About 45 minutes into their set, the Zac Brown Band provided a hometown-worthy moment.
As he stood at the center mic, his shirt soaked through with sweat, bandleader Brown unfurled the first few lines of his reflective “My Old Man,” a tender ballad written for his father.
While many in the SunTrust Park crowd used the lowered volume as their cue to launch into Chastain-like chatter, they quickly shut up and roared approval when Brown’s father, Jim, walked onstage to stand behind his son as he sang.
Joined by some of Brown’s children, the elder Brown – also bearded, but of the gray variety – looked on quietly with the smile of a guy not used to standing in front of tens of thousands of people in a baseball stadium.
“I didn’t know if I was going to make it through that,” Brown the younger said at song’s end, after bringing the circle in for a group hug.
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The Saturday night show was a momentous one for ZBB – their first time headlining a stadium in Atlanta. While not completely sold out – odd, considering they regularly sell out stadiums in the Northeast – it was a respectable crowd filled with fans who relish their Southern musical stew.
For two hours, ZBB illustrated their 13-year lifespan with a setlist that zigzagged from the shared harmonies of show-opener “Day of the Dead” to a blues-drizzled “Keep Me in Mind” to the poppy psychedelia of “Beautiful Drug.”
Of course, cover songs – a ZBB specialty - were liberally peppered throughout the concert. While pulling out “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” within the first 15 minutes was a bit on the nose, who was going to complain about this furious and fabulous version that offered one of many showcases for the fleet fingers of fiddler Jimmy De Martini?
Even the peaceful chug of “Free,” accented by percussionist Daniel de los Reyes’ cymbal splashes, took a slight detour with Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic” sandwiched into it. It’s obvious that the band has much fun breaking out of banjo-picking confines, evidenced when Brown swaggered around the stage, unbound from his guitar, during a rumbling take on Kings of Leon’s “Use Somebody,” a song that illuminated the textures of his often-overlooked voice.
The frontman’s talents were spotlighted again during a late-set explosion with “Whipping Post.” Surely Gregg Allman was smiling somewhere as keyboardist/guitarist Clay Cook bellowed from behind his piano and Brown and guitarist Coy Bowles took turns slaying guitar solos.
Often, when a band delves too deeply into cover territory, it exposes the weaknesses in their own catalog.
But ZBB is a collection of some of the most versatile musicians currently playing – distinctive-voiced multi-instrumentalist John Driskell Hopkins, drummer Chris Fryar and bassist Matt Mangano quietly anchored so many songs - with musical interests that expand far beyond the restriction of “traditional” country.
From their wasting-away-in-Margaritaville ode, “Toes,” to the pristine Eagles-like harmonies on “She’s Walking Away” to the ‘70s pop chug of “Loving You Easy” (complete with that soft-rock hallmark, the key change), ZBB is a chameleonic gem.
After closing their main set with the built-in singalong “Chicken Fried’ and, aptly “Homegrown,” ZBB returned for an epic encore stuffed with more covers. “Cult of Personality” (Living Colour), “Bennie and the Jets” (Elton John), “Tush” (ZZ Top) and even the Beastie Boys (“Sabotage”) made appearances, leaving the crowd invigorated.
Earlier in the show, as white snowflakes fell on a black video background during “Colder Weather,” Brown surveyed the stadium with a smile and patted his chest.
“It’s my town,” he beamed.
And a fitting welcome home.
Adding to the mishmash culture of ZBB’s musical tastes was their choice of openers – Nahko and Medicine for the People (who will return July 28 for a show with Dispatch at Chastain) and OneRepublic.
Ryan Tedder is the centerpiece of OneRepublic – sort of the Rob Thomas to Matchbox Twenty – but the five musicians joining him were integral to elevating the band’s often-bland radio fare to something slightly zippier.
The live cello and violin on “Secrets” and boogie-woogie piano during “Love Runs Out” were memorable additions and the frontline of guitars, including Tedder’s, during “Kids” added some unexpected rock oomph.
In his shades and black hat, Tedder joked about the choking humidity at that point of the evening, telling the crowd, “If I pass out, just know that I love you.”
Born in the MySpace age, OneRepublic – and Tedder in particular – is a hit machine for the ‘00s. You could see the faces of many in the crowd as they recognized a song (“Oh, THEY sing THIS?”) and OneRepublic has a string of familiar fodder – the still-sweet “Good Life,” the methodically thumping “Stop and Stare,” the ubiquitous “Apologize” and “Counting Stars” and, still their best song, the thoughtful and spirited “I Lived.”
Credit where it’s due – Tedder knows his way around an earworm.