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Words: ZZ Top / Willie Nelson / George Thorogood & The Destroyers at Azura Amphitheater

ZZ Top. Photo by Rob Rhodes.

Date: August 8, 2021

Azura Amphitheater - Bonner Springs, KS


Most concerts that have occurred so far this year have been joyous celebrations of the world's slow return to normal, despite the varying levels of nervousness the crowds have carried with them. Last Sunday's outing at the amphitheater once known as Sandstone felt different in a very stark way. I walked away from recent shows featuring Garth Brooks and Rancid pondering how I ever took live music for granted. I walked away from ZZ Top and Willie Nelson wondering how I've ever taken life itself for granted.


ZZ Top bassist and vocalist Dusty Hill -- a name and bearded face as synonymous with the band as founding member and guitarist/vocalist Billy Gibbons -- died on July 28 at the age of 72. This left many fans to wonder if the band would still appear for this August 8 show. Gibbons confirmed to fans that Hill, after leaving the tour earlier in July, said of his replacement Elwood Francis, "send this man." Though I'm sure the original trio was an even meaner beast (drummer and founding member Frank Beard has continued on with Gibbons), ZZ Top still put on a damn fine rock show last Sunday.


The change in decibel level was the first thing one might notice when ZZ Top took the stage over from their fellow Texans. Six large amplifiers and six heads mirrored each other on each side of the stage and while I couldn't make out the knobs from my seat, I have to assume they were turned all the way up. In addition, Beard was playing one of the most expansive drum sets I've seen, with a large gong at his rear. Everything really is bigger down there.


"Pearl Necklace," a track from their 1981 album, El Loco, sounded very much of the era but held up impressively. (Has anyone ever joked that ZZ Top is a different kind of hair band?) The song's now-retro flair was more than fun to witness. Gibbons joked about phone calls he had ahead of the tour in which he confirmed to cohorts that he had not "cut the grass" in reference to his signature whiskers.


As a hip-hop fan, it was a thrill to watch the band play "I Gotsta Get Paid," a song that is essentially a blues rock cover of DJ DMD, Fat Pat, and Lil Keke's hit "25 Lighters," included on ZZ Top's 2012 album La Futura. The line, "25 lighters on my dresser, yessir," first brought joy to Houston hip-hop fans in the nineties, then early fans of Kendrick Lamar and Big K.R.I.T. in 2012 (via their references in "Backseat Freestyle" and "Money On The Floor" respectively), and now a crowd of thousands of Kansas rock-n-rollers. ("Just Got Paid," from the band's 1972 Rio Grande Mud, followed later on).


It goes without saying that "Sharp Dressed Man," "Legs," "Brown Sugar," and "La Grange" -- four of the night's last five songs -- drove the Gen X- and Boomer-heavy as crazy as one could. It was with the encore-closing "Tush" that some eyes might've started to well up again. The band hung the late Hill's hat on the microphone and played a recording of his vocals as Gibbons, Bear, and Francis rocked out.

 

Willie Nelson. Photo by Rob Rhodes.
Willie Nelson is 88 years old. Mostly due to my own ignorance, I wasn't prepared for how frail Nelson appeared as he made his way onto the stage this night. When I sat and thought about it, I hadn't taken in a whole lot of footage of him performing over the last decade.


Though Nelson's playing abilities were clearly diminished -- he sat down every other song and let his son Lukas take over vocal duties -- I still felt lucky to be seeing an icon of the genre (and American music in general) doing a victory lap. He would get off at least a couple solos on his trusty acoustic during his hourlong performance, but Willie was occasionally hard to watch. On songs where Willie sang, Lukas looked over to his father as he sang the backing vocals, trying his best to match his slightly off-kilter cadence.


There was still plenty reason to smile during Willie's set, though. It warmed the heart to see him playing with Lukas. The 32 year-old guitarist and vocalist sang a song of his own about a past flame called "(Forget About) Georgia" before his father joined in for "Georgia (On My Mind)" -- Lukas explained the discomfort his father's song used to bring him after his breakup. Other Lukas originals such as the tender "Just Outside Of Austin" and traditional honky-tonkin' stylings of "Four Letter Word" also caught me off guard. (Lukas Nelson & Promise Of The Real are set to play Uptown Theater next month and I may now have to attend.)


Fan favorites like "Whisky River," "Mommas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys," and "On The Road Again" were all pleasant, but lacked the vigor necessary to really satisfy. The moments in Nelson's hour long set that were truly powerful were those in which he grappled with his own mortality, advanced in age and surrounded by family (his sister Bobbie accompanied on piano). Halfway through the set, the lighthearted "Roll Me Up And Smoke Me When I Die" took on a new urgency without losing its sense of humor. The near-devastating emotional gut punches came with the final few songs of the set: "Will The Circle Go Unbroken?" "I'll Fly Away," and "Still Not Dead." The band played on as Willie ambled off stage, but not before flinging his cowboy hat into the crowd. As the kids would say, "real king shit."

 

George Thorogood & The Destroyers. Photo by Aaron Rhodes.
Blues and boogie revivalists George Thorogood & The Destroyers were the first touring act, taking the stage promptly at 6:30 P.M. Unless you have a complete and utter distaste for white guy blues, Thorogood's set was generally a good rocking time. There were the tried and true standards "House Rent Boogie" / "One Scotch, One Bourbon, One Beer," "Move It On Over," and his most notable hit "Bad To The Bone." One of a few songs from the set that wasn't a cover or a transparent piece of homage was "I Drink Alone" -- a 1985 single equal parts bleak and bad-ass. Thorogood seemed to be in high spirits, early on in the set joking about how his Destroyers are all out on probation, but that he himself may get arrested for "rocking" this evening. During their rendition of "One Scotch," talking in the breaks, as any bluesman does, Thorogood politely asked the audience not to drink and drive before interrupting himself to observe that, "sometimes even I'm so full of shit I can't believe it," as his fans laughed along with him.


As my father and I wrapped up our two-man tailgate party and entered the venue, we caught the final moments of local rocker David George's unbilled solo opening set in which he performed "Hey, Kansas City" -- a tune full of references sure to satiate every suburban tourist type that expresses their hometown pride strictly through tacky t-shirts, barbecue worship, and sports fandom.

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