It can often seem that country music has taken a turn for the worse in recent years. As the genre edges closer and closer to nothing more than Top 40 pop, one band stands out as the antithesis to the decay: Zac Brown Band. Like a lone blooming flower in an otherwise desolate nuclear wasteland, Brown and his band burn bright with heartfelt composition, spirited lyrics, and a radiation of musical talent. So how do all of these characteristics translate into a live show? Well, after watching the band's performance last night at Ak-Chin Pavilion, the easy way to sum it up would be "kickass," but you, dear reader, rightfully demand more from a concert review, so let's dig a little deeper.
In addition to their cohesiveness as a band, the eight-piece group truly pulls out all the stops in an effort to entertain their fans. Whether they are wearing glow-in-the-dark skeleton costumes, honoring military members standing on stage, or teaching the interactive class History of Music 101 with Zac Brown through a barrage of cover songs, the guys really do go all out.
It's not just country songs that the band will cover either. While fellow country musicians as of late are dropping hybrid hip-hop mix-tapes with Lil Wayne, ZBB is hitting fans with "Kashmir" by Led Zeppelin as the third song in their set list, followed by a healthy dose of Queen, Billy Joel, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Metallica peppered throughout.
Starting from the beginning of the evening, after valiantly maneuvering through the gridlock of traffic leading into the pavilion, I began one of my favorite pastimes of a country concert: People watching. The majority of attendees walking to the ZBB show fell into varied demographics of country music fans both young and old. Most notable, however, was the delightful lack of the obnoxious bro-country concertgoers who frequent the more pop-infused events like Country Thunder, where they can be found running amok, pulling shots from a bottle in one with with a bottle of chaser in the other.
All this isn't to say they were not there whatsoever, but their numbers just seemed pleasantly lower than expected. There were, however, a certain legion of fans donning Zac Brown's trademark look of a wool beanie on their head. Will the real Zac Brown please stand up? When the band took the stage shortly after 8 p.m., and Brown revealed himself sans the beanie, you can imagine the shared disappointment among his stylized following.
It's not a fashion show we're here to see though, and Brown wasted no time as his band dove right in to their number one single "Keep Me in Mind." It was more than apparent from the opening lyrics that these guys were going to be sharp on this fall night in Phoenix.
Hold the press. Before I go any further, a huge honorable mention needs to go out to Sturgill Simpson, the evening's opening act. In the spirit of authentic and great country music, he certainly deserves a tip of the hat.
The first act consisted of several popular ZBB singles, a few covers, as well as their first ballad of the night -- and frankly one of the best songs in their arsenal -- "Colder Weather." Upon its conclusion, roadies rushed the stage to set up a semi-circle of barstools and microphones so the band could take their places and begin the more intimate Act II.
The acoustic section of the show commenced with the single "Sweet Annie" from the band's album Uncaged. The audience took their seats for the first time in the evening to bask in the music, but it was a short-lived effort once the band broke into their good-time-and-easy-living hit "Toes," since everyone promptly hopped back onto their feet to dance along.
"How many tour buses would it take to bring you all with us?" Brown asked of the audience after surrendering the lyrics of "Toes" to the crowd and they carried the whole chorus in a monstrous roar.
The highlight of the second act, for me, came with the completely unexpected, but completely awesome rendition of Billy Joel's "Piano Man." It was obvious that many of the people in attendance shared my surprise and enthusiasm with ZBB's selection as soon as that unmistakable harmonica introduction came blasting through the speakers. Once again with that monstrous roaring sing-along, the crowd let Brown know loud and clear: You've got us feelin' all right.
To close out the evening, ZBB really started to unleash the surprises -- starting with their own cover of "Enter Sandman" by Metallica. This is another one that caught me off guard, but a fellow media member told me that covering "Enter Sandman" has become a pretty popular trend among a lot of country musicians. Since she oversees mash-up playlists for a radio station, I think the source is fairly solid here.
And then things got eerie when the band disappeared for a few minutes and came back wearing a collection of ghoulish masks and black sweat suits painted to glow in the dark with the figure of a skeleton. The country show turned into a Rob Zombie concert as the lights went dark and all that could be seen on stage were these macabre figurines glowing and dancing to the distinct sound of Brown's voice emerging from the blackness. My first thought was that it had to be a Halloween theme reserved for this specific time of year. However, the song they began to sing was "Day for the Dead" and their costumes certainly had a Day of the Dead feel to them, so maybe they do this all year.
Still sporting their skeleton getups, ZBB closed the show with back-to-back roaring anthems, one last cover and one original song, respectively. When they began singing the beginning of "Bohemian Rhapsody" by Queen, the crowd seemed to be in hysterics. I didn't know if they would commit to the entire song, but sure enough they carried it right over the head-banging bridge and into the "wind-blowing" final lines, which transitioned seamlessly into their final song of the night -- and the one that kick started ZBB's career, putting them in the position to be here rocking Ak-Chin Pavilion in the first place -- "Chicken Fried.".=
Critic's Notebook Last Night: Zac Brown Band at Ak-Chin Pavilion
The Crowd: A very diverse age group of country fans. Lots of cowboy hats and boots. Girls still showing plenty of skin even though summer has passed.
Overheard in the Crowd: "The only song they didn't cover was the one from O Brother, Where Art Thou?"
Personal Bias: Zac Brown Band is punctual. I go to a lot of concerts, and they may be the only band I've ever seen that started five minutes early and ended right on the dot of their scheduled time-slot. Little things like that mean something to me when I have to go home and write a review of the show once it's over.
Set List: (This is as close as I could get it from memory and looking online at other shows they've done. The sound engineers were being awfully picky about sharing a copy of the actual set list.) Keep Me in Mind Uncaged Kashmir/ Led Zeppelin The Devil Went Down to Georgia/ Charlie Daniels Band As She's Walking Away It's Not OK Every Little Thing/ Bob Marley Colder Weather Whiskey's Gone Sweet Annie Toes Under the Bridge/ Red Hot Chili Peppers Piano Man/ Billy Joel Let it Rain Enter Sandman/ Metallica Goodbye in Her Eyes Knee Deep Free Who Knows The Wind Jump Right In Day for the Dead Bohemian Rhapsody/ Queen Chicken Fried
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