After more than a half-century, ZZ Top’s lineup was intact. From 1970 until 2021, it was vocalist-guitarist Billy Gibbons, bassist Dusty Hill and drummer Frank Beard as ZZ Top. But Hill passed away last summer. And ZZ Top, who headline Thursday at First Interstate Center for the Arts, is now rolling along with bassist Elwood Francis.
“We’re comin’ on strong and quite excited to get out there and play for real friends, fans and followers, live and in-person,” Gibbons said. How has the band, which has sold more than 50 million albums, been able to sustain for 52 years? “Three factors encapsulate the fact that we’ve never broken up, ergo never had to get back together for the inevitable reunion tour,” Gibbons said while calling from his Los Angeles home.
“First, we’re an odd number, so there can’t be any ties when we vote on what to do, so there can’t be factions. It’s either us or it’s not us. Second, three guys, three tour coaches (as in buses). We’re constantly in the studio and onstage together, yet we have space in between for diversions to the nth degree, mainly comparing notes surrounding recipes from South of the Border!
“And the most important element is we have a good time!” The good times have always been evident during their greasy, grungy fusion of blues-rock, such as the playful and powerful “Tush,” the amusing but potent “Cheap Sunglasses” and their nod to John Lee Hooker, “Le Grange.” And then there is their 1983 commercial breakthrough “Eliminator,” which featured their biggest hits, “Legs,” “Under Pressure” and “Sharp Dressed Man.”
The word was that ZZ Top was influenced by British synth legends Depeche Mode when writing the “Eliminator” album. “Yes, they did (impact ZZ Top),” Gibbons said. “The use of synth sounds and sequencers secretly sneaked in studios around the world inspiring a legion of global playing outfits with Depeche Mode capturing a special inspiring mystique.
“The success of the ‘Eliminator’ remains a solid statement to the time. … It still comes out as based in the blues but with some refreshing touches. Again, at the root, it’s still the blues.” That’s fascinating since the bands appear to be polar opposites. The gritty guitar-driven ZZ Top and the elegant, electronic Depeche Mode. Gibbons, 72, has released three solo albums, including “Hardware,” which dropped in 2021, since the last ZZ Top album was crafted a decade ago.
It has looked like ZZ Top would never make another album, but Gibbons says that’s not so. “Getting a new ZZ Top album off the ground is always a logistical undertaking of significance,” Gibbons said. “Yet now evidenced with our aim to go back into studio land for something delightful.” Gibbons enjoyed making “Hardware” with special guests such as Stone Temple Pilots bassist Robert DeLeo, former Guns N’ Roses drummer Matt Sorum and roots-rockers Larkin Pie.
“It was liberating along with broadening,” Gibbons said. “That, of course, widens the experience with cornerstones.” It’s not easy planning what ZZ Top will play each night since their canon is already 15 albums deep. “Coming up with a setlist is a difficult task, to be sure,” Gibbons said. “There are some gottas, like ‘Tush,’ ‘Jesus Left Chicago’ and ‘Sharp Dressed Man,’ and the ones you probably know, and some things that may not yet be known.
“Perhaps it may require a six-hour concert to squeeze in and get to everything.” It’s difficult for Gibbons and his bandmates not to look back, particularly with their clever and amusing videos crafted during the 1980s. ZZ Top stood out by appearing in the background of their own clips. “We stand by the work, especially the pretty girls and the little red car,” Gibbons said.
“We endeavored to make sure that we were, in essence, guests in our own videos, on the periphery in terms of visual presence but front and center in terms of musical presence. Like that setlist, the concern was balance.” It all worked out for ZZ Top, which has made music on its own terms, and the group was enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004.
“That’s the highlight of my career,” Gibbons said. “Being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Keith Richards”. As a dyed in the wool Stones fan, I can’t think of anything more exhilarating than that experience. We got to share a bill with the Stones in Hawaii back in 1973. We bonded and have kept a tight friendship going all this while.
“If you’re going to have a great friend, Keith is the man. Now you know everything.” There must be something that fans don’t know. “There is,” Gibbons said. “If I were to shave off this beard, you wouldn’t be able to tell me apart from George Clooney.”