At the B.B. King Blues Club on March 30, the ZZ Top mainman brought his other, earlier band back to life and rode ‘em all the way to the 99th floor.
BY EVAN HAGA
On Saturday, March 30, the Houston-rooted psychedelic garage-rock band the Moving Sidewalks reformed for its first show in over four decades. The quartet performed for about 80 minutes to a packed B.B. King Blues Club & Grill in Times Square, and in many ways it picked up where it left off: stating its case as a real musician’s rock and roll band, playing original material as well as other people’s hits to please an eager crowd, and acknowledging that it has a terrific guitarist in frontman Billy Gibbons, whose solos, whether fiery and surefooted or wending, can make a rote song soar.
In other ways, though, the air was different, and those shifts descended from ZZ Top. If you found this website and clicked through to read this review, then you probably know about how the Sidewalks became Gibbons’ ZZ Top, and how the guitarist and singer has spent the last 43 years perfecting the Texas boogie for an enduring mainstream audience. So there was the star-power-at-close-range factor here, never an impediment to selling tickets for a band that was mostly a regional success in its day. There was also a matter of sonics—especially Gibbons’ guitar tone, which took on the slick, leaden, amphitheater-filling texture refined throughout all those ZZ Top tours. (It’s worth noting that both Gibbons’ and bassist Don Summers’ instruments had some sort of computer screen built into them that looped a screensaver graphic—just the kind of custom-modification kitsch that has become a ZZ Top earmark.)
Deeper than that was a diversion in feel, traceable to ZZ Top as well as the inevitability of age. As heard on last year’s Rock Beat compilation The Complete Collection, the Sidewalks’ original 1967-69 run expertly followed the changing tides in psychedelia. Taken as a whole, the Sidewalks’ repertory holds the concise, R&B-fueled rave-ups of the middle ’60s in smart contrast with the exploratory heavy blues that flourished as the ’60s became the ’70s. Here the vibe was plodding and patient, a straighter blues-rock gig without psych weirdness or ’60s playacting. This was a ballad-rich set, to be sure—the slow blues “Joe Blues” was even programmed to follow Jimi Hendrix’s crawling “Red House.” (It was a tribute with real meaning: Hendrix was a friend and lodestar to Gibbons and used the Sidewalks as an opening act.) The Troggs’ “Wild Thing” and Hendrix’s “Foxy Lady” became roadhouse lumbers, and old Sidewalks gems like “Flashback” and “99th Floor” felt closer to ZZ Top dipping into B-sides than teen-center shakedowns. A cover of the 13th Floor Elevators’ “Reverberation (Doubt)” killed and gave the rock scholars in the audience something to savor, but lost was its twisted, hazy, bad-trip aura.
The passing of years has its graces, too. Gibbons, 63, quipped about an important one of those after a slow blues: “Imagine being 16 and trying to get away with this shit.” He was right, and the Sidewalks’ down-tempo take on the Wildweeds’ “No Good to Cry” felt more genuinely pained now than then. (No small feat: Gibbons already sounded precociously earthy and torn in his teens.) Organist Tom Moore’s chops have improved since the breakup, and he stretched out as long as Gibbons needed him to, filling chorus after chorus with soul-jazz dexterity.
But Gibbons was the main instrumental attraction, and if nothing else this reunion offered guitar geeks an intimate clinic of sorts. There were the showman moves, like his trademark pinch harmonics and those long, sustained legato phrases where he would point at his guitar with his right hand instead of picking. But there was a profound musicality in Gibbons’ solos, even with a few flubbed notes and missed changes, shortcomings you’d never encounter in ZZ Top’s well-oiled machine of a live show. A sense of purposeful economy, always a hallmark of Gibbons’ playing, is becoming more apparent as he ages. In place of senseless flash were stinging bends placed just so, and phrases that highlighted the blues harmony of the songs rather than obscured it. (In other words, he played like a bluesman and not a rocker.) It was his show, and it deserved to be.