“Can ZZ Top play some blues for you?” Billy Gibbons is standing tall, center stage, a sly sideways grin creasing his bearded face. Headlining the Gang Of Outlaws tour with 3 Doors Down and Gretchen Wilson, ZZ Top has been feeling a little frisky with some old songs that sound as fresh in 2012 as they did in the raising hell 70’s and choreographed 80’s. With no egos attached, the band from Texas have long played boogie, gravel-throated, guitar driven rock and this stop along the month-long jaunt through the states was no different.
Opening with “I Thank You” and ending with a bad ass rendition of “Tush”, and a thanks-for-coming happy dog tail wag from the band’s mascot who joined them onstage for the bow, ZZ Top was the cool epitome of what a band should be: Gibbons, long and lean and coaxing out slinky slow-handed blues riffs; bass player Dusty Hill, stroking up some steady sneaky bass lines that could, if he let loose, fire up the mountain; and Frank Beard, sitting behind his drum set knocking out a rhythm that looked to be in slow motion but sounded rock hard on the money. For a couple of guys in their 60’s, they sure know how to beat the young boys at their own game.
Country singer Gretchen Wilson was the chosen one to kick off the night’s highly anticipated show. Coming out in a white True Religion tank top, she perked up a crowd that seemed to mainly want to sing and clap from the sitting-down position – something that strangely lasted most of the night – but she was indeed a firecracker, belting out “Here For The Party” and upbeat covers of “Hot Blooded” and “Rock N Roll”.
Mississippi boys 3 Doors Down came out with a roar, jumping into the title track of their year old latest CD, “Time Of My Life”, and quickly became the adrenaline shot of whiskey for the night. Having begun their career with the monster hit “Kryptonite” in 2000, they have continued to release hit singles with each subsequent album. Extremely popular in the Gulf South, their fans in the crowd let it be vocally known just how much they love their 3DD. “How you doing my redneck cousins?” shouted vocalist Brad Arnold.
They continued with their early hit, “Duck & Run,” before sliding into a few moody tunes, “Let Me Go,” “Away From The Sun” and “The Road I’m On” and the humble “Be Like That”. But with Arnold running into the crowd to sing a powerful “Citizen/Soldier”, the band tore into the second half of their set, which also featured “Round & Round” with its pumping iron guitar and bass solos, “Here Without You”, a magnetic “Loser”, “It’s Not My Time”, “Kryptonite” and coming to a close via the soldiers dedicated “When I’m Gone”.
\During “Kryptonite”, Arnold brought his small nephew onstage to sing with him while bass player Todd Harrell was constantly flying around the stage as if he had ants in his pants, giving the band it’s sense of fun amidst some moody rockers. New guitar player Chet Roberts, who has come in to replace original member Matt Roberts after he recently had to bow out for health reasons, is a good counterpoint to Chris Henderson, who is more subdued, even during a solo. And drummer Greg Upchurch keeps the beat with hair flying joviality.
So the second half of their set was a bonfire that cooled down, giving the headliners just what they hoped for as a lead-in to the blues rock they would deliver. You can call them legends but ZZ Top plays more like fresh kids on the block with a Joe Cool swagger.
Just pick your song and they did it with that unmistakable ZZ Top flair: “Jesus Just Left Chicago”, “Stages”, “Legs”, “Gimme All Your Lovin”, “Sharp Dressed Man”, “Tush” and “La Grange” all bore signs of vitality and a crisp sharpness that age has not touched.
Without a doubt, Gibbons is one of the best guitar pickers in rock & roll. His solos on “Pincushion”, “Sharp Dressed Man”, “My Head’s In Mississippi” and “Vincent Price Blues” only proved that fact. And with Hill and Beard carrying a monstrous rhythm to follow, “Heard It On The X”, “Waitin’ For The Bus” and “Beer Drinkers & Hell Raisers” made this one of the best concerts of the year.
“Time to get serious with it now,” Gibbons dead-panned when introducing one of the best performances of the night, “Beer Drinkers & Hell Raisers.” Keeping with tradition, the Texas boys did their synchronized sway several times and brought out the white fuzzy frets to do a mean “Legs” and Gibbons finger-jigged one-handed on “Vincent Price Blues.” It was also nice to see Gibbons having fun waving at some young children watching from side of the stage; the little boy at one point was banging his drumsticks during “Stages” like he was a mini-Frank Beard.
Although the tour only lasted a month, those in attendance witnessed a band at a pinnacle stage in their career: being of a generation that is growing older without slowing down, and still making top-notch music.A few days following the Baton Rouge show, and right before they ended their run with the Gang Of Outlaws, 3 Doors Down’s Todd Harrell called in to talk about his career and what it’s been like playing with ZZ Top.Baton Rouge was a great show.
Yeah, this whole tour has been great, man, from the beginning. We got one more show to do but every night has just been awesome. The crowds’ been great and it’s just been a great tour. Then we have a show to do in Vegas and then we have a little time off and we’re putting together another tour right now.You guys just never stop do you?
(laughs) No, we don’t. We do a lot of touring. And we have a Greatest Hits coming out in November so we’re working on that and we’re going to put, I think, three new songs on it which we’ve already wrote and they’re really good songs. I can’t wait for everybody to hear them. We played one the other night for the first time in front of the Michigan crowd. We always kind of judge our songs by playing them out first before anybody hears them and seeing how the crowd reacts to them. I think this is going to be another hit for us so we got one in the hole that’s going to be a good one. It’s called “One Light.” It’s always fun to put out new music.I have to ask you, since you’re out on tour with them, what is your all-time favorite ZZ Top song?
Ah, man, that is a tough one. They have so many great ones but I like “Tush”. You know what, it’s between that and “Legs”. I like “Legs” (starts singing). But touring with those guys has been so cool. We grew up listening to those guys and now we’re out on tour with them. It’s really surreal to go out every night and watch them play their show and it’s just awesome to see those guys still doing it. They got a great fan base and their fans love them. It’s been a real honor for us to share the stage with them.
Every song they play is a hit so it’s one of those nights where it’s nothing but hits, you know. And I think that’s why it’s been such a great tour. If you come out and see a show, you see Gretchen in the beginning and she sings all her hits and then we come out and play all our hits. It’s a night full of hits (laughs). If you’ve been listening to the radio for the last fifteen years, you’re going to know everything that’s being played on the stage. It’s been a great time.Let’s talk about 3 Doors Down. You and Brad and Matt grew up together in Mississippi, correct?
We did, we all grew up together and I think we started the band in the early 90’s. We were together four or five years making our own songs, you know. Then in like 1996 or 1997, we started getting labels interested in us and we put out a CD by ourselves, which at the time we didn’t even put our name on it. We just put a record out and that was 3 Doors Down and that’s the one that had “Kryptonite” on it. We got that song on the radio and it went right up the charts, straight up to number one and people started requesting it and that sparked the record companies interest and next thing you know we were signing with Universal and “Kryptonite” came out on The Better Life record and it’s been a whirlwind since then. We’ve been all around the world and we’ve had a great time. And now we’re getting ready to put out a greatest hits record, which kind of makes me feel a little old (laughs) but it’s been a good time and been one of those surreal things the whole time, like a deer in headlights. But we’ve learned so much and we’re still here doing it so it’s a blessing.Yeah, what more could you ask for.
Right, it’s a dream come true. We’re doing what we love to do and I don’t see any end for it yet. We still get along great. You know, you hear all these horror stories of bands that hate each other but we all still get along and all do things together and have fun. And we’re definitely a band. We all do things together and have a good time doing it still so I don’t see an end near. I think we’re going to keep doing it for a while, you know. We’ve already got like fifteen years invested so I think we’re going to stick to it (laughs)What part of Mississippi are you from?
We actually all grew up in a little town called Escatawpa and that’s right outside of Biloxi so when we were a local band we did all our like bar hopping in Biloxi, then we’d go to Mobile, Alabama. It’s where we all grew up but we always say we’re from Biloxi. I live in Biloxi now. It’s where the band did all our touring kind of before the nationwide tour, you know. We did a five year tour of Biloxi (laughs). And we’d go from like New Orleans to Pensacola. Then we got signed and we took off and we’ve been around the world two or three times now and it’s been a lot of fun.Some people say you had a fairy tale beginning. Do you feel that way?
Yeah, yeah, it’s definitely a fairy tale story. It’s kind of like a garage band did good. We all just started in the garage, started making our music and we feel fortunate to be here. We have the greatest fans out there and it is just so cool. We have the coolest job on the planet.Brad once said in an interview that he was writing songs during math class in high school. So what were you were doing during class?
I was probably skipping school (laughs). I’m a couple of years older than Brad and I think I was like twenty-two or twenty-three when he was still in school writing songs in his math class (laughs). But I was probably playing hooky when I was his age instead of writing songs.3 Doors Down had this huge hit with “Kryptonite”. How did you keep your ego in check and not let it all go to your head?
You know what, that’s a good question. I don’t think there’s nothing wrong with having your head in the clouds as long as your feet’s on the ground, cause it can definitely get you. I’ve seen bands come and go in our career and I’ve seen bands get big heads and fortunately we just love what we’re doing and we take it day by day. We don’t try to act like big rock stars or nothing and just really embrace what we do and try to keep our feet on the ground.Do you think it helped coming from a small town? Having that foundation of being an everyday person and an everyday kid.
Yeah, we’re from a small town and I think it’s a lot easier to be a big fish in a little pond than a big fish in a big pond. So I think being from such a small town, we’ve kept our families close to us and I think our families had a lot to do with it, not letting our heads swell up and stuff. Anytime we thought we were getting too big for our pants, Mama or Daddy would tell us to calm down a little bit, you know (laughs), they’d pull that switch out.How did you get into music and playing the bass?
I’ve always loved music. I never played in the band or nothing but I always played the guitar and stuff in school and I became the bass player when we all got together - me and Brad and Matt - and we couldn’t find a bass player. So I went and bought a bass for like seventy bucks, I think, and I just became the bass player. And that was the best move I ever made. I love the bass and I’ve always been able to play the guitar so it just made it that much easier to switch over. The bass to me is the funnest thing on stage.
It’s definitely an instrument you can get down with (laughs)Yeah, you act like you’re more of a guitar player running around up there.
Yeah, most bass players you see just kind of sit in one spot and kind of play their bass but I can’t, man. I get into it too much, I feel it too much. I like to get a little crazy every once in a while, I guess (laughs).But that’s infectious, though. It bleeds out into the audience when they see you having fun.
That’s the thing about us. We do have fun up there and when we’re having fun I can see the crowd having fun. We always try to go out there with whatever’s going on during the day we forget about that and whenever it’s time for showtime we put our game face on and it’s time to have some fun.Matt left the band recently due to health reasons.
Yeah, Matt had some health issues, and it just got to where he had to quit, you know. It was one of those things where we hate to see him go but it was probably the best thing because he wasn’t enjoying it no more. It was starting to be a problem and we just kind of went our different ways. We replaced him with a guy named Chet Roberts, who used to be Chris’s guitar tech. So we didn’t look too far. He was already in the camp and he’d been teching for a few years now and just kind of fell right into the spot. It wasn’t one of those things where we had to go hunt down somebody or give auditions. He already knew the songs and he’s not an ugly fellow (laughs) so it was a pretty easy choice to let him come on.
He’s been playing with us since we went to Brazil. We went to Europe and when we were in Europe Matt got real bad over there and he just couldn’t go on no more. So when we got back and had to go to Brazil we got Chet to fill in and we had a couple practices with him and it just felt so natural. It was a good thing. Everybody’s kind of glad about it now cause everybody is having fun, you know, and Matt just wasn’t having fun for a while.Do you think that Chet is going to stick with you on a more permanent basis?
I think right now, yeah. Everything is working out so good and everybody gets along and I don’t see a reason why he wouldn’t stay with us. He’s a musician and I’m sure he loves playing instead of teching (laughs). So I think he’s going to stay around. You guys have been on tour forever it seems. How do you keep it fresh out there not only every day but every year?
You know what, we just go out there and play our music and have fun and the crowd keeps it fresh. Every night we play our set but every night you see different faces and play in front of a different crowd and it’s always new. It’s not stagnant or nothing. It’s not like we’re going through the motions. We actually have a good time playing with the fans and we interact with the crowd and the crowd keeps it new for us every night. That’s how we keep it fresh and it’s the crowd that does it for us.Was that Brad’s nephew that he brought onstage in Baton Rouge?
Yeah, that was his nephew. Every once in a while we’ll be playing and we’ll look up and Brad will have a kid on stage (laughs). But it’s cool, it works out and the crowds love that and I’m sure the little kid that comes up there that’s not scared to death loves it too.Do you remember the first concert that you ever went to?
I went and seen Van Halen in 1985 and that was when “Jump” came out. The album had the little baby on it smoking the cigarette. That was my first concert and I won’t ever forget it.Why won’t you ever forget it?
It was just awesome, man. Watching David Lee Roth jump around and kick balloons that was ten feet high in the air. It was just a hell of a show and I was like, that’s what I want to do right there, so that was my start.Were you already playing by then?
Yeah, I’ve always played. I’ve played the guitar since I was a kid but at that time I wasn’t in a band or nothing but it wasn’t long after that that we started putting together this band and making music and playing house parties and stuff like that. It was a good time for us.You look like you have no fear being up there on stage with all those people watching you.
It’s like when you go up on stage or you go to a baseball game or something and you turn your hat around and you become something else. It’s like when we go up there it’s our outlet to have fun and you do kind of become somebody else for that hour, hour and a half that we play. I just let it all hang out and have fun. That’s my outlet to life, I guess. I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t have it. What do you have written on the back of your bass?
(laughs) Do I have to tell you that?Yes you do and it probably says “show your tits”
It does say that (laughs)But you didn’t flip it over in Baton Rouge.
No but that’s been one of my best guitars and I’ve had that guitar for years, you know. In my younger days I’d flip it up a little bit but I don’t flip it up no more, not too much (laughs). I have to refrain myself these days but in the early days I’d flip it up.Do you have children?
Yeah, I have a little girl and she’s eight now but before she was born I probably flipped it up a lot (laughs)I’m sure you did. You’re a guy and you will always be a guy
Yeah, there’s no getting away from it (laughs)Who was the first rock star you ever met?
Me and Chris went over to the Coliseum [in Biloxi] and met the guys from the band Steppenwolf. Remember the band Steppenwolf? We went over there and that was about right when we got out of high school. I was friends with some guys that worked over at the radio station at the time and they got us some backstage passes and we went to a meet & greet and got to meet them and that was the first time I met somebody that was all decked out in leather pants and tattooed all up and earrings that hung past their tits. They were all glammed out. It was cool and it was a good experience for me. You have toured with a lot of different bands, a big variety of bands, so who was one of your favorites? Who did you have the most fun with?
There has been quite a few of them. We’ve had a lot of fun with the Staind guys, we’ve toured a lot with those guys. We’ve toured a lot with the Shinedown boys. We toured one time with Skynyrd for a while and that was probably one of the most coolest things when we toured with them. I grew up listening to Skynyrd and when we finally got to tour with them we were just blown away. So probably Skynyrd.The Hard Rock in Biloxi has a big display of 3 Doors Down.
That’s kind of crazy, you know. Right in our hometown we have a bunch of mannequins in our Hard Rock. Every time we go in there, I’m like, don’t look at that thing (laughs). But I kind of like to step back and watch and see people looking at it and it’s always cool (laughs)How does it feel when you hear other musicians are fans of you and your band?
It’s a really cool feeling to know. I don’t know if we’re looked up to, but looked at by at least your peers that play music also is a great feeling. It’s really cool to know that we’ve kind of made a mark on modern music. It really feels good to be put in the category with some of the greats, you know. It’s just one of those surreal things. You kind of don’t know if you believe it but it’s a great feeling, Leslie. It’s really cool to know you’re looked at by other people. Tell us more about your foundation.
It’s called The Better Life Foundation and I think this year here will be like our eighth or ninth year coming up and it’s going to be November 17. It started out for our local community. We gave to women’s shelters and for terminally ill kids and people that were less fortunate. Then Katrina came along and wiped everything out and for three years our efforts went to like helping people get back on their feet. These last couple of years we were making these dream racers for all the hospitals, and what that is is a little racecar that kids get to get in and play Xbox or Playstation or whatever while they’re getting their chemo. It’s just one of those things that has been really cool to be a part of and to see people smile when they’ve got so many bad things going on and just to be able to help out.
I think Waveland [near Biloxi] was hit real hard by Katrina and when we came off tour that year, you couldn’t even get our tour buses into our homes so we took our tour buses to the police station and let the police work out of them. The foundation does things like that, you know. We gave, I think, three cop cars to Waveland cause all their cars were destroyed in the storm; fire trucks were destroyed so we bought a fire truck; just things like that and it’s been a really cool thing to be a part of. Every dollar in goes out to help kids. Nobody gets paid for it. It’s a cool organization. It’s been some of our proudest moments as a band watching people smile when they need a break so bad. You can check it out on The Better Life and go to our website, www.3doorsdown.com, and read all about it.