While not listed as an official commemoration of their 40th anniversary, Double Down Live celebrates ZZ Top and makes clear why their blues-based rock has been such an enduring success over the decades. Considering the unpredictable nature of the music business and many of its practitioners, it’s very impressive that founding members guitarist Billy Gibbons, bassist Dusty Hill, and drummer Frank (the only one who doesn’t have a) Beard have been the only members of this lil ol’ band from Texas.
“Definitely Then…1980” on Disc 1 presents a 93-minute concert at the Grugahalle in Essen, Germany on April, 20th, recorded for the TV series Rockpalast. The band was touring in support of 1979’s Degüello which they play in its entirety except for “Esther Be the One.” For those who only know their hits, a number of gems await, especially for fans of the blues.
They open with Sam and Dave’s “I Thank You,” and people who don’t know the band before they became music video stars with their Eliminator album will be surprised to find the boys sans sunglasses. That is, until they all don a pair of “Cheap Sunglasses” as a prop for that song.
As someone not familiar with the deep cuts off early albums, I very much enjoyed the mix of popular songs, such as “Jesus Just Left Chicago” and “I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide,” with new discoveries, like “Arrested For Driving Blind” and “She Loves My Automobile” because it was quintessential ZZ Top no matter the song. They traffic in tales of fast cars and fast women, things familiar to and appreciated by their fans, most of whom identify with the band’s “Beer Drinkers & Hell Raisers.”
Of course, the lyrics are only half the story as the band is an outstanding musical trio. Hill and Beard make an excellent rhythm combo allowing Gibbons free reign, and he makes the most of it. He delivers a smoldering blues solo during “Fool For Your Stocking.” “Manic Mechanic” is played with a heavy, hard rock ‘70s sound. Their classic “La Grange,” which owes a great debt to John Lee Hooker’s “Boogie Chillen,” gets an awesome, extended nine-minute jam and they close out the main set with it.
When they return to encore, they are joined, by way of a film projected behind them, by The Lone Wolf Horns, which is them in disguise. Hill, who earlier sang lead on “Heard It On The X,” takes over the vocal duties with “Hi Fi Mama,” “Dust My Broom,” a cover of “Jailhouse Rock,” and “Tush.” They returned for a second encore with Gibbons singing some girls in his life on “Tube Snake Boogie” and the workingman ode “Just Got Paid.”
The band and the audience feed off each other each other’s energy. It becomes even more impressive after reading the liner notes reveal ZZ Top were the final act at a music festival and they didn’t take the stage until four a.m. I am impressed by everyone in attendance.
Disc 2 contains “Almost Now…2008.” In contrast to last year’s release Live From Texas and Disc 1, “Almost Now” documents life on the road for ZZ Top as they tour across Europe and the United States by combining concert performances, backstage footage, and press interviews.
While I like director Jamie Chamberlin’s vision for the hour-long project, the execution leaves something to be desired. Immediately you learn this is going to be a fast-paced highly edited piece. Chamberlin shot everything himself with a single camera, so the concert portion is very choppy. He was in different positions on different nights so there’s no telling if what we see is the band playing the song we hear, and because of the editing you don’t get to see the guys play for too long before a cut happens. These portions are better heard than seen.
Another slight is the song selection. Seven of the eleven songs presented here were played in the 1980 set. “Got Me Under Pressure,” “Blue Jean Blues,” “I Need You Tonight,” and a cover of Hendrix’s “Hey Joe” are the only new material, which is disappointing considering the catalog the band has.
There are also some good moments, such as learning some of the band’s history through interviews and watching a lot of people taken out by security during “La Grange.” Despite its flaws, “Almost Now” makes a great companion piece to “Definitely Then,” which is worth the price of admission alone. Tell people you heard it, you heard it, you heard it on the ‘net.