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ZZ Top gets the Reno Ballroom rockin’ (photos)

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In the summer of 2021, ZZ Top was scheduled to play in Reno. I was seeking my press pass for the show when bassist Dusty Hill died, so I dropped the request. Much to my surprise, after canceling only one gig, they did end up playing here, but my door of opportunity had closed. Almost three years later, here we are, and it was worth the wait.

The show opened with the Mike Flanigin Trio, out of Texas, playing a set of good old Texas rock and roll and blues. After a quick stage change, ZZ Top came out to cheers and jumped into a set full of iconic hits, starting with “Got Me Under Pressure” from their 1983 album, “Eliminator.”

Elwood Francis, who took over on bass upon Hill’s death, came out with a 17-string bass guitar. My first thought was, “How many of those strings can actually be played?” I did see him playing the top strings and the bottom strings. I’m not a bass player, but I would think the inner strings are hard to get to.

ZZ Top is known to jazz things up with some very impressive-looking equipment (and threads). Let’s face it: They are fun to watch and exciting to listen to. In addition to the 17-string bass, they broke out the fur guitars from the “Legs” video, and Gibbons played a white Fender Stratocaster that belonged to Jeff Beck. 

ZZ Top played their hits at the Reno Ballroom on April 28, 2024. Nick McCabe / THIS IS RENO.
ZZ Top played their hits at the Reno Ballroom on April 28, 2024. Nick McCabe / THIS IS RENO.

They both had more eye-catching guitars than they played. Either side of the stage had stacks of eight custom-made 4×12 Magnatone M80 amplifiers—one side for Gibbons and the other for Francis. Frank Beard’s custom-made 10-piece Tama drum kit is impossible not to be impressed by. Besides being large, they are beautifully finished with a gold leaf and skull design on black shells. The bass drums have extensions with added wooden kegs mounted in the center of the heads.

The crowd was loud and excited from the start. The band played a 15-song set list of one hit after another. With their early success spanning the ’70s and ’80s, it wasn’t surprising to see such a well-seasoned crowd filling the Reno Ballroom. The show was all but sold out, with only a few seats left. 

The sound was exceptional. With the hanging monitors and 16 powerful amplifiers on stage, I was concerned that it might be painfully loud. It didn’t happen. Loud, yes, too loud, no. 

The sound was very clean and comfortable throughout the show. It wasn’t until very late in the set that I did take advantage of finally remembering to bring ear protection. I’m not sure if they were ramping up the volume or if I was experiencing ear fatigue. 

My only challenge was understanding what Billy was saying when he spoke to the audience. The singing was easy to understand, but I could hear age creeping into his voice. It’s to be expected. Even Paul McCartney’s singing voice reflects his age.

The music and musicianship sounded great. Francis is a great bass player and fits in perfectly with ZZ Top. Before Dusty Hills’s death, he had been working with ZZ Top as the guitar technician for many years, so he was part of the family and knew the drill. Billy shared that Elwood was clean-shaven until the COVID shutdown when he decided to let it grow. It had nothing to do with “looking the part.” It was just a coincidence. It does work well.

Typically, a band will ramp it up at the end of their show by playing some strategically placed hits to get everybody going. Even though the entire show was made up of hits, ZZ Top still managed to ramp it up with “Just Got Paid,” “Sharp Dressed Man,” and “Legs” (complete with furry guitars), taking us to the encore break. At the break, they changed from their beautifully embroidered black waistcoats to a couple of embroidered magenta waistcoats for their final three songs.

The second song of the encore was “Tube Snake Boogie,” in the middle of which Gibbons inserted a fun sing-along section. The show closed out with a powerful and charged-up version of “La Grange.” It was dark, so I couldn’t see the crowd, but it sounded like the whole room was on its feet. As the song approached its finish, bubble machines started spreading the joy by filling the space over the band with bubbles.

After 51 years, ZZ Top proved that they can still do it. Music doesn’t seem like a career you retire from until you just can’t do it anymore. You can’t beat live music for a fun night out.

SETLIST

  • Got Me Under Pressure
  • I Thank You
  • Waitin’ For The Bus
  • Jesus Just Left Chicago
  • Gimme All Your Lovin’
  • Pearl Necklace
  • I’m Bad, I’m Nation Wide
  • My Heads In Mississippi
  • Sixteen Tons
  • Just Got Paid
  • Sharp Dressed Man
  • Legs

   ENCORE

  • Brown Sugar
  • Tube Snake Boogie
  • La Grange
Nick McCabe
Nick McCabe
Nick McCabe is a Reno-based photojournalist and musician. He’s been shooting concerts in the Reno-Tahoe area since 2006 and writing articles and reviews since 2012, as well as doing interviews on occasion. His musical education and playing experience goes back to 1967. He is a founding member of the Reno Tahoe Forte’ Awards, and he still plays music locally for enjoyment. First concert: Jimi Hendrix. Last concert: we’ll see.

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