ZZ Top at the Thunder Bay Community Auditorium
Review by Justin Allec
The narrative around ZZ Top has always been a bit silly on the surface. The bearded “twins” of Billy Gibbons and Dusty Hill, the fashionably matching guitars, the lazily synchronized dance moves, the “ironic” fact that drummer Frank Beard is clean-shaven—it’s all subversive, a distraction from the fact that this trio has put out some of the hardest-hitting blues rockers in the last 40 years.
As for seeing them in person, well, Thunder Bay had a little longer to wait. There was an unusual level of anticipation running through the Thunder Bay Community Auditorium the night of May 4. It wasn’t exactly the fact that this ZZ Top concert was supposed to have happened two years ago, or that this would be many people’s first big concert since life was attempting to resume. No, I think the only question on everyone’s mind was what the band would do since the passing of bassist Dusty Hill in 2021. The image we all had of ZZ Top—twin beards with twin axes riffing out at the crossroads with thunderous backbeat—had changed, and no one really knew what to expect.
It turns out that we shouldn’t have worried. Trust in the blues, trust in ZZ Top.
The stage set up was minimal, with stacks of amps flanking Beard’s flashy kit, but the band didn’t need much to absolutely rule the night. ZZ Top, you see, has style to spare, and that style is captivating. With no opener and little fanfare except for the piped-in roar of a chopper, Gibbons, Beard, and long-time guitar tech Elwood Francis casually started rocking and did not stop for the next hour and a half.
The set was broad, but when a band has more than 40 years together, you know you’re going to get to hear some interesting cuts. The first chunk of the concert saw Gibbons setting the mood with classic material like “I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide” and “Jesus Just Left Chicago.” While these aren’t ZZ Top’s catchiest songs, they do show the band (even with Francis filling in for the departed Hill) at their best by allowing Gibbons and Francis to riff and solo in conversation, each note just swaggering around the TBCA, taking its time to land just right. The band seemed to be treating their radio hits the same way. For example, “Gimme All Your Lovin’” came early in the set but the trio stretched the ending, so it felt less like a Top 40 cut, more like the sweaty blues workout it’s supposed to be. “Legs” and “Tube Snake Boogie” received a similar treatment, which really showed how much fun these songs can be.
Gibbons didn’t say much from the stage in the way of banter. Really, he didn’t need to. The band closed with the classic “La Grange,” which takes every attractive part of the band’s sound and adds even more swagger towards a triumphant finish. Everyone was there for the music, and ZZ Top did more than deliver.