051322 ZZ Top/Cheap Trick, St. John’s, NL

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A week or two before ZZ Top and Cheap Trick rolled into St. John’s for a show at the Mary Brown’s Centre (née the Mile One Centre) m’lady mentioned how momentous the occasions were the last time we had seen ZZ Top (which is where and when we first met) and the last time we saw Cheap Trick (when we were horrified to watch the stage collapse on top of the band).  She said she expected that seeing them play together would surely set into motion some major sort of event or happening.  Moments later we realized that the concert was set to take place on Friday the 13th.

But really, the fact that the show was going to happen at all was momentous enough.  Due to two annual pandemic-related cancellations we had been in possession of the tickets for more than thirty months, by far the longest I’ve ever waited for a ticketed event.  As a matter of fact, a week after I scored our pair of tickets (second row of the floor, just a couple of seats east of dead centre) m’lady won another pair through a contest held by the Newfoundland Herald.  So we gifted the free pair to our friends and nearly-neighbours Susie and Colleen and we all got hotel rooms in Town and made a night of it.

And you know, after two-and-a-half years living in Newfoundland this was the first time we’d had an overnight excursion with friends (other than the few times that we’d hosted company from away), and we had a blast!  After m’lady and I ran errands (including ordering a brand-new electric car) we checked into the cheapest room available at The Duckworth and met our friends for pre-show burgers and beers, their treat.  Our young waitress told us that Billy Gibbons had bought her a drink at a bar the night before after she told him that she had never heard of him or his band.

We got to the show fairly early and yet I somehow found myself in a relatively short beer line when Cheap Trick hit the stage; I made it down to our seats before the first song was over.  First of all: nice venue.  It’s a hockey rink with no upper level, just a single bank of seats ringing the rink.  The place seats maybe 7,000, including the floor.

Secondly: Cheap Trick has five members now?  Yes, Cheap Trick has five members now.  So, you got Robin Zander whom up until this concert I considered to be one of the best singers in rock and roll.  And sure, when I first saw the band thirty-five years earlier the dude had pipes.  And not that he wasn’t hitting all the notes at this show – he was – but he didn’t seem to bellow with as much oomph as my early ears recall.  And no wonder; dude is old now.  Way over on the right was his son Robin Taylor Zander, filling out/fleshing out/making up for Rick Neilson’s guitar work.  

Of course Rick Neilson’s mile-high guitar persona has always been the Angus Young of Cheap Trick and he was at it for the entire set.  All four mic stands on stage were lined with quadruple-rows of Neilson’s guitar picks and he grabbed a new one and threw it towards the crowd every five-to-ten seconds for the whole set, no exaggeration.  It was ridiculous, especially considering half the picks only went about three feet and landed on the stage beside him.  During the last two or three songs he kept stealing away side-stage where he’d grab a handful of plectrums in his picking hand to shower into the crowd all-at-once.  He had done the same thing thirty-five years before.  Somehow not a single pick came near me – despite our seats sitting just feet from the stage – though a guy behind me was nice enough to give me one out-of-the-blue during the setbreak.

(Incidentally, the whole crowd was pretty awesome.  Everyone was super-friendly; dude next to me chatted about Rick’s guitars, different dude in beer line insisted that I order before he did even if he made the barkeep snarly in doing so, and almost the entire floor stood up for most of ZZ Top’s set, but more on that later.)

Oh, and of course Rick is famous for having an extensive and rather unique guitar collection and yes, he changed instruments every song.  At one point he even formally introduced one of his guitars – an early-’60’s Fender Jaguar – to the crowd.  I stood and clapped.  The instruments were all impressive and though he didn’t bring out the doubleneck that’s painted as a self-portrait he did pull out his twenty-nine-pound custom-made Hamer five-neck monstrosity and he even played four of the necks: the 12-string on top and the three middle six-strings that each have different pickup configurations, though he steered clear of the fretless six-string on the bottom, mercifully.  His son (I suppose it was his son) Daxx Neilson was the drummer.  

I’m pretty sure it was the original bass player Tom Petersson filling out the lineup.  Whoever he was he was old, so it was probably him.

(Thirdly: for some reason everyone except Rick Neilson was pretty much always playing a twelve-string, both Robin Zanders’s and the bass player too(!).  The only time I had ever seen a twelve-string bass before had been at other Cheap Trick concerts I had attended.  So each song featured forty-two guitar strings, minimum.  Ironically all the tunes were power chord songs so in reality they could’ve made do with just two strings, maybe three.)

And you know, all-in-all Cheap Trick were pretty lame.  One thing’s for certain: I should not have been seeing them – especially the overly-geriatric-looking Rick Neilson – from so close.  The three of them just looked so old from up there (heck, even their kids looked pretty old), and though I stood and screamed (through my mask) during the hits (I Want You to Want Me, Dream Police, Ain’t That a Shame; I sat down for The Flame), by the time their set was over I had sworn off seeing retro-acts from good seats ever again.

And then ZZ Top came on and changed my mind in a hurry.  

All class from the get-go and presented with tons of shinola and only a little showmanship (like a few choreographed knee-swoops and a handful of synchronized headstock dips, but only a few), ZZ Top stuck to their three-piece blues format and thrilled a stand-up crowd with hits both old and older, including non-missable standards like Legs, Sharp Dressed Man, and the show-opening Got Me Under Pressure, plus earlier gems like Jesus Just Left Chicago, Tube Snake Boogie and even a fantastic surprise cover of Merle Travis’ Sixteen Tons.  Drummer Frank Beard kept things subtle and solid on the kit, long-time guitar tech-cum-bass-replacement Elmore Francis was simply great on the low end (between me buying the tickets and the show actually happening one of the band members – the great Dusty Hill – had died*), and Billy Gibbons was just fantastic, both with his vocals and his absolutely killer guitar playing.  

They were great, like…great.  I was especially glad to have been so close for the set, it made it way more fun.  I was even close enough to notice when the dude that was standing in front of my chair threw a joint onto the stage, and close enough to notice that it was the bass player who stepped in front of Billy Gibbons to retrieve it and stick it in his breast pocket for later.  Many kudos and back-slaps rained down on dude.  

After the show we met up with Susie and Colleen and the four of us post-showed at the Duke of Duckworth over a continual stream of draught beer, just like the old days.  Dude was there.

And it was awesome.

*Over on stage left, set up in front of one of a pair of twelve-speaker walls of fake sound was a little…I want to call it a robot but it never moved.  I guess it was a statue, not quite three feet tall.  It was made mostly metal and wire and it featured an illuminated chamber where its robot heart might have been.  In the chamber was a cylinder that was constantly crackling with little blue science-lab lightning bolts.  Surely this was a monument to bassist Dusty Hill (1949-2021); I surmised that it might even have even been an elaborate urn.  In a further dose of class nobody on stage made any reference to the thing whatsoever, although after their final bows all three members gave the it a high-five as they trotted towards the wings, a gesture so subtle I’m sure most people in the building didn’t notice it.  

Actually, there had been no mention of the recently-departed Hill at all during the concert, but none had been necessary.  I’m confident that there were few if any people in the room who wasn’t aware of his passing.

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