The Zac Brown Band takes on the world

STATELINE — Picture this. The year is 1972, and Buck Owens and the Buckaroos are putting the finishing touches on an evening of their countless classic country hits in front of a whoopin’-and-hollerin’ appreciative crowd. “We’ll be right back with a few more songs!” Buck bellows, as he steps into the darkness behind the stage with the band. Minutes later, they somberly re-emerge on a dark stage – with Buck and every single Buckaroo clad in skeleton suits. Without a moment’s hesitation, Buck leads the band into a recent collaboration with Black Sabbath frontman Ozzy Osbourne called “Day For the Dead,” featuring the opening lyrics “I see them rise from beneath the ground, life was lost but now it’s found.” From there, Buck’s longtime sideman Don Rich really gets the crowd going by launching into Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” as Owens himself, who has switched to bass guitar, bends his knees and leans over the front of the stage mugging for the fans. And, with the honky-tonk fans rocking along as if they’d seen the same set at Woodstock two years prior, Owens brings ’em all to their feet one last time by closing the encore with his own country-as-it-gets -classic “Tiger By The Tail” – still in his skeleton suit, of course. And the crowd goes wild. Seem pretty far-fetched? If it does, you obviously know nothing about the Zac Brown Band, because that’s the exact scenario that closed their amazing sold-out concert at Lake Tahoe Outdoor Arena at Harveys on Sunday night, July 20. The only difference, of course, is that Zac Brown was Owens, John Driskell Hopkins was Rich, Dave Grohl was Osbourne, “Enter Sandman” was “Purple Haze” and Brown’s own “Chicken Fried” was “Tiger By the Tail.” You read right. One minute you had Hopkins, a tall, menacing figure who looks like he stepped right out of the World Wrestling Federation, singing “You’re sleeping with one eye open, gripping your pillow tight” while taking the lead on Metallica’s “Enter Sandman,” a version that couldn’t have gone over better if Mariano Rivera himself had suddenly entered from stage right. The next, there was Brown singing of Georgia pines, sweet tea and pecan pie, and a little bit of “Chicken Fried,” his highly countrified No. 1 single from 2009, the year the band earned a Grammy as the best new country artist. Many worlds colliding, and many music lovers loving it. The whole evening was a glowing testament not only to Brown’s ever-growing popularity, and the unmatched versatility of his band, but also to the overall power of music to find common ground between people of all makes, colors, backgrounds and beliefs. And in this day and age, isn’t that something special? The healing power of music was on display from the opening minutes, which actually began much later than anticipated. The show was scheduled to start at 6:30 p.m., but the arena was still being drenched by rains from the afternoon thunderstorms that rocked the Tahoe area almost as hard as the Brown Band would in the hours to come. The rain finally turned to drizzle, and Brown’s multi-talented sideman, Clay Cook, took the stage at 7 p.m. with an acoustic guitar and played five songs highlighted by an amazing vocal performance on Ray Charles’ “Hard Times” and his 2002 collaboration with John Mayer called “No Such Thing” — a performance prompted because a front-row fan shouted out the suggestion. “I can’t believe you remember that,” Cook said. What followed were several Bob Marley songs (never a bad thing on a night that highlighted the healing power of music) before Brown, looking trimmer and thinner and even downright dapper in a top hat that has replaced his trademark wool black cap, took the stage at 7:40. By the time Brown turned it up a notch with “Jump Right In” it was obvious the crowd was in for a night of a classic “country with the occasional reggae and jam band” concert, and more. And then came “Sweet Annie.” Quite possibly Brown’s most touching ballad to date had everyone on their feet, singing along, couples swaying together as Cook, who switched from guitar to keyboards for the song, and Brown brought the evening to its first zenith with their powerful vocals on the chorus. Not coincidentally, that’s when the drizzle pretty much stopped for good. The healing power of music was going to win out over the weather on this night, too. And, perhaps not by coincidence, that’s when a different kind of storm blew over the crowd – a storm of styles that, because of the power of Brown and his band, makes the lines between “country” and “that other stuff” pretty much a distant Buckaroo memory. The crowd had barely finished drying their eyes from “Sweet Annie” when the familiar riff from Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” began, the opening salvo in the most powerful one-two-three combination of the night. Next up was “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” One of the most prototypical and familiar songs in the history of country music was given new life thanks to Brown’s longtime fiddle player Jimmy De Martini, who, with all due credit to Charlie Daniels, made one stop and think exactly who might be “the best there’s ever been” on the instrument. (In many fan circles, De Martini steals the show night after night, and he came close again on this night, even chipping in on the heavy metal songs.) That set the stage for the medley of Brown’s “Free” and Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic,” which flow together so perfectly it’s no surprise some novice fans might mistake it for one song. Brown himself sang the “Mystic” lines with a smile that can only come from the inner glow of a man who loves his job, and the direction it’s going. The opening half of the show wrapped up with a singalong of “Toes,” Brown’s ode to the joys of sitting in a lawnchair with a Pabst Blue Ribbon beer with your toes in the clay. Already a far cry from “Kashmir,” but nobody seemed to mind. The onslaught continued across the musical spectrum. The mere mention of the Zac Brown Band brings to mind country music; the band has been nominated for more than 50 major awards in its still-young career, all in the country music category. But, on this night, and for this entire “Great American Road Trip” tour, barely more than half the songs played could be considered to have a classic country sound. After channeling the Allman Brothers with a long, long guitar jam featuring Cook, Brown and near-Brown-lookalike Coy Bowles, Brown hit another high note with his own “Colder Weather,” one of his 10 No. 1 singles to date. His fist bump to the heart showed his appreciation as the crowd responded with its loudest ovation of the night. After making a plug (in some of the few words he spoke all night) for his children’s charity Camp Southern Ground (campsouthernground.org), Brown covered the Wood Brothers song “The Muse” before finally wrapping up the main part of the show with his 2011 collaboration with Jimmy Buffett, “Knee Deep,” which accounted for the final audience singalong of the night. From there came the short break, Brown’s announcement that they’d be right back with a few more songs, and … the skeleton suits. Honestly, that was a brave, even risky move, one that could have seemed ridiculous for a band with any lesser talent. “Day For the Dead,” Brown’s collaboration with Grohl (Foo Fighters and Nirvana) is a far cry from the likes of “Toes,” but the reaction from the crowd was overwhelmingly positive. Next up was “Enter Sandman.” As Hopkins barked out the lead vocals, Brown walked to the front of the stage, smiling, and also studying the crowd. It was if he was curious to see the reaction to, arguably, the most famous heavy metal song of all time being played in front of a crowd that was there to see the most popular country music band of the era. The high-fives and sounds of “That was awesome!” that went around a majority of the crowd at song’s end made the answer obvious. While some of Brown’s career fans have objected to the number of cover songs on this tour, you couldn’t tell it by the percentage of people who were standing, dancing and singing along with every word. Maybe, just maybe, the fans of these different types of music aren’t so different after all. Next Brown played “Chicken Fried” to close out the encore. You’d have a hard time judging between the reaction to “Chicken Fried” and “Enter Sandman” after the songs; both singalongs with lots of joyous dancing, albeit to different beats. By and large, the crowd loves what Brown is doing. He’s hit that young peak in a career in which it seems he can do no wrong, and the way he is able to mix so many genres together successfully – and, especially, keep adding more genres every tour – may be unprecedented in the history of country music. Music wasn’t this complicated in Buck Owens’ heyday, and the world probably wasn’t as complicated then either. Although one look at the crowd let you know this was still a “country” crowd in the strictest sense of the term, Brown has knocked down some doors and perhaps even opened up some eyes to some other musical points of views. It all rocked. It was all good. You might even say the Zac Brown Band, against all odds, has got this multi-genre-music tiger by the tail. Editor’s note: The band denied our request to photograph the concert.              

ABOUT Mike Wolcott

Mike Wolcott
Mike Wolcott is the editor of the Chico Enterprise-Record. His proudest musical moment came when he was scolded by Who bassist John Entwistle for making too much noise at a Roger Daltrey concert. He especially likes classic rock, classic old-time country, Jimmy Buffett, Bob Dylan and all three Hanks. Parsons calls him “Wally.” When he’s not slaying deadlines, you can find Wally playing guitar in a Corning-based cover band called Punches the Clown.

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