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Interview:
Odd Pairings Appeal To Def Leppard, ZZ Top
 

By GARY GRAFF
Of the Oakland Press

» See more SOUND CHECK

Depending on your choice of rock ’n’ roll show this week, you may be able to hear a “Photograph” of a “Lady,” see a “Sharp Dressed Man” who’s “Precious,” “Pour Some Sugar ...” on “The Grand Illusion” and find a little “Tush” that’s “Sexy and 17.”

The concept of rock ’n’ roll package tours isn’t anything new; it dates back to the earliest days of the genre in the ’50s. But such tours have become more prevalent — and inventive — in recent years because of the economy and the sheer volume of shows each summer, and over the next few days the metro area hosts a couple of the season’s more intriguing bills.

On Tuesday, ’80s (and early ’90s) hitmakers Def Leppard will roll into DTE Energy Music Theatre with ’70s (and early ’80s) predecessor Styx. The following night, veteran Texas rockers ZZ Top ride herd atop New Wave heroes the Pretenders and rockabilly revivalists the Stray Cats at Freedom Hill Amphitheatre.

The fact that each of the bands at one point could headline on their own makes the packages more potent. That each has a diverse stylistic span makes ... well, fans scratch their heads a little, even if each represents a jukebox worth of combined hits.

“They give you value for the show,” notes Rick Franks of the concert promotion firm LiveNation. “There’s tremendous value. They continue to care about their fans and want to make sure they get their money’s worth on every level.”

‘It can’t lose, can it?’

ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons, in fact, calls his band’s package “a fan-driven presentation” that he acknowledges has better prospects than ZZ Top on its own.

“Of course, it’s OK to play to an empty room,” Gibbons explains, “but when the fans are there to have a good time along with you, it just kind of doubles the fun.

“We all decided to do this,” he adds, “because at the base of it we all still love playing. The idea is, ‘Let’s make it an event. Let’s make this thing a destination, something that we can look forward to and hopefully something we’ll be talking about in the positive sense.’ ”

Def Leppard is no stranger to these kinds of packages. Two years ago the British group — whose ’80s albums “Pyromania” and “Hysteria” sold more than 30 million combined copies worldwide — toured minor league base- ball stadiums with Bryan Adams. Last year the quintet teamed up with Journey and Cheap Trick. With Styx — and Foreigner on some other dates this summer — it’s mining ticket sales gold by mixing generations.

“It’s just the way the business is nowadays,” says frontman Joe Elliott. “Something like this ... it can’t lose, can it? People know virtually every song that gets played.

“Yeah, we’re chasing (sales), but we’re chasing with the idea of trying to get in front of as many people as we can. We’ll do what we see fit to do that. Many of our fans disagree with what we do, but we can’t do it for them. We have to do it for ourselves and hope they come along.”

On their tourmates

Elliott, 47, says he’s friendly with Foreigner’s Mick Jones and Jason Bonham but is not particularly familiar with Styx’s material. When the group was in its hit-making heyday, he was a teenager and “more into the Clash and bands like Montrose and maybe even Van Halen and stuff like that. ... Then later on I heard (Styx’s) ‘Mr. Roboto’ and said, ‘You’re kidding me ...’ But I don’t mind being on tour with them.”

Gibbons says ZZ Top actually has relationships with both of the other bands on its bill. Despite being a proud, meat-eating Texan, he’s friendly with the Pretenders’ outspokenly vegetarian leader, Chrissie Hynde — who’s opening a restaurant, VegeTerranean, in her native Akron, Ohio.

“I find her quite delightful,” Gibbons, 56, says. “At the end of the day, she started off ready to rock, and she’s never really left that post. I admire that stance and position, whatever personal leanings she may choose to embrace.”

Gibbons has more in common, however, with the Stray Cats — and particularly singer-guitarist Brian Setzer.

“I actually became pals with him through hot rod automobiles,” says Gibbons, an avid collector.

“He’s a hot rodder from way back, and we are enjoying the mutual love of custom cars.”

The two musicians also collect guitars and have signature models with the Gretsch line — which, Gibbons notes, leads to a bit of a friendly rivalry.

“It’s ‘Who’s gonna drive the fastest? Who’s gonna play the loudest?’ ” he says with a laugh. “It all shakes out to the same old game.”

Looking ahead

Both tour headliners are concentrating on their hits this summer — whether it’s ZZ Top’s “La Grange” and “Gimme All Your Lovin’ ” or Def Leppard’s “Love Bites” and “Rock of Ages” — but each is planning to release new music in the near future. Def Leppard will likely strike first; the group, according to Elliott, is “about 85, 90 percent finished” with its next album, which he says is “a very rock album” tentatively titled “Songs from the Sparkle Lounge.”

“I’m not gonna say it’s radically different to anything we’ve ever done,” Elliott says. “But there’s definitely some moments on it where anybody that’s familiar with our music will go, ‘Whoa! I wasn’t expecting that!’

“We’ve just been very adventurous, musically, on certain numbers. I think we’re slightly more adventurous than, say, AC/DC would be, (but) not as adventurous or as ridiculous as Radiohead may go.”

Gibbons says ZZ Top will likely get to work on its next album “towards the end of the year.” He doesn’t expect too many surprises, however.

“The ZZ Top fan is not asking for us to jump through too many hoops,” Gibbons says. “They pretty much want us to remain doing what we’re known for doing. We’ve got a particular sound that helped launch the band’s identity, and we’ve embraced that time and time again.”

But, Gibbons adds, he and bandmates Joe “Dusty” Hill and Frank Beard plan to find inspiration for that new work while they’re on tour.

“I think it’s going to charge up the engines to allow ZZ Top to do what they do best,” he explains, “and that’s bring back stories from the road to write songs about the experiences. That’s where the good stuff happens.”



Def Leppard and Styx perform at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday (July 24th) at DTE Energy Music Theatre, Sashabaw Road north of I-75, Independence Township. Tickets are $55-$75 pavilion, $28 lawn. Call (248) 377-0100 or visit www.palacenet. com. ZZ Top, the Pretenders and the Stray Cats perform at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday (July 25th) at Freedom Hill Amphitheatre, 14900 Metropolitan Parkway, Sterling Heights. Tickets are $49.50-$75 pavilion, $14.50 lawn. Call (586) 268-5100 or visit www.freedomhill.net.

Web Site: www.palacenet.com www.freedomhill.net

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