Things that seemed at home in the Capitol building’s Statuary Hall during Wednesday’s unveiling of Czech president Vaclav Havel’s bust: marble, bronze and a confab of world leaders. Things out of place: a sequin-clad rocker and the twang of guitar music.
A tenuous connection – Havel loved American music, including rock and blues — put Billy Gibbons, the frontman of legendary rock band ZZ Top, at the otherwise formal ceremony. Gibbons, in a sparkling jacket and signature chest-length beard, even seemed a bit perplexed, calling the invitation to perform at the event “unusual and unexpected but splendid.”
The performance was surprisingly brief, with Gibbons tossing out a few lines of “Baby Please Don’t Go,” which he altered in Havel’s honor to “please don’t leave the Czech Republic” (mm, okay). Later in the program, he played a bar or two of the ZZ Top hit “I Thank You,” the lyrics of which he also tailored for the occasion. After less than 30 seconds, he was done, finishing with a flourish of guitar and an “oh, yeah!”
But perhaps that was all the rock-and-rolling that the audience, which included Havel’s widow, Dagmar Havlova, Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), former secretary of state Madeleine Albright, and MSNBC hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, could handle.
The bust will reside in the Capitol, per a bill Congress adopted earlier this year calling for a sculpture honoring the Czech leader.
The randomness wasn’t lost on the audience. Before the ceremony, we spotted Rep. Joe Crowley hanging around the periphery of the dais, scanning the crowd. We assumed that the New York Democrat, an avid guitar player himself, was looking for Gibbons. Turns out, he was actually a Havel groupie, recalling one time he’d met the leader on an international flight.
“I mean, ZZ Top is iconic, too — and kind of a new one for this place,” he said, motioning around the ornate room. “I mean, opera I could see that. Even folk music. This will be interesting.”