For all the glitzy trappings accrued along the way to superstardom, the hard-rocking ZZ Top is still a blues band at heart, and even in a hall as large as the Forum--where the band opened a three-night stand Thursday--efforts were made to approximate the atmosphere of a low-down Texas bar.
Thin mists of dry ice spewed continuously across the stage, creating just that right smoky look. And if the concession lines were a little too long to allow most folks to get quite as plastered as they might at a smoky watering hole, vertiginous laser beams occasionally circled the audience, creating just the right illusion of the room spinning.
All right, all right already, so there's no getting around it: ZZ Top has long been an unrepentant arena-rock band, complete with the requisite smoke bombs and light show and prerecorded electronics and all that that entails. And virtually every moment in Thursday's show seemed a calculated move--far too calculated for some folks' idea of what the modern-day blues ought to be, certainly.
But like David Lee Roth--only far more subtly--these masters of the deadpan knowingly and winkingly transcend these trappings, putting on one of the most outrightly entertaining shows to be found in rock 'n' roll, glitz or no glitz.
Where else can you see a green laser beam blink on to help punctuate a key cowbell stroke?
And who cares about special effects, anyway, when these guys' chins are a show in themselves? Besides the star-making beards, the frontmen of the trio, Dusty Hill and Billy Gibbons, also have some exceedingly casual choreography to keep things lively. Like few before them, these two realize that guitarists and bassists look very cool strutting in slow strides and nonchalantly swaying their axes in unison. (They get a lot of mileage out of this.)
The songs and playing have more than enough cool to go with the charisma. When most of what passes for hard rock nowadays consists of plodding power chords plowed through at varying speeds, ZZ Top is really the only still-thriving outfit that doesn't leave boogie out of the formula, and even the more recent songs employing more modern technology enjoy a certain amount of swing.
On the plus side, the trio trotted out several older selections that were on the--for lack of a better term--"rootsy" side. Counting among the minuses, some of the newer hits, like "Sleeping Bag" and "Rough Boy," were given by-rote run-throughs complete with accompanying prerecorded electronics (and on those numbers, it sounded like more than just the synthesizers was on tape).
For the most part, though, the Top's tapping of technology seems as much tongue-in-cheek as it does opportunistic.
That not only goes for the pseudo-Trevor Horn-isms of "Sleeping Bag" but for the visual effects as well: The most impressive gag was at the very beginning, when a Sphinx head appeared over the stage, looking like some irredeemably pompous prop left over from an old Utopia or Earth Wind & Fire tour--and promptly proceeded to suck the white dropcloth covering the stage up its golden snout with an appropriately obnoxious noise, revealing our boys, armed and ready to please.