Rant’N’Roll: ZZ Top & Gov’t Mule Rock The Sands

Bethlehem, PA—It was Hippie Night at the Sands Entertainment Center. That li’l ol’ band from Texas, ZZ Top, now fully formed as a monolithic icon with sterling sound, mouth-watering material and an old-fashioned propensity for tried’n’true show biz moves guaran-damn-teed to get the geezers and the gamblers, the kids and the honeymooners, the scenesters and the wanna-be’s, all boppin’ and a’hoppin’ to a parade of worthy hits that you felt deep down in your groin.

The first thing you noticed about the stage prior to their entrance was the impressively stacked mound of Marshall amps fully loaded to reach the moon. The drums, in all its multi-colors, imposing collection of toms, snare, two big round basses, triangles, trinkets, gong, cymbals galore all at different heights and empty seat, sat waiting. Two mic-stands on each side of the stage foreshadowed what was to come.

Opening with “Got Me Under Pressure” from 1983’s Eliminator, I could, for the first time all night, take out my earplugs. Tenth row center during Gov’t Mule had us marveling at the fluidity of guitar-playing and band-leading by the former Allman Brother Warren Haynes, but his vocals were muddied, and in their gargantuan mix of bombast like a heavy metal Grateful Dead, one was stymied into satisfied submission. ZZ Top, on the other hand, came on loud but clear and with the kind of dynamics that had them slowly escalating the sound into the stratosphere. Thus, by the time of the second encore (“Jailhouse Rock”), your ears were just as blown out but you didn’t notice it. Plus, you were up on your feet hootin’ and a ‘hollerin’.

“Waitin’ For A Bus” and “Jesus Just Left Chicago” were melded together before “Gimme All Your Lovin’” got the crowd up on their feet for the first time. “Pincushion,” off 1994’s overlooked and underrated Antenna, preceded the second big blast of their set, “I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide.” They’ve been playing basically the same set for years and y’know what? That’s just fine with me. To hear “I Gotsta Get Paid,” “Rough Boy,” “Cheap Sunglasses,” “Chartreuse,” “Sharp Dressed Man” and “Legs” before they made you work at receiving the benediction one-two uppercut to the chin of the holy “La Grange” and “Tush” as encore #1, was absolutely religious.

Well-chosen covers also included “Foxy Lady” and “Catfish Blues” by Jimi Hendrix and “16 Tons,” the 1947 Tennessee Ernie Ford country hit, written by Merle Travis.

Billy Gibbons lost his voice on a sentence or two but, hey, who’s to quibble? At 66, he still slinks around the stage like a panther and plays those blues licks like nobody’s business while Dusty Hill, 67, is the one who gets under your skin, blood and bones with his bad-ass bass. You wanna talk about icons? Visually, these boys are as cool as they come. Long beards flowing, synchronized choreography and all, they take from their Texas Blues cousins of Johnny Winter, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Delbert McClinton, plus what their Texas Blues ancestors like T-Bone Walker, Big Mama Thornton, Guitar Shorty, Freddie King, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Albert Collins and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown originally laid down, to rock it up with static electricity, personality-plus, humor and VOLUME. There ain’t nothin’ like the blues and Texas Blues is almost its own genre. Still, it ain’t ZZ Top until the beardless drummer Frank Beard takes their blues and pummels it into submission so that it comes out hard rock. I feel honored, humbled and awe-inspired to be in their audience and hope, at 65 my own damn self, I can continue to do so for years to come. I’m a fan. Period.

Warren Haynes knows no such show biz technique and wouldn’t want to anyway. Show biz itself is an anathema to this ragged-but-right hipster who performed in The Allman Brothers from 1989 to 1997 and then again from 2000 to the band’s final performances in 2014. His Gov’t Mule is a jam-happy machine who can chug along righteously and mesmerize with rhythmic thrust, syncopation and surprising left turns.

Complete with a background light show, they were no different from the bands of the ‘60s (whom they emulate) that spewed out the volume to us stoned-out hippies all those years ago. And just the fact that my +1 and I used to enjoy being in these kinds of audiences as teenagers—and find ourselves still doing the same thing a half-century later—brought about a welcome sense of nostalgia to the proceedings, almost as if the Mule were soundtracking our personal reveries.