Early in the ZZ Top show Tuesday night at Wolf Trap – between "Gimme All Your Lovin'" and "I'm Bad, I'm Nationwide" – Billy Gibbons paused to address the audience.
"We've been coming around with you for four decades," he said. "Same three guys" – and, lifting his guitar – "same three chords."
Laughter and cheers. Because as the Texas trio and its fans would agree, the 19-song, two-hour performance on a sweaty August night, filled with radio hits and other favorites, was as good an argument as any for "if it ain't broke …"
The music of ZZ Top gets called Texas blues, or Southern rock, or Americana, and it draws on elements of all of those. But really, they are their own thing: A classic power trio made distinctive by Gibbons' searing, squealing lead guitar; Dusty Hill's thumping, open-string bass; Frank Beard's rollicking drums and a subtle facility with a range of rhythms – not just 12-bar, but Southern boogie and funk. It's blues-infused rock, with a Stones-solid groove.
Also, there's the presentation: The black jackets, jeans and shades, the duster hats and, obviously, the beards. Does any other rock band in 2015 match their outfits? Has any other rock band in the last 50 years? They played in front of screens showing B-movie images of cars, girls and the American Southwest that might not or might not have told the story of a woman on some sort of journey.
But that was just frosting. The music was plenty filling: The solid, early, blues-based rockers ("Waitin' For The Bus," "Tush," "Cheap Sunglasses"), the "Eliminator"-era MTV hits, stripped, mercifully, of their synth-heavy 1980s production ("Got Me Under Pressure," "Legs," "Sharp Dressed Man") and more recent material ("Chartreuse," "I Gotsta Get Paid" and the almost poppy "Flyin' High") every bit as strong as the more familiar music.
As we survey the rich landscape of the American electric blues, do we encounter a more perfect song than "Jesus Just Left Chicago"?
Of course we don't. Guitarists spend their musical lives trying to capture that tone. Songwriters dream of writing those words. Singers want that growl. The song might have equals – if so, "La Grange" would be a candidate, along with a dozen or so more by Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Lightnin' Hopkins, John Lee Hooker and Slim Harpo – but I don't hear anything out there that strikes me as much better.
Gibbons found an early supporter in Jimi Hendrix, and the note-faithful cover of Jimi's "Foxy Lady" explained just how much he relied on the Experience as a blueprint for his own trio.
Hill sang Robert Petway's "Catfish Blues," and I started to think about how he became Dusty. Is his given name William or Frank, and he needed a nickname to avoid confusion? (No, according to Wikipedia, he was born Joseph Michael Hill.) Then I thought about other Dustys (Baker and Rhodes) and how the tag would probably be something to avoid, suggestive as it might be of insufficient personal hygiene. But that brought me to Mary Isobel Catherine Bernadette O'Brien, who must have made the positive decision to market herself (or allow herself to be marketed as) Dusty Springfield.
The point being: "Catfish Blues" didn't really hold my attention. But really, it was the only slow part of the show for me. "Cheap Sunglasses" perked me right back up, and I might be ready to add "My Head's In Mississippi" to the paragraph above about "Jesus Just Left Chicago" and "La Grange."
Opening was Blackberry Smoke, a quintet from Atlanta whose straight-ahead Southern rock ("Six Ways To Sunday") put me in mind at first of Jason and the Scorchers, the Georgia Satellites and the Black Crowes. But the more they played, the more they varied their sound, revealing influences stretching back through Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers all the way to Led Zeppelin and a cover of "Your Time is Gonna Come." They played with a strong rock groove and sweet harmony; highlights included the bouncy "Ain't Got The Blues" and the stomping "Ain't Much Left Of Me."