Few bands exemplify as much pure, soulful American rock ‘n’ roll and have had as much impact and legacy on other artists as the iconic ZZ Top, who brought their Raw Whisky Tour to Peoria, IL, Monday night.
Peoria Civic Center, Illinois – 10 April 2023
Words and Photography: Ben Tschetter
“We’ve now been doing this for five decades,” proclaimed legendary guitarist and frontman Billy Gibbons. Indeed, they have. For over 50 years, the band consisted of the same three members: Gibbons, bassist Dusty Hill, and drummer Frank Beard. It wasn’t until fellow-bearded guitarist Hill’s sudden passing in 2021 that the band’s long-standing lineup was shaken up.
Fortunately, in accordance with Hill’s wishes, the band quickly moved forward with the assistance of longtime guitar tech Elwood Francis. After years of studying the band’s playing, setup, and style, and then growing out his beard during time off in 2020 – in a similar manner to the bearded rockers – Francis was able to quickly hop into and fill Hill’s shoes.
As the first full tour with Francis, you’d hardly be able to tell the difference in sound. The band delivered a strong, rugged set that embodied the sounds of gritty, soulful southern blues. Francis delivered worthy renditions of Hill’s bass parts and even has a voice to emulate the backing vocals to many tracks.
Drummer Frank Beard, ironically the only band member without a beard, never missed a beat. The drummer barely looked up from his kit as he retained his focus on delivering a performance to remember and a groove to match the signature sound of his bandmates. Also impressive was the backing vocals he provided – never an easy feat while drumming. At 73 years old, Frank Beard remains one of the most proficient and solid drummers in the rock world.
Billy Gibbons – whom you’d never know how much he’s aged beneath his signature whiskers, dark, fitted frames, and southern-inspired outfit – sounded identical to the albums he had recorded over his lengthy career, both vocally and instrumentally. He did, however, show his exceptional talent and growth as a guitarist through various excerpts and solo improvisation sprinkled throughout original songs and covers to the excitement of audience members, who roared with applause at each impressive solo. With a performance like Gibbons delivers each night, it’s no surprise why he’s so revered in both the guitar and rock communities.
Anyone who has seen the southern, bluesy ZZ Top live before knows the drill – although the set was fairly short at only an hour and 20 minutes, the performance was nothing short of stellar and absolutely to-the-point. Comprised largely of hits, to which an enthused audience echoed every word, to deeper cuts from the band’s early days, all the way to classic blues covers, the band never missed a note in their no-nonsense set.
The most obvious change to the show was the omission of Dusty Hill-fronted hits from the setlist, such as Tush and Beer Drinkers & Hell Raisers. While these tracks were dearly missed, main frontman Gibbons carried the torch of the band’s legacy through to this new chapter in their career.
And after an encore only capable of one of the most legendary American bands and a quick bow, like a tumbleweed blown through the Texas desert, ZZ Top had officially won the hearts of those fans in Peoria all over again, and by the smiles, singing, and spirits filling the halls upon exiting, it was clear that not a soul left without being captivated by another masterful ZZ Top performance.
Catch ZZ Top on tour as they complete another busy year of shows, rolling through the US through May before Gibbons heads off on a solo tour of Europe (alongside Matt Sorum and Austin Hanks) before the band heads back to the US for a tour alongside Lynyrd Skynyrd through September.