ZZ Top, the Pretenders, and Brian Setzer bring ’70s-rock magic to Vancouver

ZZ-Top-Rocking-hard-since-69

ORIGINALLY POSTED ON STRAIGHT.COM, AUG. 29, 2007

I saw some very cool things at the big Jack FM classic-rock triple bill at GM Place last Thursday (August 23). First off, local punk-rock legend Joey “Shithead” Keithley could be seen strolling along the mezzanine, where he was accosted every 10 paces by a wide-eyed fan who wanted to shake his hand or get him to sign a T-shirt, and the towering D.O.A. leader greeted every stranger like an old friend.

Also, Stray Cats guitarist-vocalist Brian Setzer, accompanied by a positively overjoyed blond woman, turned some heads when he showed up during the Pretenders’ set, jumping around between the stage and the floor-crowd barriers, apparently trying to get a rise out of Chrissie Hynde. But best of all was when ZZ Top’s big-bearded bad boy Billy Gibbons stepped up to the mike and announced, Dixie Chick–style, that his band was “ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas”. Well, all right, that would have been cool, but whatever.

Obviously, “the little old band from Texas” isn’t the most politically conscious group in America. ZZ Top’s biggest hit was titled “Tush”, and the trio first shot to fame with that boogiefied ode to whoring, “La Grange”. They’ve also glorified rowdy behaviour (“Beer Drinkers and Hell Raisers”) and drunk driving (“Arrested for Driving While Blind”).

For 35 years the chicks ‘n’ cars–loving Top has won over rednecks and rowdies worldwide, becoming one of the most successful recording acts ever. But its success mostly boils down to the fact that when Gibbons puts pick to string, he conjures one of the coolest and nastiest blues-rock tones around. Even activist types like Keithley aren’t immune to its shit-kicker charm.

Before the bearded wonders with the fuzzy guitars did their thing, the Stray Cats and the Pretenders delivered thoroughly impressive sets. I wasn’t sure whether Stray Cats standup bassist Lee Rocker would be in the lineup–along with fellow originals Setzer and standup drummer Slim Jim Phantom–because a few months back I’d seen him at the Fairview Pub on Broadway, where he was touring behind his killer solo CD, Racin’ the Devil. I discovered then that Rocker is actually a better lead singer than Setzer, but at GM Place he was confined to backup vocals.

No biggie; Setzer ruled the roost with his amazing rockabilly guitar skills on old Cats tracks like “Rumble in Brighton”, “(She’s) Sexy + 17”, and “Stray Cat Strut”, which he introduced with a jab at MTV, “the station that used to play music”. I kept thinking how cool it would be if he were to return later and jam with the headliner, maybe trading wicked licks with Gibbons on “Jailhouse Rock”, but Setzer’s complete lack of a Rip Van Winkle chinwarmer may have nixed that option.

The Pretenders weren’t about to be outdone by their pompadoured predecessors. Chrissie Hynde was in fine, sassy form as she led the Anglo-American band through hits from its mid-’80s heyday, like “My City Was Gone” and “Middle of the Road”. “This one’s for the ladies, if there’s any here,” she remarked in advance of “They Don’t Make ‘Em Like They Used To”. “We won’t bore you with a bunch of ballads,” she said, “except this one,” then dedicated “I’ll Stand By You” to all the vegetarians in the crowd. As expected, “Back on the Chain Gang” was the highlight of the Pretenders’ brilliant 50-minute set. Man, that’s gotta be one of the top 10 rock tunes of all time. Still gives me chills.

ZZ Top was booked to play for an hour and a half, and the band did a fair job of using the allotted time to cover its career, although it would have been nice to hear more than two tunes from its best album, 1973’s Tres Hombres. Still, Gibbons, bassist Dusty Hill, and clean-shaven drummer Frank Beard gave the people what they wanted–including 11 of the 18 tracks from their 1992 Greatest Hits compilation–tossing in sweet surprises like “Heard It on the X” and the set’s only cover, Jimi Hendrix’s “Foxy Lady”.

A couple rows down from me, Joe Keithley could be seen happily singing along, giving his punk-rock seal of approval.

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