Judge Victor Valdivia likes to think people call him "Eliminator," but they're actually just shaking their heads sadly and muttering, "El Loco."
Our review of ZZ Top: Live from Texas (Blu-ray), published July 17th, 2008, is also available.
"I got a gal who lives on the hill.
-Tube Snake Boogie
As hard as it is for fans to believe, ZZ Top: Live From Texas marks the very first concert recording (apart from a handful of live tracks tucked away in their 1975 album Fandango!) the band has released in its nearly 40 year career. ZZ Top had made their reputation as a live act well before they became megastars in the 1980s, but it was only last year that the band finally decided to film one of its concerts for release. Here is the set list:
"Got Me Under Pressure"
The song selection is taken primarily from their '70s and '80s heyday, with "Pin Cushion" from 1994's Antenna as the only song recorded after 1985. Shot at a concert in Dallas in November 2007, in pristine 16:9 widescreen, with DTS 5.1 and Dolby Digital 5.1 surround mixes that capture every riff and beat perfectly (the Dolby mix is louder and fuller than the DTS), it should be a no-brainer for fans.
So why is Live From Texas something of a disappointment? Sad to say, it's because this DVD may have come some 15 years too late. It's hard not to shake the uneasy feeling of watching a once great rock & roll band past its prime, captured on a night where songs that used to be easy to perform have become difficult obligations.
By all rights, this should have been much better. From the beginning, ZZ Top earned respect as more than just another Texas bar band. Singer-guitarist Billy Gibbons, singer-bassist Dusty Hill and drummer Frank Beard were routinely praised for their technical skills. No less an authority than Jimi Hendrix once cited Gibbons as his favorite guitar player. Their songs injected groove-heavy blues-rock with sly, quirky humor. Like their blues predecessors, ZZ Top was never about subtlety—not with songs like "Tush," "Tube Snake Boogie," and "Pearl Necklace" (which, it can't be stressed enough, has absolutely nothing to do with jewelry)—but such cheeky crudity was part of their charm. Moreover, their landmark 1983 album Eliminator was one of the first to blend hard rock swagger with electronic grooves, pioneering a sound that other artists would imitate for years to come (Ministry's Al Jourgensen, for one, has frequently named ZZ Top as a key influence). It's no surprise, then, that ZZ Top was one of the most popular and beloved bands of their era, one that was selling out stadiums even before they were MTV stars.
There are still reminders of their best years scattered throughout this show. Beard keeps a swinging rock-solid beat, much like Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones. The band hits a thunderous groove on a few occasions, particularly "Waitin' For the Bus," "I'm Bad, I'm Nationwide," and "Sharp Dressed Man," The set's high point is "Just Got Paid," which features some phenomenal slide guitar licks from Gibbons, who also gets some good guitar solos here and there.
Despite those exceptions, though, the show never really catches fire. Maybe the band doesn't find the hit-heavy set list challenging enough. Maybe ZZ Top should have mixed in some obscure covers or album tracks to offset the chore of playing songs they've played countless times. How else to explain the lifeless renditions of pummeling hard rockers like "Gimme All Your Lovin'" and "Got Me Under Pressure?" But even that's not enough to justify why Gibbons fumbles the leads to "Pressure" and "Pearl Necklace." Or why Hill's vocals too often sound hoarse and strained. Or even why the band's jams sound more aimless than scintillating. No, those are sad indicators of musicians whose best years could well be behind them. Yes, that's perhaps too much to extrapolate from one show, but given that ZZ Top doesn't attempt any recent material but instead performs older songs and yet can't even pull those off consistently, it's hard not to arrive at such a heartbreaking conclusion. Even the stage design is a letdown. Earlier ZZ Top tours were legendary for elaborate production value, from lasers and livestock to spaceships and junkyards. Here, all we get is a moderately big LED screen that flashes colors and pictures. It's not a crucial flaw, but it does add to the frustration.
The extras aren't enough to make the disc worthwhile. "Poker Game" (18:37) consists of the band members sitting around playing cards and shooting dice while reminiscing about some of the high points of their career. It's mildly amusing, but doesn't go into any depth. "Dallas Show Day" (6:45) has some behind-the-scenes footage of the band preparing for the concert and roadies and crew setting up the stage. It's strictly standard music documentary stuff. "Photo Shoot" (4:41) has more of the same, only instead of the concert the band is participating in a photo shoot to promote it. The last extra is a leftover song from the concert, a cover of Hendrix's "Foxey Lady" (4:32) that's even more lackluster than the rest of the show. It's just as well that it was left off.
Ultimately, Live in Texas is not the slam-dunk it could have been. Apart from one song, the band could just as easily have filmed a show from the '80s and gotten the same set list, and probably a fresher and livelier performance as well. ZZ Top fans have been waiting a long time for a recording that captures the band's live energy. This isn't it. While the band's best albums-Tres Hombres (1973), Degüello (1979), El Loco (1981) and of course Eliminator-are all essential elements of any hard rock collection, this DVD is purely for the die-hards, and even they will find much of it a wasted opportunity. Stick with the music instead.
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