August 30 2023 Wallingford CT’s Oakdale Theater welcomed two of classic rock’s guitar greats.
As live music fans, we understand that our list of concerts we’ve attended is the ultimate collectors list. Whether seeing a particular band numerous times in as many venues as possible, or to catch as many different bands as possible, there’s a contantly developing scroll of past shows that we talk about with pride. And with many classic rock artists sadly succumbing to the pasage of time, so many of our heroes are no longer with us or performing, the chance to collect an artist to add to the list is always a great joy.
So when a friend wrote saying he had a pair of tickets for my wife and I to go see George Thorogood and ZZ Top in CT, I felt compelled to go. Both are great classic rockers, guitar heroes, and bands I had not seen before. What’s more, is that the show was happening at Oakdale in Wallingford CT- a venue I have not been to since the 1980s. When I was growing up my Mom used to take us there, and I saw some great shows including Bobcat Goldthwait in his prime, and a great folk bill featuring Arlo Guthrie and Pete Seeger.
But easily the crown jewel of my concert going experience- that show that nobody believes you actually saw- was at Oakdale when I was probably ten years old: Liberace. Who do you know who ever saw Liberace? Back then Oakdale was I’m guessing about a 2000 capacity tent like pavilion in the round. After rennovations in 1996 it became a much more standard theater, with the main performance area being completely inside and indistinguishable from any other standard modern theater. So it was with a bit of excitement that we came to this show.
Parking was easy, we met some nice people, and were easily able to get inside. There were lots of people there, supposedly close to the 4800 person capacity- but it was still easy to use the restrooms and to get a beverage or merch. There is now a big concourse for vending which apparently sometimes hosts it’s own concerts. We found our seats and were amazed at the view, we were very close to front and center.
The show opened with Connecticut classic rock troubadour Eric Herbst (of the band Dizzyfish) opening with a short acoustic set. A real crowd pleaser, Eric played a half dozen or so sing along classic rock songs and the audience were happy to join in on songs like Not Fade Away and You Can’t Always Get What You Want. After a short intermission, the main events were underway.
I remember growing up on MTv and George Thorogood was a staple, with both live performances and videos that introduced him to a wide audience in America. He came out with his band The Destroyers, and lay down a good 75 minute set filled with classics from throughout his career. The crowd ate it up, and he was really enjoying himself. The backing band was simple, with drums, bass, sax and guitar backing up Thorogood on guitar and vocals. He has suffered some medical challenges this year, and at seventy three years old getting back up on stage in itself is a big achievement.
Thorogood mugged it up for the crowd, kicking his leg for emphasis, or making faces at the throngs in the front rows. There were no big surprises, he played the hits. His voice was still very strong, and we heard people say things like “He’s still got it!” His guitar playing is supported well by his backing band. The guitar player was doubling his parts so that if there were any stumbles nobody would notice. It did appear as if maybe Thorogood was leaning on some tricks in order to adjust to his current abilities but it kinda didn’t matter. People were here to see him, to revel in his catalog, and to relive their youths. The set did all of that. Midway through he got more electric by busting out the slide and we all were just thrilled to see him perform. Nobody was more thrilled than Thorogood himself, who seems to be ecstatic about performing still.
Who Do You Love? (Bo Diddley cover)
Shot Down (The Sonics cover)
Night Time (The Strangeloves cover)
I Drink Alone
House Rent Blues (John Lee Hooker cover)
One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer (Amos Milburn cover)
Get a Hair-cut (Don’t Panic cover)
Bad To The Bone
Move It on Over (Hank Williams With His Drifting Cowboys cover)
While I have liked Thorogood material, I never considered myself a fan. ZZ Top however, I am a fan and am familiar with dozens of songs from their catalog. Like Thorogood, Billy Gibbons is an innovator on guitar, and his influence and unique style is just something I would really like to see while he is still performing. Thorogood was in good voice but had guitar challenges so far as his hands living up to the standards of his heyday; and Gibbons was the opposite. He was in fine form on the guitar for their solid 80 minute or so performance.
The band hit the stage with Gibbons, original drummer Frank Beard, and new bassist Elwood Francis. Francis was sporting this absolutely insnae bass that looked like it may have had 100 strings on it! Beard’s drumset was huge with two bass drums which were adorned by decorative whiskey barrels in the drum heads. The trio kept it super tight, with Francis and Gibbons huddled together center stage for most of the night. They would occasionally strut the wings and stage front, but they seemed more comfortable huddled side by side- almost as if they were playing a 200 seat club instead of in front of more than four thousand fans.
They opened the show with “Got Me Under Pressure” and we were off and running. One hit after another poured out of one of the most famous trios of rock history. Songs like “Gimme All Your Lovin” from their more polished MTv hits period were offset by songs like “Pearl Necklace” or “Jesus Left Chicago” from their bluesier 70 catalog. Gibbons was in fine form and the crowd was ecstatic to be hanging out with these classic rock deities.
If Thorogood struggled with guitar but was in fine voice, the opposite may be said about ZZ Top. As a slow hand, bluesy, melodic guitar player Gibbons is in a class by himself. There’s a reason that Hendrix singled him out as a guitar player to watch over fifty years ago. He has always had a grizzled, growling voice that is unique to him. It was clear that the band was ‘assisted’ in the vocal department- whether by vocal processing effects or perhaps backing track. The vocals were rich and full to a degree that it was clear that it wasn’t not fully live and in the moment. But it sounded great of course, and was of little concern to those who were enjoying the show, me included.
But his guitar playing- man o man, was great. I truly wanted to see the man play, and I did. He may not be at the absolute peak of his playing, but he is close to it and one of the finest players of Texas blues based rock music. Song after song featured his sharp playing, and there was no mistaking who he is, and what he has meant to rock and roll for over half a century.
Nostalgia is the name of the game with these classic rock shows. And who knows how many more opportunities we may have to see the legends in action. It would be easy to complain about the effects of aging, but father time is coming for us all. The optimist in me is just elated at adding these classics to my live show collection. The pessimist may wonder what it was like to ‘really’ see them, or bemoan the assistance that these greats used in order to stay on stage. I remember hearing people complain when Garcia started using a teleprompter and agreeing with the reply “if that’s what keeps him on stage and performing nearly 100 nights a year, I’m fine with it!” And the same can be said here.
The show ended with a three song encore with the finale being the much anticipated “La Grange.” The band busted out a giant bubble machine and disco ball and for that one song went with a really big stage show. The majority of the show was focused on their playing, but they turned on every toy and light for the finale, which was fun for us all.
Got Me Under Pressure
I Thank You (Sam & Dave cover)
Waitin’ for the Bus
Jesus Just Left Chicago
Gimme All Your Lovin’
I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide
I Gotsta Get Paid
My Head’s in Mississippi
Sixteen Tons (Merle Travis cover)
Just Got Paid
Sharp Dressed Man
Tube Snake Boogie
With the recent passing of legends from Jimmy Buffet to Tina Turner, and with the heavy hitters of classic rock now in their eighties- we can and should still laud those who are still performing. Paul McCartney performing now close to his traditional stature is still better than 90% of music on tour today. And what is the purpose of a concert? To go and have a good time and hang out with our friends and hear some of our favorite music of all time.
With that standard in place, this show was super fun and a great night out. It made me wish I could zip back to 1988 and see these two artists with every bit of youthful energy they had back then, but we should count our blessings now and show gratitude for the huge effort they are making to stay on stage for us, and for them too, I’m sure.
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