It started with the crack of a snare drum, a warm greeting and a crisp rendition of “Keep Me in Mind” and ended nearly 2 ½-hours later with a giddy romp through Guns N’ Roses’ “Paradise City.”
Not a bad way to kick off a tour .
On Friday, the Zac Brown Band released its sixth studio album, a return to simplicity and country roots called “Welcome Home.” So it was only fitting that the multi-talented octet launched a major tour with two sold-out shows near its Atlanta home base at the Verizon Amphitheatre in Alpharetta – where they last played a pair of concerts almost exactly two years ago.
The guys will be on the road for about 10 dates per month through October and if they’re able to maintain this level of exceptional musicianship, it will be a commendable feat.
At once polished and personable, the band has perfected its live presentation with a gorgeous stage featuring multiple video screen panels that buzzed brightly, a set list evenly stacked with hits, new tunes and their always-notable covers and rich musical presentations.
Band namesake Brown, his colorful tattoos visible under rolled-up sleeves and a thatch of hair covering his face, led the crew through the breezy new “Family Table” and one of many fan favorites, “As She’s Walking Away.”
The crowd roared when banjoist/guitarist/mandolin player John Driskell Hopkins, his muttonchops full and fuzzy, took a verse in his signature baritone. As well, the band’s sumptuous harmonies, which owe as much to The Beach Boys as Alabama, dazzled throughout the concert.
Among the new songs that ZBB tackled at Friday’s show – which was being filmed for an undisclosed reason (“You might see your faces a little later,” Zac said) –“2 Places at 1 Time,” a rootsy ballad that would have made Dan Fogelberg proud, soared, while the tender “My Old Man” aimed straight for the tear ducts (successfully).
“I hope you get to play that song for your dad or somebody who was a dad to you,” Zac said.
The band’s Jimmy Buffett influence was evident on the also-new “Start Over,” which found the team seated across the steps of the stage as they played, while a later medley of “Jump Right In,” “Castaway,” “Where the Boat Leaves From” and “Knee Deep” also reminded that these country boys have long imbued their lyrics with frothy yearnings of hot sand and cold beers.
The first hour-long set of the concert (an intermission was so brief, it was puzzling as to why one was needed except, perhaps, to hoist Clay Cook’s baby grand piano to the stop of the stage stairs) included a pair of killer cover songs.
Brown paced the stage and ventured down the short catwalk to smack hands and sign autographs during a sturdy rendition of Kings of Leon’s “Use Somebody.” But their version of The Allman Brothers Band’s “Whipping Post” immediately achieved legendary “Enter Sandman” status, except with Cook handling not only the organ, but the guttural, fist-clenching vocals. Brown, for his part, unfurled a blazing guitar solo as the band exercised its musical chops.
It’s that kind of adaptable talent that makes ZBB consistently impressive.
Cook and bassist Matt Mangano sometimes swapped instruments; Coy Bowles bopped from guitar to dobro to keyboards with ease; fiddler Jimmy de Martini added so much texture with his elegant work, particularly on the “Free/Into the Mystic” combo; and the rhythm section of Chris Fryar on drums and Daniel de los Reyes on percussion offered a steady backbone, whether on a gliding ballad such as “Colder Weather” or the uptempo foot stomper “Roots,” which opens the “Welcome Home” album.
Periodically, ZBB was joined by the great Darrell Scott, who launched the show with his own set of meaty tunes (a tip – the band returns the favor during Scott’s performance).
Scott, a renowned Nashville songwriter and musician, displayed his smooth, beautiful voice on “Miracle of Living,” played a couple of his songs made famous by the Dixie Chicks (“Heartbreak Town” and “Long Time Gone”) and treated the crowd to his expert picking on a banjo hybrid during “Banjo Clark.”
The crowd didn’t always give Scott the attention he deserved, but Brown made sure to heap accolades on the accomplished musician and hand him the spotlight for Travis Tritt’s “It’s a Great Day to Be Alive” and Scott’s own “River Take Me.”
Brown – and the band’s – deep respect for music of all genres increasingly seeps into their own work. It’s evident in their recordings, of course. But live is where this band not only shines, but explodes.
“Keep Me in Mind”
“As She's Walking Away”
“2 Places at 1 Time”
“Loving You Easy”
“It's a Great Day to Be Alive”
“My Old Man”
“Jump Right In”
“Where the Boat Leaves From”
“Free / Into the Mystic”
“River Take Me”
“All the Best”
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