“That Lil’ Old Band From Texas” got its recording start in Tyler, Texas in the early 1970s. A three-piece of blues-driven boogie, who recorded their earliest vinyl tracks at Robinhood Brian’s studio near downtown, and used to play shows for fifty-cents a head at high school assemblies, played in front of a sold-out crowd on December 1 at Tyler’s Cowan Center.

And they’ve still got it.

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It’s easy to forget how many hits ZZ Top has had during its 50-year career. That is, until you hear them back-to-back for a 90-plus minute show.

Even though bassist Dusty Hill passed away earlier this year, the band said he wanted his long-time guitar tech Elwood Francis to take up bass duties with guitarist and lead singer Billy Gibbons and drummer Frank Beard.

Francis did just fine. Sporting a real, gray beard, he kept up the rhythm section with Beard on all of the hits, including Gimme’ All Your Lovin’, La Grange, Jesus Just Left Chicago, Legs, and many more. You could tell that Francis isn’t quite as comfortable on stage as Dusty was, but hey, that’s to be expected. Going from behind the scenes to center stage would be unnerving for anyone.

Gibbons and Francis switched instruments frequently, keeping multicolored, and even fuzzy guitars moving through the set, and giving the crowd a chance to see unique instruments played by excellent musicians.

And that’s the impressive thing about ZZ Top, or any other three-piece band for that matter. Sounding full isn’t easy without that second guitar to play rhythm while the lead guitarist does their thing. But ZZ does sound full. Very full.

Much of the credit for that goes to Beard, who can make a set of drums sound as if it’s being played by two people. It would be easy to attribute that to new technology that can magnify and add to a sound through digital processing. But I saw the band years ago before this technology existed. The drummer could make the same full noise back then.

When I first saw ZZ Top, the air was filled with the smell of cigarettes and weed. Lighters were held high and lit up the venue. Today, there’s no smoking, and the light of cellphones has replaced a waving Zippo.

But almost everyone was waving their cellphone, or using it to take photos and video. That included the headbangers who sat in front of me. Two young men who appeared to still be in high school did their best Beavis and Butthead impressions as the band rocked.

Behind them and to my right sat a father in his 40s and his younger son. To my left was a couple in their 70s.

That says a lot about a band. When you can sell out a fairly-expensive venue and fill the seats with everyone from kids to retirees, you’ve made a statement. And that statement is that Tyler, Texans love the blues.

ZZ Top doesn’t use pyrotechnics or blow your ears out with the loudest sound possible (although the show was plenty loud). They had a simple stand in the lobby to sell their wares. There was even a free box of ZZ Top beards, which were donned by men and women throughout the building.

It was a great show.

Billy Gibbons mentioned from the stage that it felt good to be free of the pandemic. And it did. There were a few masks to be seen at the concert, but for the most part people wore their fake beard or were free of either.

It was 90 minutes where 2,000-plus attendees came together, sans politics, and enjoyed a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame group. And that’s what we all need right now. More fun and more rock and roll.

It’s hard to ZZ Top that.

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