ZZ Top to send Compaq Center out in rockin' style

By BRUCE WESTBROOK
Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle

On the eve of their most historic concert, Houston's ZZ Top made some new history. The little ol' band from Texas has been voted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

ZZ Top will be inducted in ceremonies March 15 in New York City, then enshrined at the hall's home in Cleveland, Ohio. Port Arthur's Janis Joplin was inducted in 1995, but ZZ Top will be the first Houston band to join the roster of rock legends, which began with fellow Texan Buddy Holly, among others, in 1986.

"We've been on that stage three times in the past as presenters," ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons says. "After 34 years at it, it's going to be interesting to be on the receiving end. Needless to say, we're honored, thrilled and delighted and offer our sincere congratulations to our fellow inductees."

The honor caps a year of landmarks for the blues-rock trio, known for its fierce energy, long beards and Texas-sized showmanship. Last month brought the first career-spanning box set, Chrome, Smoke & BBQ. And Saturday night ZZ Top will close down a rock arena they helped open 28 years ago.

On Nov. 27, 1975, ZZ Top first took the stage at the sparkling new Summit. And lo, fans saw that it was good. Let there be rock.

Saturday's last ZZ Top show at the now-named Compaq Center will be followed by Disney on Ice Nov. 26-30. The building then will become home to Lakewood Church and be renamed Lakewood International Center.

"ZZ walks out and Jesus walks in," Gibbons says of their nearly sold-out show.

"At least it (the venue) isn't being torn down," bassist Dusty Hill says. "It's going to the Lord."  

Saturday's show will be ZZ Top's 23rd at the Summit/Compaq -- more than any other act. The band promises to live up to the occasion.

"We want to do the best show we can everywhere, but when we play at home, I hear about it at the grocery store even a year later," Hill says. "No pun intended, but we've got to do our top show."

"We have to give our best for the home folks," says Gibbons, whose mother, Lorraine, will attend along with other family members and friends of the band.

"The home shows are the fun shows," Gibbons says. "You get to show off in front of your buddies, new girlfriends, old girlfriends -- girlfriends you wish you had."
ZZ Top
Frank Beard, from left, TV host Crash, Dusty Hill and Billy Gibbons celebrate after a concert at the Summit, Dec. 7, 1975.

As hometown boys, the group had "a strong, intense family base" to augment their popularity, says Mike McGee, general manager of the arena from 1979-96. "I used to tease Billy that I'd book a private show for family and friends and a public show for everyone else."

After Gibbons, Hill and drummer Frank Beard formed their blues-rock trio in 1970, they first played Houston gigs at the Music Hall, Liberty Hall and Sam Houston Coliseum -- all gone now.

When the Summit beckoned in '75, ZZ Top was stoked to appear, its popularity cresting from the hit album Fandango and a Worldwide Texas Tour.

British rock veterans the Who actually beat them, first rocking the Summit's rafters on Nov. 20, 1975. But ZZ Top's two sold-out shows on Nov. 27 were Nos. 2 and 3 -- and Willie Nelson wasn't far behind. Nelson played the first of many New Year's Eve concerts on Dec. 31, 1975. He and Neil Diamond are tied for second for most appearances at the venue, with 17 shows each.

"ZZ Top also rehearsed for several days for a couple of tours there," McGee says. "We were honored to have them. They're class guys -- great ambassadors not only for the music industry but for the city of Houston."

Since '75, the band has stayed loyal to the arena. Their only other local concerts have been for the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo -- in just the past two years.

"Out of all those years they (the rodeo) asked us to play, we felt as Houstonians we had to play the last year in the Astrodome (2002), and then the first year at Reliant Stadium (2003)," Hill says.

Beyond that, ZZ Top has played only "a couple of slippery things, like a surprise visit at a nightclub," Hill says. "But those weren't concerts."

ZZ Top also rang in 2000 with a Dec. 31, 1999, Compaq show. The band has played up to four-show runs there, but the finale will be a one-night stand.

"It's the last hurrah, so I wouldn't want to do more than one night," Hill says. "For this type of show, it should be one show -- bam!"

As a loud, raucous, full-tilt boogie band, ZZ Top is rarely chatty on stage. Nor does it plan many flourishes Saturday. "But since it's the last rock show there, I'm sure we'll have something to say about it," Hill says.

"We'll have one secret surprise," Gibbons says. "But our show is number by number. We don't like to take time between tunes, so we can squeeze a lot of stuff in. We might even play a little longer than usual."

Concerts have run about two hours on ZZ Top's current world tour, which began April 25 and included a show in Mexico City last week. The final Compaq concert also will be their tour's finale. "We extended the tour in part for this," Hill says.

Their set will range from ZZ Top's new album, Mescalero, to the vast repertoire showcased on a new career-spanning four-disc box set, Chrome, Smoke & BBQ.

What will be the arena's last rock song?

"I hadn't thought about that until you mentioned it," Gibbons says. "Maybe La Grange or Tush. They would be a fitting end for that night."

Hill agrees. "An educated guess (about final songs) would be La Grange or Tush, which we also played 28 years ago. But we try not to plan too much. We want there to be spontaneity."

Over the years, ZZ Top has tended to book home shows around Thanksgiving.

"A tradition evolved where you'd go eat turkey, take a nap and then go get loud," Gibbons says. "This one is close enough. We're certainly giving thanks for something. It's been a wonderful tradition that's allowed us to return time after time and just do what we do -- three guys and three chords."

"Traditionally, it's been a very popular event," says Sydney Greenblatt, the Summit's former vice president of marketing. "Not every show has sold out, but they've come close."

Though at home, the band stays in a hotel the night before a local show. "It's odd, but it's part of the process of what we do," Gibbons says. "It helps us focus."

Hill recalls being in a hotel room overlooking the Summit in 1975 and watching fans arrive long before showtime.

"I don't usually do that," he says. "But I was like, `Damn, they just keep coming -- a lot of them.' It was really cool."

Gibbons says cooler temperatures in late November can enhance the concert sound.

"They've got those big puffy chairs, and folks come in with big puffy jackets, and all that sound absorption makes for a great night," he says. "It's one of our favorite experiences, simply because the sound gets right and gets tight."

In 1975, large arenas were geared to basketball and hockey teams and large touring events such as circuses. Few served concerts' acoustical needs.

"That building was created when architectural design for arenas started taking acoustics into account," Gibbons says. "To this day, it's one of the best-sounding rooms in the country. It's a great room, and we hate to leave it."

"I've always liked that pit look of it, and the sound is great," Hill says. "We've played places that obviously weren't built with music in mind. You couldn't control the sound, which bounced around concrete and steel. Even though rock 'n' roll is loud, you still want it to sound good."

"It's still a great building," McGee said of Compaq, which has hosted 50 million people in its 28 years. "This is the end of an era, but it's been a great ride."

By performing so often at the arena on the Southwest Freeway, the band began to feel quite at home.

"When I'd attend someone else's show, it always felt like they were playing in our house," Hill says. "It does feel like home. I've always had that attitude."

Hill lived in a house near the arena until this year, and until two years ago was a longtime season-ticket holder for the arena's principal tenants, the Houston Rockets.

"My wife, then girlfriend, lived in a condo across the street, so I'd just walk across the street and down the ramp, like when I played there -- just walk in the back door and take my seat. Talk about feeling at home."

The band hasn't thought about where it will play its next Houston show, though it would make sense to shift to Toyota Center, the Rockets' bigger new home. It seats around 18,000 compared to Compaq's 16,000.

"That would seem logical," says Hill, who hasn't seen Toyota Center. "But who knows?"

"We'll give it our best on closing night, then hopefully get an invitation to create something new and different," Gibbons says. "But it will always be on the up-tip -- that's the ZZ Top trip."

As for Saturday's last show, "I try to think that all shows are the same, but there is a difference playing anywhere in Texas and playing at home is a huge thing for us," Hill says.

He said the band has played first and final shows at other arenas, "and it's always sad doing a last show. But I expect this one to be more of a party atmosphere than anything else.

"It's like the Super Bowl -- it's not hard to get gamed up for that. I can't understand why anyone wouldn't be at their peak. How much inspiration do you have to have?"