By STEVEN STOCK
SCHENECTADY — If you want to see a fine-tuned machine in action, there’s no need to visit Washington, D.C. — just catch ZZ Top on their current tour. The power trio delighted a packed house at Proctors Sunday night with ninety minutes of blues, boogie and good old-fashioned rock ’n’ roll.
Formed in Houston in in 1969, ZZ Top has managed to stay relevant for nearly five decades by incorporating stylistic changes while remaining true to their bluesy southern roots. Their Worldwide Texas Tour of ’75-’76 boasted 75 tons of equipment and props on a Texas-shaped stage, with a live buffalo and a longhorn steer flanking the band, some buzzards and a few rattlesnakes. In the eighties the three sharp-dressed men embraced the MTV aesthetic whole-hog, with a series of hit videos that featured prominent synthesizer riffs.
The current tour is more of a stripped-down affair. Aside from breaking out white fur-adorned guitar and bass for “Legs” and a few tongue-in-cheek attempts at choreographed leg kicks, the band kept the focus Sunday night firmly on the music itself, and Billy Gibbons’ tasty guitar work and gruff vocals proved more than sufficient to hold everyone’s attention.
ZZ opened with “Got Me under Pressure,” Frank Beard’s well-miked drums dominating the cavernous and loud sound mix. Gibbons’ terse clipped guitar work manages to say a lot with very few notes, as exemplified by the subsequent “Waitin’ for the Bus” and “Jesus Just Left Chicago” from the band’s breakthrough “Tres Hombres” album. By the time ZZ Top launched into “Gimme All Your Lovin’” the crowd was downright delirious.
The template for rock power-trios was established in ’66 and ’67 by Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and Gibbons’ earlier band The Moving Sidewalks toured with Hendrix (“taught us about half of anything we know” is how Gibbons put it). An impressed Jimi gave Gibbons a pink Fender Stratocaster, and cited him as a favorite during an appearance on the “Tonight Show.” Returning the favor, ZZ Top paid homage to Hendrix at Proctors with a rowdy version of “Foxy Lady” followed by a slinky rendition of “Catfish Blues,” a Robert Petway song that Jimi later reinvented.
These were followed by a rather more unlikely cover version, Merle Travis’ “Sixteen Tons,” a holdover from the band’s 2014 live performances with English guitar legend Jeff Beck. And then it was back to the hits: “Cheap Sunglasses,” “Sharp Dressed Man,” “Legs,” “LaGrange” and “Tush” in quick succession.
Gibbons isn’t really a great singer by any conventional measure — he’s got a limited range and he’s not likely to sustain a note like Tony Bennett. He is, though, akin to a weather-beaten character actor; inhabiting the songs, bringing them to life with a gruff, plain spoken and with an appealing delivery. Bassist Dusty Hill took over vocal duties for a couple of well-received numbers, including the closing romp through Elvis Presley’s “Jailhouse Rock.”