While most people may know the Zac Brown Band as those country guys that sing about fried chicken and a cold beer on a Friday night, I can assure you there is a whole lot more on this band’s menu. Upstate New York fans in Darien Center and Saratoga Springs had the opportunity to hear country, rock, blues, bluegrass, metal, and island music in the same evening. Six different bands didn’t play, just one. Well, two if you count the spectacular opener, Sturgill Simpson, who is in a category all to himself.
Sturgill Simpson started the evening off with no introduction and no high-production stage setup. It was just Sturgill, his band, and their immense talent. That alone was enough to fill the stage. While he may have sung a cheating song in pure old country fashion to start the evening, die-hard country fans were met with great music and some non-traditional country topics as the set progressed. Simpson looked like he walked off the set of Welcome Back Kotter, wearing a non-country uniform consisting of a 3/4 sleeve baseball jersey, think 1970′s. In fact, everything about him screamed the ’70s – his attire, his musical style, and even his haircut. It was reminiscent of listening to AM radio in my mom’s kitchen – tapping my feet while eating my Farina Cream of Wheat and grabbing my bagged lunch before running off to school. However, with lyrics like “There’s a gateway in our mind that leads somewhere out there beyond this plane, Where reptile aliens made of light cut you open and pull out all your pain” and “Every morning when I rise I look in the mirror and despise, The sight of everything and all that I’ve become.” This is definitely not my mama’s country music. Perhaps more like listening to a modern-day metaphysical outlaw – a splendid mix of Kris or Willie’s ability to write and Merle or Waylon’s soulful badassery that spews out in the music. Sturgill didn’t speak a whole lot on stage, but when he did, he commented that “this (SPAC) is a really cool venue, man” and that Upstate “is a really beautiful place.” A nice realization to others that New York is much more than skyscrapers and taxi cabs.
The Zac Brown Band could possibly be country music’s best live band. Their music pulls you in, though after hearing it, you might choose to jump right in on your own. It was no surprise that the eight-piece band brought a huge sound, featuring three guitars (Zac plays along while singing with his rich, melodic tones), fiddle, bass, keys, drums and additional percussion. The multi-part harmonies supplied by the rest of the band gave emphasis to choruses, as if the 17,000 in attendance singing along to every song weren’t enough.
Upbeat fiddlin’, sweet guitar pickin’, twangy singin’ all went together to make some soulful, redneck rock. From that to Mediterranean feel, island music, the band seemed to do it all. It didn’t matter what type of tune ZBB played, the crowd stayed on their feet and danced the summer night away. The first set included a brief intermission while the stage crew switched over to the acoustic set. During that time, the entire band didn’t leave the stage. Instead, they shot, flung, slingshot and tossed about a hundred t-shirts into the eager crowd.
The acoustic portion included six of the band members playing various stringed instruments, including Clay Cook on mandolin and John Driskell Hopkins on the uke. The harmonies were out of this world and throughout SPAC, couples embraced and swayed side to side as the lyrics plead “don’t give up on me”. The acoustic set also included James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain” and Billy Joel’s “Piano Man”, but someone forgot to include the piano. Before the set ended, he brought a young boy to the stage, and after a brief introduction, nonchalantly added, “Derek, let me introduce you to your new friend” and handed him a signed guitar.
The second set started with a storm, hail and lightning on a shim covering the entire front of the stage. As the music started up, lights began to shine on the musicians behind the shim. “Let it rain, let it pour” being sung as the shim rose, yet the storm continued behind the band. During the brief ten-minute set break, Zac found the time to change into a top hat and dressed all in black. Shortly into the set, an unexpected cover of Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” had Hopkins wailing out the lead vocals. The country crowd let their hair down and put their horns up high as they sang as loud and proud as they did for Zac’s owns songs. Toward the end of the second set, Zac Brown Band busted out Marshall Tucker’s iconic “Can’t You See”.
During “Colder Weather”, Zac spent the whole song shaking hands and offering up fist bumps to the front couple rows in the pit. A sincere smile came across his face as he gazed up over the appreciating audience. You could see the reciprocated appreciation in his eyes.
The first song of the encore, “Day of the Dead”, had the entire band in glow-in-the-dark skeleton outfits. The four-song encore also included Charlie Daniel’s “Devil Went Down to Georgia”, and it took until the last song of the show for fans to hear “Chicken Fried”. It may have been the most popular dish on the menu, but the variation throughout the evening couldn’t help but make you feel both full and satisfied.
Kelli Marsh’s Photo Gallery of Darien Center 8/23/2014
Jim Gilbert’s Photo Gallery of Saratoga Springs 8/24/2014