By Mike Finkelstein
Los Angeles, CA. Cool is one of those qualities that, although hard to precisely define, we sure do recognize when we see it. On Wednesday night at the Greek Theatre, Jeff Beck and Billy Gibbons, two of the coolest guitar personalities to ever spank the plank, shared a double bill, and also found time to share the stage. These are two who have the cool in their delivery and style. And as both approach 70 years old their continued prowess with their instruments is inspiring. For guitar enthusiasts this was must see live work and it satisfied mightily.
Jeff Beck went onstage shortly after sundown in a black vest, a wrapped scarf, and the same haircut we have known him with for nearly 50 years. The silhouette is very familiar. For years from the seventies on, his bands have featured him playing with one talented keyboardist or another (Max Middleton and Jan Hammer are notable alums). On Wednesday, there were no keyboards, instead he had a second guitar player, a dynamic young female bassist and a monster drummer… and for more than half of his set he had ex-Wet Willie vocalist and long time collaborator, Jimmy Hall, singing a batch of his more bluesy, guitar-and-vocals oriented tunes.
Beck’s set began instrumentally with “Loaded,” and the band stretched out nicely over a cover of “You Know You Know,” by the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Bassist Rhonda Smith in particular, shined on this,serving up a contrasting mix of slapping and undulating bends.
Lately, no Jeff Beck show is without his instrumental version of the Beatles’ “A Day In The Life.” On Wednesday that tune was classic JB, with all the dynamics and nuance he is famous for injecting into his interpretations. Much has been written over the years about his style and he truly stands alone in that nobody else does what he does and if they try to, we know where they got the ideas. It is his multitasking right hand that sets him apart. That right hand often does two or three things at once. Whether he is tapping the strings, delicately nudging the vibrato arm, working the volume knob, or just ripping open a power chord it all takes a beautiful form. He hangs his hat on controlling chaos in his sound. It blows like a tornado and then stops and pivots on a dime.
Halfway through the set, Hall came onstage and they reached way back to the Truth album for “Morning Dew.” It’s a powerful song, whether sung by Rod Stewart (on Truth) or by Hall this time. And it’s a great example of how much more than the sum of the parts a vocal line and guitar line can elevate to. They also continued on to cover Jimi Hendrix’ “Little Wing,” and Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come.”
But the direction of the evening was shown with last two selections of “Goin’ Down,” from Rough and Ready, and the British blues/rock staple, “Rollin’ and Tumblin’.” At the end of his set, his “Aw Shucks” grin and slouch said it all. But we would see Beck again, later in the evening.
ZZ Top came on next as the headliner, and put on a uniquely stylized rock ‘n’ roll show. The stage set had a distinctly automotive theme to it, from the red and green lights in the bass drums, to the truck smokestacks that supported the mike stands, and there were many projected slides of sparkplugs displayed like fine hors d’oeuvres.
One really can’t discuss ZZ Top without acknowledging the presence of the beards. Both bassist Dusty Hill and guitarist Billy Gibbons have beards down past their sternums and also wear black sunglasses, dark hats and similar but happily not identical black pants, coats and shoes. You could say they each look like a cross between Cousin It (Addam’s family) and the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers…but can they ever play and dance. The way they carry themselves onstage is one of a kind. Together it’s magic, a comic combination of effortless, confident, and impressive. … and all of these are key strands of cool.
Both Gibbons and Hill are thinner than you might imagine, and light on their feet in a laid back way. Gibbons is pretty much gaunt, but he slides around stage with the same cool fluidity he exudes on guitar. The two beards can still dance the choreographed steps they learned in the bars and roadhouses of Texas coming up through the ranks. Who knew the dancing and their style would get them noticed, big-time, on MTV in the 80’s? It does look cool, but it wouldn’t mean anything if it didn’t sound like ZZ Top.
For a three-piece band, ZZT puts out a lot of sound. They keep the riffs and the riff-support simple but it sounds tremendous. The bass and guitar are usually playing in unison to make the figure sound as big as possible. The drums were thunderous and on one of the toms there was a huge reverb trigger at work. But on top of it all is Billy Gibbons’ legendary guitar tone…and that’s what sets ZZ Top’s sound apart.
One has to hear Gibbons’ tone to appreciate it. On Wednesday he played a customized old gold top Les Paul. He often plays with a quarter or a peso instead of a guitar pick, and this enables him to put all sorts of overtones off the top of the string with the metal on metal contact. He also has his amps dialed in for huge but not overblown sustain, and very little dirt in his distortion. The end result is a tremendous, clean and bright, clear and soft, lead tone and a magnificently overdriven, but clean rhythm tone.
The band cruised through crowd favorites such as “Waitin’ for the Bus,” “Jesus Just Left Chicago,” “ Gimme All Your Lovin’,” and even covered Jimi Hendrix with an impressive rendition of “Foxy Lady.” But perhaps the most telling song was their cover of Muddy Waters’ “Catfish Blues.” There’s just something about the way ZZ Top plays blues that isn’t remotely like so many other bands that just rock the blues into a distorted and boring cliche. While they do turn it up, ZZ Top’s rhythm section takes a less is definitely more approach for the blues. And again, Gibbons’ guitar tone, just squeezing out the sparks and wheezes was phenomenal. They linked the elusive sparsely powerful intimacy of the old Chicago blues with the big oomph of power trio rock music…not so easy to do well.
ZZ Top’s encore was the big treat and the moment of anticipation- Jeff Beck and Billy Gibbons on the same stage. Bring it on. It wasn’t so much a showdown as a chance for us to finally corral two of the more distinctive rock guitar stylists ever on one stage. Many guitar players who share a stage with Jeff Beck are in awe. Gibbons was simply playing with a peer, so there was no tension to break. Gibbons switched to a Fender Telecaster, so as not to overpower Beck’s Stratocaster. They Played “La Grange,” and “Tush,” of course, but the coolest song had to be a cover of Tennessee Ernie Ford’s “Sixteen Tons.” Between Gibbons’ low, murmuring growls on the vocal, it was a fine showcase of the two styles and in the end the winner was the audience.
Cool is one of those qualities we tend to associate with youth but it’s really quite remarkable to see older folks retain it and wear it so effortlessly. Jeff Beck and Billy Gibbons are still two of the cooler cats you’ll ever see nearing seventy years old and playing killer guitar.
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