August 16, 2014
Las Vegas, NV
Review by Shawn Perry
Photos by Junkman
Talk about a dream team. When it was announced ZZ Top and Jeff Beck were getting together for a summer tour, I knew I had to go to one of the shows. Over the years, I’ve seen both ZZ Top and Jeff Beck several times, so there was little chance I was going to miss a double bill like this. I couldn’t make the show at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles, so I opted for The Joint in Las Vegas and made a weekend out of it. The fact that the show fell on the 37th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s passing was of little significance until I realized I was staying in a hotel he used to frequent.
On that note, it’s fascinating how much rock and roll has ingrained itself into Sin City. When I was a youngster, I remember driving down the Strip with my parents and seeing marquees for Frank Sinatra, Don Rickles and Debbie Reynolds. These days, Vegas shows comprise The Beatles Love at the Mirage, Rock of Ages at the Venetian, and Raiding The Rock Vault at the Westgate. Of course, the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, which opened in 1995, is a paradise for the rock fan. You can spend hours roaming the hallways and gazing at all the memorabilia.
The Joint, the Hard Rock’s 4,000-seat concert venue, has played host to a myriad of concerts, including residencies for Motley Crüe, Def Leppard, Guns ‘N Roses and KISS. It was the perfect place to see Beck and ZZ Top, especially with seats just a few rows back from the stage. After a short opening set from Texas guitarist Tyler Bryant, it was time for Jeff Beck. In the darkness, his band — Rhonda Smith on bass, Jonathan Joseph on drums and Nicolas Meier on guitar — took their places and started to percolate. A few seconds into “Loaded,” Beck came on, his casual trademark sleeveless attire belying his legacy, a white Telecaster dangling around his neck and ready for action.
As one of the greatest rock guitarists alive, Beck handles his ax as if it was an extension of his body — throttling the neck, grinding the strings with his fingers (sorry, no pick for Beck), flawlessly pulling and pushing the chords. Once Beck dove head first into “Nine,” his tribute to John McLaughlin, that irresistible tone of his just oozed out. The man’s truly a master stylist. And when you’re that good, you have to surround yourself with the best and Smith, Joseph and even Meier each got a chance to shine. But not before Jimmy Hall, the Wet Willie singer who appeared on Beck’s 1985 Flash album, came out to lend his pipes to the mix.
Hall took stock of the situation, then exploded with ferocious vocal power on “Morning Dew,” the Bonnie Dobson tune Beck recorded with Rod Stewart back in 1968. With the whole band chugging out the distinctive rhythm, Hall inserted himself in the song and scaled its majestic highs and lows. Truly a profound and dramatic performance. The singer would come and go as the evening went on, and even blow some mind-boggling harp.
It’s no secret Beck likes to shred with the ladies, and Rhonda Smith is no slouch when it comes to digging out the grooves and slappin’ da bass. During her solo spot, I looked around at a mass of open jaws, perplexed that this diminutive, long cool woman with a top hat could jostle an instrument so skillfully, without pretense or fancy foot work. She also proved to be an effective back-up singer and rapper during the course of the show. Jonathan Joseph got equal time for a solo worthy of previous drummers who have backed Beck like Narada Michael Walden, Terry Bozzio and Cozy Powell.
The last time I saw Jeff Beck, he was accompanied by keyboardist Jason Rebello. This time it was an exceptional second guitarist by the name of Nicolas Meier, who stayed pretty much in the shadows for most of the night until he put on an acoustic and started to play a Middle-Eastern flavored instrumental he wrote called “Yemen.” After an elegant opening from Meier, Beck jumped in and together the two counter-balanced a suave, smooth, and at times, haunting melody. Definitely one of the more magnificent moments of the show.
Beck’s take on the Beatles “A Day In The Life” has a permanent place on the setlist, and never ceases to astound. At one point, the guitarist teased the audience with a slice of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” (the guitarist played on the original 1972 recording); at another, he twiddled out the traditional Irish ballad “Danny Boy.” So what do you do for an encore? If you’re Jeff Beck, you go for the throat and rock the house. In this case, he invited Hall back to the fold, and together with the band plowed down a hopping “Rollin' and Tumblin',” followed by the classic “Goin' Down.” Sure, I would have liked to have heard a little more from Beck’s jazz-fusion era, but there’s no denying tonight’s performance was a dazzling display of virtuosity, tight chemistry between all the players, and guitar wizardry from the man himself.
So how was ZZ Top going to follow that up? With the double-CD compilation The Very Baddest Of ZZ Top and the Live At Montreux 2013 DVD/Blu-ray Disc to promote, the band wasn’t about to mess up that special formula of Texas boogie ‘n blues. On a stage bedecked with a wall of “Basic Amplifiers” that doubled as LEDs and a spooky, almost demonic looking drum kit, Billy Gibbons, Dusty Hill and Frank Beard slipped on the first four tunes — “Got Me Under Pressure,” “Waitin' For The Bus,” “Jesus Just Left Chicago” and “Gimme All Your Lovin'” — as comfortably as well-worn shoes. Gibbons picked out a slew of saucy leads throughout and scatted a few flavorful lines about Las Vegas to get the audience riled up. That Texas drawl gets ‘em every time.
In addition to the greatest hits package and concert video, ZZ Top wanted to remind everyone about their last studio album, 2012’s La Futura. Just before they hit the stage, a short video made mention of the album in connection with The Girl, whoever that is. And they also played “I Gotsta Get Paid” and “Flyin' High” from La Futura. The beauty of these tracks is that they could have easily been recorded in the 70s or 80s — a sign that the Top have their sound down to a science.
Covers of Jimi Hendrix’s “Foxy Lady” and Muddy Waters’ “Catfish Blues” gave Gibbons license to rip and stretch out as he declared, “Same three guys, same three chords…” I was surprised they didn’t pull out “Viva Las Vegas” given the location and this particular night, but it was not to be. For “Sharp Dressed Man” and “Legs,” the songs’ videos played on the LEDs, while the band jammed, brandishing their white fuzzy, non-spinning guitars for the latter. Obviously, they’ve played these songs hundreds of time, but the Top still looks like they’re having the time of their lives after four decades together.
When Beck joined them for the encores, it was as if the rock and roll heavens opened. They began with “Rough Boys” and fell into “La Grange” and “Tush.” Gibbons and Beck swapped licks, with the latter putting his own stamp on these classic songs. As a power trio, ZZ Top is a powerful and snug unit; with Beck on board, they’re downright lethal. For a second encore, Beck sweeped through the first few bars of "I Ain't Superstitious," another cover he’d recorded in 1968, before yielding to the Top for "Sixteen Tons," originally recorded by Merle Travis and later Tennessee Ernie Ford. The song afforded plenty of opportunity for Gibbons and Beck to bend strings and spread cheer to the Las Vegas crowd. This was likely the only room in town where everyone felt like a winner.