Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Zac Brown does it up right at Verizon Wireless

Photo courtesy of Kelly A. Swift

This review was originally published in Soundcheck on The Orange County Register site.

The Atlanta sextet, prepping for a new album, impressed once again in its return visit to the former Irvine Meadows

What would happen if, in some imaginary universe, Jimmy Buffett, Dave Matthews Band and Lynyrd Skynyrd started a band together?

That seemingly unlikely blend of Key West good times, powerful storytelling, Southern rock and virtuoso jam-band prowess only begins to sum up the secrets of the mighty Zac Brown Band.

Performing in front of a capacity crowd Sunday at Verizon Wireless Amphitheater, the sextet wore all its musical hats just fine, transforming from folk- rock into trad-country or one of the world’s best bar bands (that’s meant in a good way). Traces of reggae, Celtic music and even classical trickled into the sonic brew from time to time.

Before I caught ZBB for the first time at Verizon back in September 2010, I was beginning to think that so-called modern country’s artistic reach was mostly dead. The Atlanta group’s powerful show that night changed my mind, and this follow-up appearance has reaffirmed my belief that Brown and his band — Jimmy De Martini (fiddle, vocals), John Driskell Hopkins (bass, vocals), Coy Bowles (guitar, organ), Clay Cook (guitar, organ, mandolin, pedal steel, vocals) and Chris Fryar (drums) — are one of the best live bands on the planet.

Indeed, they inject into today’s country scene the same dynamic mix of songcraft and rousing performance that Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band brought to rock in the ’70s.

In addition to the incredible musicianship that supports Brown’s wonderful blend of uptempo material and affecting ballads, there are his honed skills as a bandleader to consider. Knowing when to take the spotlight as a frontman and when to hand it over to the rest of his troupe made the show more entertaining. Not only do other members of ZBB shine as masters of whatever instrument they play, but Hopkins and Cook also were able to sing sterling lead vocals at times throughout the 130-minute concert.

For some in the audience, it was enough that the group played its already impressive list of hits, from the beautiful “As She’s Walking Away” and the tear-inducing “Highway 20 Ride” to the R&B-flavored “Free” (blended with Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic”) and a few party-minded Caribbean tunes (“Knee Deep,” “Toes”).

But the payoff for discerning fans was the dogged dedication to these songs’ arrangements. The amazing vocal harmonies, flawless solos that seldom veered into bombast, and Brown’s obvious emotion felt as though the band approaches each song as if it might be the final performance. Cuts like “Colder Weather” and “The Day That I Die” were charged with genuine emotion totally free from the cliches that are sadly the norm for many contemporary country artists.

With a new album on the way, Zac Brown Band generously offered a preview of at least four new songs, including the aforementioned “”The Day That I Die.” “Uncaged” rocked with the force of the Black Keys, with tandem lead guitars recalling vintage Thin Lizzy, while lush harmonies added depth to the song’s attack. Another new selection, “The Wind,” simply provided a great reason for the troupe (assisted by a touring percussionist) to display their country chops in spades.

With the crowd already in a party mood, the encore found the outfit doubling as a great cover band, tackling the Marshall Tucker Band’s “Can’t You See” and Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion” before bringing it all to a fitting close with its pairing of “America the Beautiful” and “Chicken Fried.”

Opener Nic Cowan, one of several strong artists signed to Brown’s Southern Ground Artists label, displayed plenty of his boss’ freewheeling feel during his 40-minute set. Performing a mix of alt-country, reggae and Southern rock, the Atlantan shared his country-blues rocking spirit on “Wrong Side” and a more songwriter-minded approach on the beautiful “Illumination.” He closed his set with a nice version of “Hard Headed,” the title track on his new CD, mixing together funk, country-pop and reggae in cool fashion.

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