ZZ Top has been doing things the same way for more than 45 years.
The big-bearded power trio from Texas coined its sound back in the early 1970s: a fermentation of primitive boogie-flavored Texas blues and roadhouse, Delta blues. The architecture is primitive, but songs are built to fill arenas and large outdoor venues, like Starlight Theatre, where they drew about 6,000 fans Tuesday night.
Their motto/mantra hasn’t changed much: Same three guys, same three chords. Neither has their show, which features a wealth of hits and favorites drawn from a catalog born in 1971. The set list didn’t go back that far, but several times it visited the band’s breakout album, “Tres Hombres,” released in 1973.
Their two-hour set was preceded by a performance from Gov’t Mule, a quartet founded in 1994 by Warren Haynes and the late Allen Woody, latter-day members of the Allman Brothers.
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Gov’t Mule is a unrepentant jam band with roots in the blues, Southern rock and, occasionally, fusion jazz. During their 80-minute set, they played only eight songs, but each covered much terrain.
The highlights: “Game Face,” a 13-minute odyssey that included extractions from Weather Report’s “Birdland” and the Allman’s “Mountain Jam”; “Kind of Bird/Broke Down on the Brazos,” which they dedicated to Charlie Parker; and the closer, another Allman Brothers cover, the warm, sweet and breezy “Soulshine.”
ZZ Top hit the stage full-throttle, per usual. Their set list hasn’t changed drastically over the years, but that seems to be a function of not trying to fix what isn’t broken.
They opened with “Got Me Under Pressure,” a raucous, blues-based anthem that, as well as any, epitomizes the nature of this band, which starts with simplicity and primitiveness.
Like AC/DC or the Ramones, ZZ Top sculpts and composes songs from the same slab of clay. The differences from one song to the next are often subtle and nuanced but vital, and the similarities are as charming as they are obvious. Songs are typically tightly wound, loud, hard and catchy: pop-blues with heavy beards and leather jackets.
From there, the set list jumped from one favorite or hit to the next: “Waitin’ for the Bus”; “Jesus Just Left Chicago”; “Gimme All Your Lovin’.”
Guitarist Billy Gibbons and bassist Dusty Hill shared vocals throughout, backed by stalwart drummer Frank Beard. Both have maintained much of their vocal capacities, and each was afforded plenty of time to show off his instrumental prowess.
Lyrically, ZZ Top’s songs occasionally veer into primitive sexual innuendos that only add more levity to the presentation of a band that never takes itself too seriously.
Lines like “She’s got legs and she knows how to use them,” from “Legs,” “I let my ya ya down; I got penetrated,” from “Pincushion,” and “I’m just looking for some Tush,” from “Tush,” took a crowd that spanned a few generations (late teens and 20s to 60s and beyond) back into an adolescent locker room attitude. Most people seemed to appreciate the visit.
They dropped a few covers into the set list: the Merle Travis classic “Sixteen Tons,” which sounded more like just another ZZ Top song, and Jimi Hendrix’s “Foxy Lady,” during which Gibbons, a bona-fide guitar hero to players one-third his age, valiantly fell a bit short of the original.
They saved some of the best for last. After “Sharp Dressed Man” and “Legs” delivered back-to-back explosions, they came back for a two-song encore: “La Grange” and “Tush,” both performed close to the way they were recorded.
Warren Haynes came out for the final number, a cover of “Jailhouse Rock” that lived up neither to the original or the wealth of entertaining music that had immediately preceded it. It was heralded as something of a surprise, and though it wasn’t a dud, it was anti-climactic.
When you’ve been entertaining big crowds for as long as ZZ Top has, sometimes it’s best to stick with what has made you a a draw for nearly half a century — the formula that needs no manipulation.
Gov’t Mule: Mule; Banks of the Deep End; Game Face; Kind of Bird; Broke Down on the Brazos; Tributary Jam; Thorazine Shuffle; Soulshine.
ZZ Top: Got Me Under Pressure; Waitin’ for the Bus; Jesus Just Left Chicago; Gimme All Your Lovin’; Pincushion; I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide; I Gotsta Get Paid; Rough Boy; Foxy Lady; Sixteen Tons; Cheap Sunglasses; Chartreuse; Sharp Dressed Man; Legs. Encore: La Grange; Tush, Jailhouse Rock.