By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
Word on the street had it that XXX was the Top's best record since God knows when. Christ, word on the street must have come from the concrete, because this thing couldn't make an impression on a pillow. Aw, seriously, it ain't that bad -- if, that is, you're willing to look past the dumb-ass subject matter (lessee, what could "36-24-36" be about?) and the hip-hop move ("Crucifixx-a-Flatt," which is) and just accept the fact that XXX is more of less of the same ol' choogaloo they've been cranking out ever since they gave their girlfriend a pearl necklace back in the day. (Though, to be fair, "Beatbox" and the very cool "Dreadmonboogaloo" wander into industrial territory without a map and don't get lost.) Every few years, the line about ZZ Top is that they're back to form; hard to tell whether that's a promise or a threat, really, but we're willing to accept it as a good thing, as long as it doesn't mean "sounds like Eliminator." Bless their hearts, XXX doesn't.
Of course, such promises always accompany Top releases, especially those on RCA: Before its release a few years ago, the line on Rhythmeen was that it heralded a return to the Little Ol' Band from Texas' pre-Eliminator blooze blues; no more of that Eliminator disco rock, no more made-for-MTV keerap. Of course, it was all a lie: This band peaked with Deguello in 1979, stumbled toward stardom with El Loco in 1981, perfected the tube-snake boogie with Eliminator in 1983, and never looked back -- especially after RCA cut the Top a check for $25 million long after the band had shot its wad and rolled over. They're an institution around these parts, but so are Lee Harvey Oswald and David Koresh and Ross Perot in some circles. Had manager Bill Ham never rescued these boys from the bars way back when and turned their ham-ha-ha-ha-fisted three-chord boogie-rock into blues for the arena circuit, it's likely they would have gone the way of the Nightcaps -- those gone-but-never-forgotten local boys from 1960 who cut "Thunderbird" first only to watch the Top copyright the song and the moves 15 years later and take full credit in a federal court of law.
The Top is Texas' answer to the question that ends with "Led Zeppelin"; Billy Gibbons, Frank Beard, and Dusty Hill swipe their blues riffs from black musicians who don't have the money to fight back (take that, John Lee Hooker!) and then turn up the volume and effects loud enough to cover up the whole blessedly sordid affair. Rhythmeen and now XXX are no worse than El Loco and a whole lot better than, well, Antenna or Recycler -- but so's anything by Jon Spencer, and he comes off like a guy who hates the blues. The Top's legacy rests with a handful of decent songs cut in the 1970s ("Tush," "La Grange," "Heard It on the X," "Waitin' for the Bus," and a red-hot cover of Elmore James' "Dust My Broom"), and everything since then is a secondhand knockoff of a rip-off twice removed from the original source. Which ain't to say Billy Gibbons isn't a helluva guitar player, but that beard covers his black face paint pretty darned good (see "Hummbucking Part 2" off Rhythmeen, Uncle Remus). But turns out he just wants to be Al Jourgenson.
Me, I wouldn't be caught dead at this show, or anywhere near Reunion Arena: The stars-and-bars crowd will be out in full effect this night, and God help the poor schmuck who leaves home his pocket bong and Johnnie Walker flask. Can't believe Bottle Rockets didn't make this trip, or maybe Jason and the Scorchers with a sidecar of Allmans. Imagine the scene -- skunkweed dudes hollering "Freebird" and "La Grange" all friggin' night long, while their fringe-and-halter-top-wearing old ladies chain-smoke their Camels behind reflector shades. Hmm. Come to think of it, sounds pretty good.
ó Robert Wilonsky