Do a search for “ZZ Top tribute bands” and you will find a number of groups with different degrees of “authenticity.”
Most can play the songs well. But that look, a ZZ Top trademark of long beards and iconic clothing, is the main characteristic that separates the weekend warriors from those who live the ZZ Top lifestyle.
At the top of those “authentic” tribute bands is Chicago-based Eliminator.
Set to appear March 16 at The Eclectic Room in Angola, Eliminator have been playing the songs of ZZ Top for more than 26 years at festivals, biker bars, and theaters. It’s been a long career that the members of the band still thoroughly enjoy, though being a tribute band wasn’t initially the plan and actually came about unexpectedly.
“Me and the original drummer had a great cover band,” guitarist Ron Schneider said in a recent interview with Whatzup. “We played a lot of ZZ Top songs in our sets, but we also had some original songs. Well, we took a demo to an agent and he said, ‘Yeah, you guys are great, but I’ve got a hundred tapes behind me of other great bands. What I would really kill for is a ZZ Top tribute band that I could depend on.’”
Thus, a career was born.
Of course, it’s one thing to play ZZ Top songs like ZZ Top, but it’s another thing to pull off the look for which ZZ Top is famous. And that look begins and ends with the beards, a look Schneider has had for many, many years.
“The last time I shaved, I was 21 years old,” Schneider said. “That was about forty years ago. I threw my razor in the garbage and I haven’t shaved since. For several years I kept it nicely trimmed and well groomed, but as a truck driver, I discovered having a beard really cut down on people asking for money and rides. They would just avoid you. So I grew it out to avoid those types of people. But it also meant I didn’t get good service at restaurants, unless I was a regular.”
Schneider said that until recently, there weren’t a lot of ZZ Top tribute acts around, but over the last decade or so he has seen them pop up left and right.
“A lot of them have fake glue-on beards and aren’t really as dedicated to the authenticity of it as we are,” he said. “You don’t see a lot of close-up pictures of those bands because they’re so cheesy. We grew up with this music. We’re old guys. We love this music and want to make the experience as authentic as possible. That’s what sets us apart from the rest.”
Under the radar
Schneider doesn’t know if the real ZZ Top is aware of Eliminator’s existence or whether they would approve of the band making a living off of ZZ Top music. But he did have a chance to meet the band once, way back in 1999 after a show at The Pyramid, where ZZ Top were playing with Lynryd Skynyrd.
One of Eliminator’s fans, who also claimed to be ZZ Top’s biggest fan, actually got them backstage.
“We were starstruck,” Schneider said. “Here we are backstage with our heroes, and all of a sudden Billy Gibbons calls us over to take pictures with him and talk. It was surreal and a real thrill. They were very cool. They were three of the nicest guys we’d ever met and were very down to earth.”
Though they had the perfect chance, Schneider says they didn’t let on that they were imitators of the Texas trio.
“We were a little intimidated to mention that we were in a ZZ Top tribute band at that point,” he said. “We were just excited to be backstage with them.”
Still doing it
When it comes to the music, Schneider and the rest of the band — bassist Bob Zielinski and drummer Jerry Matula — can play just about every song ZZ Top has ever recorded, but they know what the people want to hear.
“We really want to recreate the feel and atmosphere of a real ZZ Top concert,” Schneider said, “right down to the costumes, which are very similar to the clothes the band wore back when they had all of the big MTV videos. But when it comes to the music, we know people want to hear the hits. And for most people, the hits are ‘Gimme All Your Lovin’,’ ‘Tush,’ ‘Sharp Dressed Man,’ and ‘La Grange.’ That kind of dictates what we play.
“But when we do shows outside of the festival circuit, which are usually theater shows, we can sometimes dig a little deeper. We’ve actually played the Tres Hombres album in its entirety two or three times now, and that’s been a lot of fun. We love playing the old stuff, but that’s usually not the stuff that everybody wants to hear.”
As for the longevity of Eliminator, Schneider says he never thought the ZZ Top gig would last as long as it has.
“We used to joke about it like, ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if we were still doing this when we are fifty years old?’ Now here we are still doing it. I think we are only six years younger than ZZ Top themselves.”