Touring ZZ Top covers a lot of ground


Some 30 years have passed since ZZ Top, "that little ol' band from Texas," first made its way onto the concert stage, so it only goes to figure that the trio has decided to celebrate that anniversary by heading out onto the road. But as much as the band enjoys being on tour with Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Screamin' Cheetah Wheelies, playing at the top end of a triple bill does pose an interesting question: How, exactly, do you condense three decades of music-making into an 80-minute set?

"Man, that's a tough one!" says ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons, laughing amiably. "There are a couple of spots in the middle of the program that are just kind of left open. ... It kind of keeps the energy different, keeps everybody on their toes, musically."

Being able to vary the set-list may have advantages for the band, which also includes bassist Dusty Hill and drummer Frank Beard, but it does pose certain liabilities for the fans -- particularly if a favorite oldie gets overlooked.

"The night before last, we had skipped over 'Cheap Sunglasses,' " says Gibbons, from a tour stop in Philadelphia. "A couple of our pals were backstage, and they were ready to mutiny. 'You guys ain't leaving. You didn't play "Cheap Sunglasses" yet!' "

Gibbons chuckles appreciatively. "There is a history," he acknowledges. "The [song] selections have to be careful. There are a few things that are just expected. You know: 'You will come and lay it down. Don't leave this out.' But we can pretty much cover all the favorite bases and still get a shot at some of the new stuff. It's been a well-rounded way to go about it."

It helps that ZZ Top has been engaged in a musical balancing act since the mid-'80s, when it began incorporating state-of-the-art electronics into its classic blues-and-boogie approach. "We've been doing it long enough to have established a certain expected kind of sound," says Gibbons. "One foot in the blues, with the other foot in techno-land. It's kind of a dance."

ZZ Top's blues-and-techno dance is very much in evidence on "XXX," the band's soon-to-be-released new album. (Don't be fooled by the seemingly lascivious title, by the way. Gibbons pronounces it "Three-X," not "Triple X," and it's worth remembering that "XXX" in Roman numerals means "30.")

Just as the album-opening "Pork Chop Sandwich" pays tribute to Lightnin' Hopkins' drummer Spider with a host of techno-beats, the album is very much about connecting ZZ Top's blues roots with the latest in sound manipulation.

"I think some of the musical instrument manufacturers would have been cringing to see what we were doing with some of the gear," says Gibbons, laughing mischievously. "But who knows? If you just don't read the manual and you trash the equipment, you're probably going to do it right."

ZZ Top

When: Sunday, 7:30 p.m.

Where: Patriot Center, George Mason University, Fairfax, Va.

Tickets: $40

Call: 410-481-7328

Pub Date: 10/07/99

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