern blues band, and ZZ Top, the band who had a string of hits in the mid to late 80s. It seemed that for most of their set, they were the former, playing the music they love to a lukewarm reception. It was the obligatory inclusion of the “Lovin’ Sharp Legs” trio that got the crowd going, as they went through the motions for the umpteenth time. Twas in this moment that I came to the realization that ZZ Top is the most unlikely arena rock band of all time: three aging, bearded hombres from Texas playing blues rock for thousands of paying fans. There were several empty seats in the upper deck of the Saddledome, but there had to be at least 10,000 people there, in a mid-sized Canadian city, on a Tuesday nite. Kudos to the Top for keeping it simple, even if the music went over, oh, 8,000 heads or so.
P.S.: After a one-week hiatus, Smokin’ Green is back on the air tonite from 1-3 am. Tune in for some DOOM at 88.1 fm, Rogers channel 947, or www.ckln.fm on yer computer.