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ZZ Top and Jeff Beck Trade Licks, Cover Jimi Hendrix Twice on Opening Night

The pairing for one of this summer’s most anticipated tours may seem strange at first: the otherworldly, progressive playing of British guitar icon Jeff Beck and the hot sauce-infused, raunchy Texas boogie of ZZ Top. But as their co-headlining tour kicked off at the Osprey Field in Missoula, Montana Friday night, it quickly became clear to the audience that this was a superb — albeit unusual — pairing.

You’d be forgiven for wondering if this combination could work, even though both acts are guitar-based heavy hitters with a deep history in the blues. After all, over the years they have carved out very different niches under the ever-expanding classic rock umbrella. The constantly evolving extraterrestrial soundscapes that Beck has created in recent years are a far cry from the hot rod strut of ZZ Top, who seem far more interested in getting back to the blues-rock basics of their earlier years than playing with computers lately.

Beck took the stage dressed in black wielding a white telecaster, and launched immediately into his trademark expressive guitar licks as the band held down an exotic, dynamic groove. It was evident from the get-go why this man has built the legacy he has — Beck’s uncanny understanding of his instrument allows him to create a wide palette of sounds while using a minimum of effect pedals. Bird chirps, robotic bips and beeps and motorcycle noises poured out of his speakers and become part of the band’s sonic collage, bolstered by his unique phrasing and attention to detail. Simply put: Beck shreds.

Of course, he’s assembled quite the band to help him out with the task. In the middle of the third song, bassist Rhonda Smith tore into a very impressive bass solo, and second guitarist Nicolas Meier had plenty of opportunities to let loose throughout the set. While all this was happening, drummer Jonathan Joseph laid down dense, powerful beats. After a handful of instrumentals, the quartet brought vocalist Jimmy Hall of Wet Willie fame (he also sang on Beck’s 1985 Grammy award-winning album, ‘Flash’), and launched into ‘Morning Dew’ from Beck’s classic 1968 album, ‘Truth.’

The rest of Beck’s set was a mix of originals such as the recent ‘Why Give It Away’ (which featured some stellar blues harp playing from Hall) and ‘Going Down,’ along with some incredible covers. Beck made his guitar sound like a church organ for the gospel-tinged Sam Cooke cover ‘A Change is Gonna Come,’ and channeled Jimi Hendrix for a celestial rendition of ‘Little Wing.’ Following the set-closing cover of Taj Mahal’s ‘Diving Duck Blues’ the guitar legend expressed his gratitude to the cheering crowd, stating: “This is why I do this. Why else?”

Following a set break, the video screens onstage lit up with a spaghetti western-style introduction and the instantly-recognizable characters of ZZ Top appeared. The show started with the 1983 hit ‘Got Me Under Pressure,’ and the field of people in front of the stage kicked into dance party mode right away. ‘Waitin’ For the Bus’ turned into the slower, groovy blues burner ‘Jesus Just Left Chicago’ — just like it does on 1973′s immortal ‘Tres Hombres‘ — while guitarist Billy Gibbons shot out solos effortlessly. The group has certainly been known for grandiose stage gimmicks, but aside from the video screens that played continuously throughout the show, this concert was simply about good ol’ rock ‘n’ roll.

As the setting sun cast the ball field in a golden hue, ZZ Top churned through the more recent ‘I Gotsta Get Paid‘ with swagger to spare before treating the crowd to their own take on Hendrix with a smoky version of ‘Foxy Lady.’ The group then slid into the classic blues tune ‘Catfish Blues,’ giving Gibbons the chance to really step out and shine. Following the lead of a guitarist with the skill of Jeff Beck is no small feat, but Gibbons has a catalog of licks a mile long and plenty of style to boot, both of which he showed off as bandmates Dusty Hill and Frank Beard held down a steady rhythm.

‘My Head’s In Mississippi’ turned into ‘My Head’s In Montana’ to a cheering crowd reaction, Gibbons hit a home run with a fret-hand-only guitar solo during ‘Sharp Dressed Man’ and the trademark fuzzy guitars were busted out for the set closing ‘Legs.’ As promised in the pre-tour promotion, they re-emerged for an encore with Beck in tow, and it was everything you’d hope it would be, as he and Gibbons tossed incendiary licks back and forth throughout extended versions of ‘La Grange’ and ‘Tush.’ The ensemble left the stage again and came back out for a second encore; a spitfire version of the classic Elvis Presley tune ‘Jailhouse Rock.’ It was a perfect end to the evening, reminding the crowd that while they’ve since gone on to explore everything from roadhouse blues to robot noises, these two acts share a common language of rock and roll that goes all the way back to the genre’s earliest roots.

Written by Jed Nussbaum

Jeff Beck Setlist (partial):
‘Morning Dew’
‘Why Give it Away’
‘A Change is Gonna Come’
‘Little Wing’
‘Going Down’
‘Diving Duck Blues’
+ 6

ZZ Top Setlist:
‘Got Me Under Pressure’
‘Waitin’ For the Bus’
‘Jesus Just Left Chicago’
‘Gimme All Your Lovin’
‘Pincushion’
‘I Gotsta Get Paid’
‘Flyin’ High’
‘Foxy Lady’
‘Catfish Blues’
‘My Head’s in Mississippi’
‘Chartreuse’
‘Legs’

Encore (ZZ Top with Jeff Beck):
‘La Grange’
‘Tush’
‘Jailhouse Rock’

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