When ZZ Top stepped out on the stage Friday night in Alabama, for its first gig since the death of Dusty Hill earlier this week, by sounds and appearances it might have been 1975, or '85, or '95, 2005, or 2015, except for the differently hirsute man on bass.
The band's 20-plus year guitar tech Elwood Francis, sitting in on bass since Hill fell ill earlier this month, sported ZZ Top-appropriate wild white hair, head to chest, and like guitarist and singer Billy Gibbons, never doffed his dark suit or sunglasses.
Except for wielding sheepskin-covered guitars during "Legs" Francis stayed rock solid, thumping on a well-worn red paint with clawlike scratches Fender Precision bass. Gibbons began and stayed for the bulk of the night on a matching red and woodgrain Telecaster, although he did break out Gretsch models for slide parts on "Just Got Paid," from the band's '72 "Rio Grande Mud" album, and another Bo Diddley box, in basic red, not fur, for the encore.
Most in the well-filled venue — there were open seats, but just a few dozen in the pit, and a scattering toward the higher seats — rose and boogied from first bent note to last, even those whose still-'70s-length hair had grown in full white, their vintage "Eliminator" and "Recycler" tour T-shirts strained by age's girth.
The stage setting was spare, simple, and yet classic showmanship-style ZZ Top. Frank Beard's massive double-bass drum kit — with either beer keg or drag-racing fuel tanks stuck on fronts — took center, flanked by stacks of Magnatone Amps. Lighted mic stands — unlike Hill, who sang lead on "Tush," "Heard it on the X," and co-lead on "Beer Drinkers and Hell Raisers," Francis didn't sing — glowed wrap-around rings of ZZs, in hues matching the spectrum of projected lights, and the star-like backdrop.
They kicked off with "Got Me Under Pressure," another 1983 hit, after which Gibbons spoke into the mic, "Whooooeee. We gonna have a good time tonight." He then acknowledged Hill's passing, and their decision to move on with the tour.
"Dusty gave me the directive," Gibbons said, then introduced their friend on bass. "And we thank you," he said, kicking off their cover of Sam & Dave's "I Thank You."
From there they dipped back into '70s days, with the often-paired songs that opened their breakthrough '73 album, "Tres Hombres," the chicken-picking "Waiting for the Bus All Day," and slow-jam "Jesus Just Left Chicago."
Friday night, Gibbons both played what fans expected, including note-for-note solos and riffs from the bigger hits, and stretched out on less-well-known "I Gotsta Get Paid," from the 2012 "La Futura," the band's most recent studio disc, and in a longish solo intro to "Brown Sugar," not the Jagger-Richards hit, but his own composition, second song off the 1971 "ZZ Top's First Album."
The set continued to span decades, showcasing '80s hits "Gimme All Your Lovin'," "Pearl Necklace" and "Sharp Dressed Man," and the 1979 "I'm Bad, I"m Nationwide," before wrapping their main set with "Legs."
After a brief breather, the band came back with "Brown Sugar," the one relatively rare selection in the night. "I say we go back. I mean way, way back," Gibbons said.
The trio closed with "Tush," in which Gibbons stretched to sing Hill's tenor lines. During the middle of the slide solo, with assistance from a roadie, Gibbons lit up a cigar, another classic bit of standard shtick, indicating that the night, this night anyway, was coming to an end.
This article originally appeared on The Tuscaloosa News: Dusty Hill remembered at ZZ Top's first show since bassist's death