The Montreux Jazz Festival was intended to be a “pure jazz” event when Claude Nobs and Ahmet Ertegun founded the annual live music spectacle in Switzerland in 1967.
That didn’t last. Prevailing tastes in music forced Nobs to reconsider, and by the dawn of the ‘70s the festival had begun welcoming rock superstars like Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin. The original concert venue overlooking Lake Geneva burned during a Frank Zappa performance in 1971; Deep Purple famously documented the arson in song with “Smoke On The Water.” New sites were built in haste, and both the scope of the yearly event (typically held in July) and the diversity of featured artists have expanded drastically since the ‘80s and ‘90s.
Sadly, Nobs died in January 2013 from injuries sustained in a skiing accident. He was 76.
But the Swiss promoter would’ve wanted the party to continue—and continue it has.
“He’s looking down on us from up there now,” surmised ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons during an interview done in conjunction with his group’s Montreux appearance last summer.
It didn’t escape the “little ol’ band from Texas” that their 2013 engagement was the first since Nob’s passing, or that the prestigious headlining gig was their first without the Swiss promoter around to welcome them (ZZ Top played the fest in 1996 and 2003). Accordingly, the hard-rocking trio slowed things down a bit (relatively speaking) during their Auditorium Stravinski showcase to salute the music-loving promoter who’d effectively opened his arms to welcome them—and everyone else—all those years ago.
The tribute is just one of several highlights on ZZ Top: Live at Montreux 2013, available now on Blu-Ray and DVD.
The high-octane concert film is the latest in a series of Montreux-centric titles issued by Eagle Rock, whose catalog of top-notch audio and video digital media just keeps growing. Other recent Montreux DVDs capture shows (both new and old) by such artists as George Thorogood, Moody Blues, Lou Reed, Alice Cooper, and Santana. Other recent Eagle Rock offerings include documentaries and concert videos by Elton John, Queen, Peter Gabriel, Bruce Springsteen, and The Who.
Eagle Rock also issued ZZ Top’s Live in Texas DVD in 2008.
The new Montreux movie is a fitting companion to that show, but packs enough hits into its 90-minute running time to sate casual viewers. The legendary band from Houston—still comprised of original members Gibbons (guitar, vocals), Dusty Hill (bass, vocals), and Frank Beard (drums)—sounds tighter than ever on fan favorites like “Tush,” “La Grange,” and “Sharp Dressed Man” and deliver a handful of cuts from Tres Hombres to celebrate the album’s 30th anniversary. The rough boys even submit bravura covers of Freddie King and Jimi Hendrix. It’s a helluva show for a bunch of sexagenarians.
The band bolts from the gates with the turbo-charged “Got Me Under Pressure,” from 1983’s top-selling Eliminator, with Gibbons and Hill decked out in matching Stetsons, sunglasses, and black jackets with floral appliques (their respective instruments also bear complimentary “longhorn” designs). Beard, meanwhile, pummels behind his double-bass drum kit as a big screen video mounted above his Paiste gong flashes random clips of spark plugs, insects, clouds…and the 1933 Ford Coupe long associated with the band. Two smaller monitors parked on either side of the drums lend a pleasant symmetry to the visuals.
Smoking and drinking aren’t exactly condoned onstage anymore, but we appreciated seeing an ashtray parked next to Beard’s toms. There’s just something defiant and rock and roll about it, coming from the sole ZZ Top musician who—despite his surname—doesn’t sport a beard. We also loved Frank’s choice of beverage for the evening: Tab.
The guys shuffle through the boogie blues of “Waitin’ for the Bus” (you know, the “have mercy” song) and “Jesus Just Left Chicago,” with Gibbons and Hill unleashing the first of many now-familiar synchronized dance moves as a dashboard Jesus looks on from the big screen.
Beard counts in the infectious “Gimme All Your Lovin’,” prompting the packed house to clap along. Hill adds high harmony vocals to the mix (presented in Dolby Digital, Dolby 5.1, and DTS Surround), and it becomes apparent just how well his low, urgent bass cements the bottom end. Gibbon’s guitar attack is aggressive, his chords crunchy (and mildly distorted), his leads crisp and clear. Most of the songs feature not only a standard guitar solo, but an outro solo as well, and Gibbons rides out “Gimme” with his fingertips instead of a plectrum, rapping the knuckle of his thumb over the guitar pickups.
Beard ditches his shades for “Pincushion,” an overlooked goody from 1994’s Pincushion album, then the trio rips through a pair of cuts from 2012’s La Futura: “I Gotsta Get Paid” and “Flyin’ High.” The former—based on the “25 Lighters” riff developed by hip-hoppers DJ DMD—bristles over a steady beat that emphases the band’s raw, organic chemistry. The latter tune is rendered with appropriately aerial-centric video footage of parachutists, trapeze artists, and roller coaster enthusiasts, and benefits from Gibbon’s squealing and squawking pinched guitar harmonics.
Keyboardist Michael Flanigan and guitarist Van Wilks join ZZ on the soulful “Kiko,” making for an eloquent homage to Nobs. Seated behind a vintage Hammond B-3 organ, Flanigan adds jazzy chords and mischievous little flourishes as Gibbons wails away, and at one point Hill nonchalantly strides over for a visit, parking himself next to Flanigan. Overhead, the video screen plays a slideshow of black-and-white images of Nobs posing with Montreux visitors over the years.
The funky, Billy Myles-penned “I Love the Woman” (made popular by Freddie King) is interpreted with aplomb—and Hill on lead vocal. After bidding his musical guests adieu, Gibbons cranks out a very experienced spin on Jimi Hendrix’s “Foxey Lady” before returning to ZZ Top fare. The bump-and-grind blues of “My Head’s in Mississippi” (from 1991’s Recycler) never sounded better. “Chartreuse” sizzles, and “”Sharp Dressed Man” cooks (with the song’s original music video playing overhead). Gibbons cocks his guitar while soloing, displaying a greeting-of-sorts affixed to the back of the instrument for Montreux’s neighbors across the lake: “Biere!” the message reads.
The electrifying encore sees Gibbons and Hill swapping their black sport coats for purple and retaking the stage with their customized “fuzzy” guitar and bass. Beard gets a workout on high-hat on the pulsating “Legs,” his eyes still closed in concentration, and the crowd roars in approval when Billy and Dusty finally switch positions onstage and visit with folks seated on the opposite ends. Another instrument change puts a black bass in Hill’s hands and a cherry red guitar in Gibbons’, his nickname—“Rev. Willy G”—inlaid on the neck.
The lascivious double-entendres of “Tube Snake Boogie” (from 1980s El Loco) still amuse, bordello anthem “La Grange” still rocks, and “Tush” still tickles with blues unbridles blues fury. Hill takes lead vocal again on the barnstorming finale, freeing Gibbons up for a round of slide guitar glory.
Bonus materials include the aforementioned chat with Gibbons, and another interview wherein both Gibbons and Hill reflect on their 45 years together—and their time at Montreux.
And yes, they also share tips on proper beard maintenance.
The DVD release coincides with the release of another greatest hits compilation—The Very Baddest Of ZZ Top—on the Rhino label.