Some things get better with age, but that adage doesn’t always apply to bands. Of course, the initial maturation process helps musicians grow, and their exposure to new influences causes their music to bend and twist in new directions. But when a musician gets on the north side of sixty, common muscular deterioration slows down the dexterity of fingers and arms, and slower tempos start to become the norm. The voice has its natural peak, and when that peak passes, the vocal range becomes limited and the timbre changes drastically. Some musicians take the challenges of aging and use them as a beacon of reinvention while others slowly wind down and eventually become a mere a shell of their former selves. In releasing Double Down Live 1980 * 2008, a double DVD featuring a 1980 Rockpalast performance from Essen, Germany and a compilation of highlights from their 2008 tour, ZZ Top invite the inevitable comparison between their present and former selves. So just how does the current version of Top stack up against the Ghost of Christmas Past?
After opening the 1980 performance with dramatic sounds of a mariachi band juxtaposed against a seemingly enflamed band logo, it’s not long before the band rumbles into Sam and Dave’s “I Thank You” while shuffling forward through their signature spread-eagle moves. They revel in their testosterone-infused blues style, but it’s not until they pull out their big hit, “Cheap Sunglasses,” that they really kick into another gear. “Arrested For Driving While Blind” brims with intensity before going into an extended solo/jam that inexplicably reaches a sudden ending. However, the pause is brief before the band moves full-throttle into “Beer Drinkers & Hell Raisers,” as they run around the stage, bouncing with energy. Then the classic “La Grange” ends the set with an awesome display of guttural, raunchy rock. A series of encores begin with a rough start to “She Loves My Automobile” before settling nicely into its bluesy groove. “Jailhouse Rock” serves as an apt cover, and naturally, ZZ Top thunders their way through “Tush” to the delight of the German crowd.
The 2008 disc intertwines slick, multi-camera shots of several large concerts with footage of the band backstage and on the road. As expected, they no longer bounce around the stage and tempos aren’t quite up to snuff with the blazing numbers from 1980. It also seems as though these extraneous off-stage clips are needed to provide some visual interest to a much less active show. That being said, the band has clearly learned something over the past 28 years, as the front row of the audience has transformed from a bunch of dorky German guys to a bevy of scantily clad women. Vocals have become a bit more gravelly, although they are still respectable. However, the raw, explosive dynamics of their youth are sorely missing on “La Grange,” which shows the band slowly shuffling forward instead of bounding with energy. It might not be so noticeable if this concert stood on its own, but when paired with a show from one of the peak years of ZZ Top’s relative youth, it’s hard to ignore. “Tush” maintains most of its speed and fairs much better, and the preceding “Hey Joe” is aptly suited for these elder statesmen and the slower, grinding tempos they now prefer.
It was a very ballsy maneuver to release two shows from 28 years apart that practically force an obvious comparison, but ZZ Top don’t seem to be the kind of guys who give a crap about what people think of them. Nevertheless, most will stand in awe of the raw power displayed in 1980 and shrug their shoulders at the more lethargic stage show of 2008. Of course, hardcore fans will probably appreciate both performances. It really doesn’t matter because the 1980 concert is certainly impressive enough to merit purchasing this release, even if Disc Two never finds its way out of the case.