She was too ill to play the Vanguard last fall when her CD was released; even last week, as she was escorted on and off stage, she looked frail, though quite the glamour-puss in a spangled black beret and a pantsuit with fake leopard cuffs and collar. There was a casual, good-natured rapport between Thornton and her sextet as she made tempo and key changes, leading them in the obvious crowd-pleasers, her own driving blues compositions. On "Salty Mama," a song she performed for the Monk Competition, her long hands, improbably larger than the rest of her petite frame, punctuated her story of a woman whose lover "caught a midnight train to catch a red-eye flight." The rowdier the number, the stronger she became.

But Thornton's best on ballads. She chose eclectically—during her run she sang standards like "Night and Day" and rarely heard numbers, among them an achy Tadd Dameron beauty, "If You Could See Me Now." Whether performing old chestnuts or her own pieces, her regal vibrato told something of her story to an entranced audience. During her song "Knee Deep in the Blues," she turned to saxophonist Jerome Richardson and commanded: "I want you to talk about my past for me." After his throbbing, melancholy solo, Thornton dryly remarked, "I didn't know he knew me that well." —Angela Starita


More great songs!: Alan Vega at the Knitting Factory
photo: Carla Gahr
More great songs!: Alan Vega at the Knitting Factory

Still Warm and Fuzzy

The audience at Nassau Coliseum Sunday night heard only one song from ZZ Top's new XXX, which gives a nod to the recent rap-rock crossover while maintaining the band's Texas blues-driven style. Maybe it was singer Johnny Van Zant of openers Lynyrd Skynyrd proclaiming that "There's not gonna be any of that rap shit tonight!" Or the crowd's ensuing roar of agreement that rock 'n' roll will never die. Either way, it was a disappointment not hearing the CD's opening track, "Poke Chop Sandwich"—which Kid Rock plans to sample on forthcoming material—and frontman Billy Gibbons's hoarse blues whisper rev into the "If you break down, if you break down" chorus of "Crucifixx-A-Flatt" over hip-hop beats.

Instead, the trio delved into the traditional barroom blues of "Fearless Boogie" and gave a soulful rendition of 1973's "Jesus Just Left Chicago" before launching into their stockpile of hits, including "Gimme All Your Lovin' " and "Sharp Dressed Man." Gibbons and bassist Dusty Hill, their beards and synchronized movements still intact after 30 years, stepped to the left, stepped to the right, swayed those guitars, and sauntered backwards in place—via onstage treadmills—to Frank Beard's beat. The sex appeal was there, too: A gaunt Gibbons, who wore gold lamé and an "African sombrero," got his mojo running when he flipped his guitar over and played it on his crotch during "Cheap Sunglasses"—giving new meaning to the words "warm and fuzzy." And the white-fur-lined guitars and badass riffs of "Legs" got everyone nostalgic for cheap women and classic MTV.

But gone were the numerous, high-fiving Skynyrd fans from the opening set who didn't give a damn that half the band died more than 20 years ago in a plane crash—they were too riled up by the onstage power of four guitars, an all-classics medley, a solo that jammed into "Dixie," and the coup de grâce, a 12-minute "Free Bird" encore (the quintessential arena-rock moment) in front of a giant Confederate flag. This time, the scaled-down sound of ZZ Top, with its funky, low-key cool, was no match for a cover band who nailed every recorded nuance of "Sweet Home Alabama." —Carla Spartos

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