A Tale of ZZ Top from Top to Bottom
Four out of five stars
There’s a certain irony in the fact that a basic blues and boogie band like ZZ Top could convince anyone unknowing that they possess a complex backstory. After all, they’ve basically maintained the same tone and template for the past 50 years, seemingly unaffected by changing trends and fashions. Then again, that’s what entitles them to respect. In an industry that finds shifting alliances depending on the current tastes of a decidedly fickle public, ZZ Top has managed to maintain its standing as darlings of the blues/rock faithful.
That Little Ol’ Band From Texas — its name taken from the nickname assigned to the band since the beginning — tells the story of the band’s trajectory, from the individual musicians’ humble Texas beginnings, through their early incarnations (most notably, guitarist Billy Gibbons’ seminal group, the potent and promising Moving Sidewalks), and onward towards their natural progression as the teeming trio now known as ZZ Top. In Gibbons’ own words, the group found its genesis through an initial jam in which an improvised “shuffle in C” lasted three hours, leading him to declare “I believe this is going to work.”
That was an understatement. Six months after first forming, they packed their car and drove to Tyler Texas — the “rose capitol of Texas” — to ready their first album. After three days of recording, they emerged triumphant, basking in the sheer simplicity of their unfettered approach. Thus, a boogie band was born.
Gibbons, bassist Dusty Hill and drummer Frank Beard (ironically, the only member of the band who doesn’t maintain their bearded persona) persevered and success came quickly, so quickly in fact that any question of their competence or doubts about their dexterity are dispelled within 20 minutes of the film’s opening credits. “We are interpreters of the blues,” Hill declares at one point, attempting to define their mesh of rock and blues. Or as one of their producers states so succinctly, “They turned blues into party music.”
Regardless of how one chooses to categorize them, ZZ Top’s trajectory, as described by That Little Ol’ Band From Texas, boasts the usual twists and turns from that point on — the drugs, an extended hiatus and the sometimes harried interaction with their label interaction. There’s a comical description of an early performance played for a sole spectator, a recollection of how Gibbons prepared to sing his lead on “La Grange” by stripping down to his jeans in blustery winter weather to get the proper gravely effect in his voice, and memories of their three support gigs with the Rolling Stones in Hawaii. With a wealth of early and later concert performances, a testimonial from Billy Bob Thornton, Steve Miller and other admirers, interviews with the individual musicians, and various animated sequences that fill in the gaps where vintage footage doesn’t exist, the documentary does a good job of sharing their story from those early origins to the bearded bravado they exude today.
Ultimately, this combined DVD/Blu-Ray set is geared towards the enthusiast as opposed to a conversion vehicle for the uninitiated. The trivia aside, it will likely find most favor with the faithful. Still, there’s no denying the dynamic, or for that matter, the perseverance, that’s played into their success. As That Little Ol’ Band From Texas demonstrates so demonstratively, blues, boogie and beards make for an iconic combination.