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Monday, 29 June 2015

Another Point Of View: ZZ Top

ZZ Top: Wembley Arena, London

Exactly two years to the day I saw the mighty Texans play a set at Hammersmith Odeon that was so cool and oozing with quality that it ranks in my top five gigs of all time. Older readers of the blog may recall it. 80 minutes, some basic amplifiers, two beards and a Beard and absolute quality from a band that have been cutting it cool for over four decades. A one-off UK gig at Wembley was too much of an attraction to refuse, so, having driven to Ealing and parked at the hotel, Mrs H and I headed into central London to meet a good friend who was eager for his first experience of the blues rock that the ‘Top make look so easy.

Added to the excitement was a chance to catch support band Thunder, the UK blues rock/AOR outfit who returned to action a couple of years ago and who have an arsenal of quality sing-a-long tunes. We arrived in time to hear the opening bars of set opener Dirty Love kicking in and, having made our way comfortably to a suitable vantage point, we settled in for 45 minutes of classics. Par for the course at London arena gigs, many of the crowd assembled on the floor were not particularly enamoured by the elongated versions but undeterred (and fuelled by dirty Heineken – no real ale at Wembley) we got stuck in with some appalling shapes and singing. Danny Bowes has always been endearing, if a little annoying but he was on top form tonight, dressed in a sharp dark shirt, tight jeans and jacket and generally in very good shape. River Of Pain was followed by two from the excellent Wonder Days album, Black Water followed by the title track which is as good as anything Thunder have ever delivered. Whilst Gary James and Mark Inkhurst laid down the steady beat, Luke Morley once again demonstrated how underrated a guitarist he is, with some quality fretwork. Ably supported by Ben Matthews on rhythm guitar and keyboards, the band then launched into the epic Backstreet Symphony, which got the Arena moving. As well as spilling beer and generally having a great time, we were also massively entertained by a number of the more mature rock chicks in the audience who were going bat shit crazy whilst their partners studied the floor, the crowd and wondered if they could nip to the bar for a quick pint. And then it all went a bit AOR mental as Thunder threw the sucker punch; yep, Loved Walked In, the quintessential rock ballad. Cue more absolutely devastating vocals from Mrs H and me, whilst Ben just grinned with the comment “I haven’t got a clue who these guys are…but I fucking love it”. High praise indeed from a dude more at home in the mash up club environment. Bowes was by now really enjoying himself and indulged in some banter with the crowd, who had at least woken up. Concluding their set with The Thing I Want and I Love You More Than Rock n’ Roll, Thunder were excellent and really did set the bar high. Always worth a watch, this band are a British institution. Catch them if you get the chance. 8/10

A generous 45 minute turn around allowed time to get to the toilet (remember the demographic chaps, no queuing at the ladies at this type of gig) and refill the plastic pints. Precisely 9:00 pm, house lights dimmed, the roar goes up, big screens play some classic movie moments and then Got Me Under Pressure is kicking you in the nuts. Yep, the Top are back in town and as awesome as 2013. Messrs Gibbons and Hill just own the vast stage, prowling around whilst pouring out the quality. Seriously good with an image to die for, the boys from Texas played it pretty safe with a very similar set to two years ago but then, when you've got such fine tunes and it ain't broke … Waitin' For The Bus and Jesus Just Left Chicago before the first of the big guns from EliminatorGimme All Your Loving shifted the band and the Arena up a gear. Gibbons prowls around with his sublime blues complimented beautifully by Hill and the backbone of the band, Frank Beard behind the kit. I'm Bad, I'm Nationwide followed, complete with some excellent crowd participation before a slightly rarer track, Pincushion from Antenna was dropped into the mix. The lead track from 2012’s La Futura, the funky I Gotsa Get Paid was up next, with the scratchy guitar sound providing the perfect opening.

The first of three covers followed, Hendrix’s Foxy Lady, complete with a montage of images of the great guitarist and old friend of the band. I often question why a band with the back catalogue of ZZ Top perform covers but I realise that for these guys it’s about heritage, tradition and roots. Another cover, Catfish Blues (originally Robert Petway, a blues singer born in 1909 who recorded very little in the 1940s) ensured that the soul and feel of the gig remained firmly rooted to the blues. Cheap Sunglasses was up next, and of course the front two never take theirs off. The sole track from Recycler, My Head's In Mississippi maintained the momentum, with Hill dipping in and out of the vocals whilst gently moving around the stage, his presence as imposing as his guitar partner. Chartreuse, the second from La Futura led nicely into the main set closers, the iconic Sharp Dressed Man and then the arrival of the fur covered guitars for the mighty Legs.

After a brief interlude, we were treated to one of the best encores I've ever witnessed as rock god and guitar hero Jeff Beck, celebrating his 71st birthday joined the band on stage for a quadruple serving of delight. First up, Rough Boy from Afterburner, another rare outing and one that allowed Beck to demonstrate his fine guitar work as he took the solos and hammed it up with Gibbons and Hill whilst the audience looked on in awe. Sixteen Tons, first recorded by Merle Travis in 1946 allowed both guitarists a bit of indulgence before La Grange and finally Tush brought the house down. Sometimes being at gigs is a bit of an effort. When ZZ Top are in town, the pleasure of watching a band who are just blindingly good is indescribable. I just hope they’ll be back in another two years. If they are, so will I. 10/10

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