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Confidence does not come with compromise, and Zac Brown Band isn’t giving an inch.
Nor does it need to, as evidenced by its country barnburner Saturday at a packed Hollywood Bowl, the most glamorous stop on the six-piece pride of Georgia’s first headlining tour.
The band’s decade-in-the-making meteoric rise within the genre’s fan base to the unofficial title “best group going in country” has come with an equally definitive “Who’s that?” reaction from outside, despite its best new artist Grammy win in 2010. But unlike others willing to cross over to “mainstream” success, with whatever that entails in today’s music industry, Brown and his cohorts clearly are content to let fans cross over to them.
Perhaps that explains why, after taking the stage to strains from the Rocky theme, the group blasted off with the upbeat dual-fiddle number “Keep Me in Mind,” from its second Atlantic studio album, You Get What You Give. Brown then implored, “It’s gonna be a great one,” and the mood was further set by the group’s early No. 1 country hit “Toes,” from its 2008 debut The Foundation. Beer glasses were raised in a communal toast during the ukulele-tinged party anthem.
The band’s communal nature was on display as bassist John Hopkins took lead vocals on the hard-fiddling “It’s Not OK,” a sound-alike of Commander Cody’s “Hot Rod Lincoln” punctuated with a flourish of “When the Saints Go Marching In,” then it was off to the races for good with the recent No. 1 “As She’s Walking Away.” The album track of the inspirational call to action features Alan Jackson, whose part was duplicated by a lip-syncing monitor tech — a nod to Jackson having a Brown look-alike perform the song on his tour.
The reggae-influenced “Who Knows,” with its hook “Maybe the storm will cover my dreams,” gave way to a lengthy guitar solo by Clay Cook, who explored “Free Bird” territory and beyond. Brown then retook the mike with, “How my California ladies doing?,” leading naturally into a slowed-down version of the 2009 chart-topper “Whatever It Is,” which drew the biggest reaction to that point.
It was back to reggae and the ukulele for “Where the Boat Leaves From,” which docked on Van Morrison’s “Crazy Love” and Dolly and Kenny’s “Islands in the Stream” in this performance, then Brown thanked the crowd for attending during these hard times.
A T-shirt-cannon break and the Hopkins-led “Runaway Train” lightened the mood for the midtempo new-album track “Quiet Your Mind,” then it was back to the four-part harmony of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s “Find the Cost of Freedom” leading into the rabblerousing Charlie Daniels Band chestnut “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” with Jimmy De Martini’s violin dueling Brown’s acoustic guitar as the crowd went appropriately wild.
The “Boy Named Sue”-hued “Sic Em on a Chicken,” from the first album, gave way literally and otherwise to the sentimental ballad “Colder Weather,” the band’s latest hit, as a refreshing chilly breeze reminded everyone that this was still a midspring evening. The moment was sustained by a lengthy instrumental break, sandwiched by lines from Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely?” and including Brown riffing on a conga alongside drummer Chris Fryar.
Two hours after taking the stage, the band’s main set ended with its customary pairing of “America the Beautiful” and its put-’em-on-the-map hit “Chicken Fried” — Brown picking on acoustic guitar while the others crouched behind and acknowledged the hordes.
There was time for more, though, and Cook kicked off the encore with lead vocals on the Band’s classic track “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” Opening act Blackberry Smoke, one of five artists on Brown’s newly founded Southern Ground Artists label, returned to Brown’s bold introduction — “If you forgot what Southern rock was, these boys are the reincarnation” — and the acts teamed for a worthy version of Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down.”
Blackberry Smoke’s “Restless,” on which lead vocalist Charlie Starr shared the mike with Brown, was followed by the concluding number, Brown’s jitterbuggy new song “Make This Day.” The musicians explored the tune’s Little Feat influences, and Brown even recited the Spanish lyrics from Sublime’s “Caress Me Down” before rapper Massif, also on the album, appeared to a huge ovation to cap the festivities.
The musical and emotional journey was complete, but the buzz lingered as the throngs began the long walk away from the Bowl and back to their lives. Undoubtedly to be continued with Brown, though.
“Keep Me in Mind”
“It’s Not OK”
“As She’s Walking Away”
“Whatever It Is”
“Where the Boat Leaves From”
“I Play the Road”
“Highway 20 Ride”
“Quiet Your Mind”
“The Devil Went Down to Georgia”
“Free”/”Into the Mystic”
“Sic Em on a Chicken”
“America the Beautiful”/”Chicken Fried”
“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”
“I Won’t Back Down”
“Make This Day”
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