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Out With the Boys


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Ah, testosterone. That ordinary reproductive hormone isn't just a source of adventure, excitement, and ecstasy; it can also change your musical tastes. Without healthy doses of it--or at least a healthy appreciation for it--you could wind up listening to Counting Crows. With it comes an appreciation for big, loud, aggressive bands that have everything you need to release those pent-up drives: overstated blues riffs, stampeding rhythms, hoary vocals, and lewd lyrics. Be careful, though: not every band uses these things wisely. I recently saw two in concert, and let me tell you: ZZ Top made me glad to be a boy, but Aerosmith just made me nervous.

You know how dogs sometimes resemble their owners? Well, ZZ Top fans resemble the band. I have never seen as much facial hair in my life as I did at the Rosemont Horizon a few weeks back. And that was just one of the evening's otherworldly aspects, as the band's elaborate stage effects combined to create a kind of ZZ World, made of equal parts Popular Mechanics, Saturday-morning monster movies, and Frederick's of Hollywood.

An enormous replica of a car dashboard spanned the stage, including a gigantic speedometer at the center with drummer Frank Beard sitting on top. Conveyer belts allowed bassist Dusty Hill and guitarist Billy Gibbons to walk in place and seemingly float across the stage. Hissing, cracking, and popping electrical wires ran from the stage to giant, glowing radio antennae suspended from the ceiling. And a monstrous electrical generator glided across the stage during "Antenna," swallowed up the band, and exploded. Magically, they reappeared at the back of the stage. Talk about vagina dentata.

Above all, ZZ World featured women, six shapely dancers who took the stage for five numbers in various imaginative forms of undress, from black micromini skirts, garters, and hose (for "Fool for Your Stockings") to black hot pants, tuxedo tails, and blue neon saxophones wielded in choreographed precision (for "She Don't Love Me, She Loves My Automobile"). This gratuitous display of T & A reached a hysterical crescendo during an encore, a cover of "Viva Las Vegas" for which the dancers appeared in full Vegas showgirl regalia complete with enormous purple-plumed headdresses. I burst out laughing. I'm pretty sure that was the effect the band desired.

The overdone sets, the Vegas showgirls, the fur-covered guitars they played during "Sharp Dressed Man"--all of these high-camp exaggerations let the band delight in rock and roll's artifacts without succumbing to the cliches or macho arrogance of acts who take stadium rock seriously (we'll get to Aerosmith in a moment). After all, what's the point of being a rock and roll star if you can't live out your fantasies, gaudy as they may be? And what's the point if you can't let your audience participate in those fantasies for a few hours? As long as no one mistakes any of it for reality, no one gets hurt. Which is why for all the cheesecake in their act, ZZ Top are harmless.

My only real objection to ZZ World, in fact, was that the music itself often served as a mere sound track to the spectacle. By further expanding their oversize rhythms and riffs to equal the stage show, the band reduced the already thin distinctions between many songs. A few moments stuck out: the thundering stutter of "Waiting for a Bus"; Gibbons's heartfelt solo on "Rough Boy"; and the band faultlessly negotiating the breakneck instrumental runs at the end of "I'm Bad, I'm Nationwide." Despite their comic image, ZZ Top are superb, dead-serious musicians, and they played with a seamless cohesion that testified to their more than 20 years together. It'd be nice to hear them in a setting where the music was the main event.

If ZZ Top leaven their macho preoccupations with healthy doses of camp, Aerosmith give absolutely no indication they recognize that there's anything absurd about their presentation. Their recent concert at the World was a clinic in arena-rock concert giving, incorporating every discredited aspect of prepunk 70s hard rock with an unself-conscious panache that might even have indicated genuine conviction. Guitarists Joe Perry and Brad Whitford and bassist Tom Hamilton stalked the stage like members of the Dawn Patrol taking the perimeter; drummer Joey Kramer conducted a ten-minute drum solo; lead singer Steven Tyler wielded his microphone stand like an enormous phallus; and Tyler lead the entire crowd in an encore sing-along of the band's definitive power ballad, "Dream On." This time, though, the exaggerations weren't a joke.

The band's swagger and bombast--and the intimations of sexual power and prowess--generated a disturbingly feral reaction. Out on the lawn people were packed in like CTA commuters clear up to the back fence, looking as if any minute they'd all come tumbling down in an avalanche of bodies. The crowd roared before, after, and often during songs; stood for the entire show, even in the pavilion; and threatened to set the whole place--and each other--on fire with thousands of raised cigarette lighters. ZZ Top gave their audience fantasy. Aerosmith's crowd wanted raw meat.

Not much in the band's performance merited this fervor. I'll grant that the antic and energetic Tyler was fun to watch, that Perry's sleazy slide-guitar leads and lumbering riffs had flash, that Kramer and Hamilton's rhythms were propulsive. Yet these elements never came together into a consistent, forceful presentation, dissipated in part by frequent digressions--Kramer's solo, Perry's turn at the microphone--and in part by the crowd. The fans' number and volume so completely dwarfed the band that ultimately the audience wound up cheering for an idea: that Aerosmith were the biggest bad-ass studs around and that participating in the event made the guys in the audience bad-ass studs too. All the band had to do to satisfy their fans was act as if they believed all this too.

Like any other combustible substance, testosterone needs to be handled with care. ZZ Top releases it properly, through the benign diversion of fantasy. Aerosmith's bad-boy posturing, on the other hand, brings rock-and-roll abandon a little too close to the point of genuinely destructive chaos.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Philin Phlash.

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