Wednesday, May 28, 2003

Riverbend opens with burning, ear-splitting rock and classic boogie

Concert review

By Larry Nager
The Cincinnati Enquirer

ZZ Top, those little, old, sharp-dressed men from Texas, opened Riverbend's 20th season in style Tuesday night with a down 'n' dirty 90 minutes of classic boogie-rock.

[IMAGE] ZZ Top's Dusty Hill (left) and Billy Gibbons performed at Riverbend Tuesday night
(Brandi Stafford photo)
| ZOOM |
With opening acts Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Ted Nugent, it was a night for guitar heroics, as Riverbend for once opened on schedule, without the annual floods that inevitably postpone the season.

Fittingly, it was a Cincinnatian who really got the 20th season started (Riverbend began presenting shows on July 4 weekend, 1984 - the venue plans a 20th anniversary celebration in 2004). Local boy Noah Hunt, who has fronted the Shepherd band since 1997, greeted the crowd of around 7,500 just before 7 p.m. He then led Shepherd and Double Trouble - bassist Tommy Shannon and drummer Chris Layton -- Stevie Ray Vaughan's former rhythm section, through a well-paced 45-minute set.

Shepherd has been restraining himself on his records, but live, with a guitar-crazed audience in front of him, he let his Stevie Ray/Hendrix obsession run wild on a satisfying set of blues flash. There was the band's hit, "Blue on Black" as well as "Shotgun Blues" and a pile-driving take on Slim Harpo's "I'm a King Bee." But it was the Shepherd band's version of Hendrix's "Voodoo Chile" - also a Vaughan standard - that really got the crowd's attention.

Much of middle-act Nugent's hour onstage was spent celebrating the victory in Iraq. His set was, in fact, louder than the war. Surrounded by American flags (one of his guitars was painted like one), he turned his trademark Gibson Byrdland guitar into a WMD, laying waste to eardrums throughout the pavilion with high-energy rockers like "Cat Scratch Fever" and "Wango Tango."

In true Nuge style, he also shot an arrow into a Saddam effigy and lambasted the Dixie Chicks and Jesse Jackson in a song called "Kiss My (expletive)." Compared to Nugent, Donald Rumsfeld is somewhere to the left of Fidel Castro. By contrast, ZZ Top's show was laidback, apolitical and far more musical.

Guitarist Billy Gibbons and bassist Dusty Hill arrived onstage in elaborate 10-gallon hats, crimson and gold ponchos and their signature sunglasses and lawn-gnome beards. Looking a bit wizened, they opened the show with ""Gimme All Your Loving," doing it slower and funkier than the version that helped launch the band's '80s comeback.

With beardless drummer Frank Beard steadily keeping the beat, the two frontman clowned and jived through their set, playing everything in smoothly synchronized choreography, R. Crumb cartoons with electric guitar and bass. A couple of guys in sombreros and Mexican "Day of the Dead" skeleton costumes came to life mid-show to serve Hill and Gibbons "mescal," which gave Gibbons an opportunity to toast his loyal Tristate fans, supporters of his band for almost 30 years.

Despite the shtick, the band remains serious about the blues. With Gibbons playing a red shark-fin guitar given him by Bo Diddley, the ZZ Top show never veered far from its blues roots, whether it was the Lightning Hopkins-on-steroids sound of "Jesus Left Chicago," Dusty's heartfelt version of Muddy Waters "Two Trains Running/Catfish Blues," the pulsating John Lee Hooker boogie of their first encore (and first hit), 1973's "La Grange," or new songs like "Buck Naked," from Mescalero, the band's latest CD/summer-tour excuse.

With a hit-packed set of good-time tunes like "Tube Steak Boogie," "Cheap Sunglasses" "Sharp-Dressed Man," "Legs" and their final encore, "Tush" ZZ Top kept their crowd of bikers, yuppies and hippies singing along in a great kick-off party for summer concert season.

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