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The Vanessa Davis Band; ZZ Top
by Vern Hester

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Blues and more blues...

The last time that I saw Vanessa Davis and her band was in 1982 and my impression then was that one would not want to trifle with this woman. So it's hardly a shock that after 29 years the Vanessa Davis Band is just as hard-rocking, if not harder, than before. As the only out blues singer in Illinois (and maybe in the country) Davis has managed to go beyond mere art while her shows border on a religious fever.

Hitting Fitzgerald's tiny stage with a flirty, sassy "Rock My Blues Away," Davis and her band started the evening running. To say that this group proffers the most joyful blues in the Midwest may sound like a contradiction, but it's the truth. Davis—jamming on air guitar with her short dreads flying—was clearly wrapped in her joy while the band kept pushing her further. Even a standard blues lament like "Walking Man Blues" had such a rollicking bounce that it was impossible not to dance. (They should have advertised this show as a dance party since the tiny space in front of the stage stayed packed with grooving bodies.)

However, where so many blues artists rely on standards to the point of cliche (no, they did not do "Sweet Home Chicago") or embrace the blues as an end-all and be-all, Davis and Co. forged into pop and soul classics while reinventing and coloring them. Aretha Franklin's "See Saw" and "Dr. Feelgood" were transformed into blunt blues, taking "Lady Soul" where she would likely fear to tread. Sam and Dave's "Wrap It Up" was lacerating, unforgiving and, believe it or not, far more joyful then the original. A slow burning take on the Supremes' "Does Your Mama Know About Me?" gave Davis the chance to open up vocally while setting Doug Cannon loose on a searing sax solo. When Diana Ross first sang the song in 1969, her vocals and the sweetness of the production only hinted at its message of racial inclusion. Davis' take not only seemed to challenge the color line but also that of sexual identity without being overt or capsizing the song. (After all, it is a love song.) Was Davis making a statement? I can't say, but it still hit like a brick fist.

To be honest I had no intention of actually liking ZZ Top's recent show at The Venue. As that "Lil' Ol' Band from Texas," I had pretty much decided from the slightly misogynistic videos, deadpan low-key humor and monotonous sound that there just wasn't much there. That they hadn't released an album since 2003's Mescalero (RCA Records) didn't help, either.

However, I was wrong on all counts and was even made to feel dumb for it. Yes, ZZ Top is a party band with blues, drugs, wild women and fun times on the brain but the punchline is so subtle it's actually designed to be missed. The truth is that ZZ Top is having a good long laugh by twisting the cliches of Texas (the land of oversized, overdone and over-the-top) into salt-water taffy. The band's sound is big, sloppy and deliberately gnarly but live it's downright crunchy and irresistible.

As a band that prides itself on being from Texas there's not much twang in the sound but there is a certain laid-back, spacey, subtle humor masquerading as a bouncy harmless "coolness" that's reminiscent of, say, Dean Martin. The real joke is that all that sonic fury envelopes a simple aesthetic of goofy, harmless fun, fun and more fun. This actually neuters the misogyny; if you supplanted the genders of your choosing on "Legs," "Gimme All Your Loving" or "Tush," they would easily work as same-sex anthems. The hidden punchline of all the jokes is that, from their 3-foot-long beards to the hokey choreography to the matching outfits, ZZ Top warned us not to take them seriously.

All that mental processing went out the window as soon as Billy Gibbons (guitar), Dusty Hill (bass) and Frank Beard (drums) got onstage. "Got Me Under Pressure" had the clumsy lurch of a 10-ton truck with stripped brakes while "Jesus Just Left Chicago" blasted The Venue with the evening's first bong-induced joyride. The silly "Cheap Sunglasses" was followed by a furious take on Jimi Hendrix's "Hey Joe." Even that got topped by "Party On The Patio," itself a revved-up surf-rock rip that was as anachronistic as ZZ Top could possibly get.

Apart from the pile-up of hits at the end ("LaGrange," "Sharp Dressed Man," "Gimme All Your Loving") the biggest pleasure of the night was the inclusion of video clips of the band from 40 years ago when they were all clean shaven. I finally got the joke when I realized that they've had those beards for so long that I thought they were born in them and that I wouldn't know them if they walked up to me on the street and smacked me with a rubber chicken. Yuck-Yuck...

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