MUSIC Devoted fans can't get enough of ZZ Top
The trio has been together since 1969 with the original lineup.
By BEN WENER
ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
For years there has been a curious discrepancy between ZZ Top's unwavering popularity as a concert attraction and its steadily sagging record sales, which sink lower every time the venerable Texas trio issues something new.
Like Jimmy Buffett -- who recently broke his streak of bad luck with a left-field chart-topper -- the ceaselessly touring, mostly bearded boogie-rockers routinely pack amphitheaters and arenas with summer revelers who apparently have little interest in buying whatever fresh tunes they might be peddling.
That unavoidable truth isn't lost on guitarist and co-vocalist Billy Gibbons, possessor of the group's second longest mane of orange facial hair (bassist Dusty Hill's is arguably a shade longer, while drummer Frank Beard is, ironically, the one with just a mustache). "Yeah, it's very, very spotty how well our records do," he said by phone while temporarily stranded at the Denver airport.
He partly blames dire piracy-afflicted conditions throughout the record industry, "which haven't left us out of this struggling moment. It's really anybody's guess where it's heading. For the most part, our most recent releases have been practically invisible."
Back to the '70s sound
Which is a shame, since those albums -- 1996's "Rhythmeen," 1999's "XXX" and, best of the bunch, last year's much-delayed "Mescalero" -- represent a return to form for ZZ Top.
Though uneven and perhaps overlong, those three efforts were intended to restore the group to its rawer, bluesier '70s sound, thus yanking it away from the synth-treated robo-boogie of the '80s that, with help from a few skin-soaked videos centered on a certain tricked-out funny car, rocketed the Top to international stardom.
It's a problem for many bands of ZZ Top's stature: How do you keep from becoming a moldy oldies act while still delivering the nostalgia your audience craves? Especially when that nostalgia is essentially what's keeping you financially afloat?
Fortunately for Gibbons, Hill and Beard, all of whom turn 55 this year, right now there's an easy answer:
Revel in it.
Two decades have passed since the band became a surprise mainstream sensation, when its career-rejuvenating "Eliminator" album slowly yielded a string of hits, starting with "Gimme All Your Lovin'," which dented the Top 40 in 1983, and capped by "Legs," which cracked the Top 10 a full year later. But this summer the band is taking a victory lap, spurred by its March induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and bolstered by the release of two retrospectives -- the four-disc box set "Chrome, Smoke & amp; BBQ," which may be more bawdy, boozy Top than most need, and the two-disc distillation "Rancho Texicano: The Very Best of ZZ Top."
"We're very fortunate that there seems to be these miraculous moments in our career that fall to our favor," Gibbons says. "Something comes along that just reminds people, 'Hey, man, ZZ Top -- I saw 'em the other night on TV, I heard 'em on the radio the other day -- those cats still enjoy what they do. Let's go check 'em out.' There's this steady awareness of us that helps people realize we haven't abandoned anybody along the way."
He noted a recent poll taken by England's Daily Mirror, in which ZZ Top ranked among the 10 most recognizable faces in pop culture. "We were right up there with ... well, a few unmentionables." That identification factor, perhaps more than anything else, has helped keep ZZ Top alive.
Constant touring very well may be what binds the happy trio together, making it the longest-running rock act to still sport its original lineup.
"We started in '69," Gibbons says, "and after seven or eight years, my drummer -- he has this habit of getting a calculator out; we call him 'the Mathematician' -- he does some adding and says, 'Yeah, it's true. We've been doing this more consistently than school, marriage -- anything else we've ever tried.'
"That story came up again just recently, and I thought, 'Yeah, and it's still happening.' Nothing's changed."