Zac Brown and his longtime band of country rockers rolled into New York Friday night and kicked off their two-night Citi Field stand. They’ve been on a massive summer tour, which included a three night takeover of the Red Sox’ Fenway Park, in support of their fourth full-length, Jekyll + Hyde. That collection — both due to and in spite of Brown’s renegade musical prowess and eclecticism — left critics scratching their heads, but in terms of the live experience, it makes for an ambitious, indulgent shred-fest. Over the course of two and a half hours they moved between traditional country, sweet Philly soul, bluesy guitar solos, and every now and then, burn-the-farm-and-the-barn-too rock n’ roll.
Here are the best things we saw.
Zac Brown’s occasional candor.
The smooth-as-honey tenor doesn’t gab. In a 150 minute set, he jams for about 143 of them. So when he takes pause after the show-opening “Sweet Annie” to let New York know what a privilege it is to play for them or to thank the military servicemen and women after “Dress Blues” or, a particular highlight, when he teaches the crowd the crowd the chorus of “Tomorrow Never Comes” off his new collection and then quips, “Now let’s sing this shit like we mean it,” it’s to rapturous, welcome praise.
The tripped-out set design.
Brown fronted a three-tiered LED light display all night and when it was lit to look like the inside of your grandfather’s log cabin, that felt normal—not to mention pretty good. But when technicolor Dead skulls floated past during “Day For The Dead” and Brown moved out on the walkway into the crowd testifying on his six-string, that’s when things got interesting.
“Dress Blues” as a tribute for the armed forces.
As mentioned, Brown paid tribute to the armed services and when two Navy Seals marched on stage as the heartbreaking Jason Isbell tune (which ZBB recorded for Jekyll + Hyde), the crowd erupted into “USA” chants and deafening applause. Military tributes are nothing new to big country concerts, but tasteful ones such as this absolutely never get old.
Zac Brown on banjo.
There was a moment in the Foo Fighters Sonic Highways Nashville episode — will you go with me on this one? — when Brown was discussing Dave Grohl and after appreciating Grohl as a frontman he couldn’t help but mention that his favorite Grohl is still madcap drummer-Grohl. Electric Zac Brown in front of 40,000 strong on a perfect summer night shredding will probably never falls short of amazing, but Brown on banjo effortlessly plucking on a Jimmy Buffet-leaning summer jam, well that’s as right as settling into your grandma’s well-worn rocking chair for the afternoon.
The cover songs.
Brown has been covering Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” for so many years that it almost (almost! almost!) feels like their own, especially as they toss it in just three songs into their set. Later, he gave his weekend host a little loving, mashing “Empire State of Mind” into “Keep Me In Mind” (Did you think New York was tired of yelling “Let’s hear it for New York, New York / New York”? If so, you are very wrong.) as well as giving Billy Joel’s 1973 career-defining “Piano Man” a soaring spin. Brown also recalled opening for Dave Matthews Band twice throughout the evening and by the second time, right before they launched into DMB’s “Stay“, the point became clear: ZBB wants to be considered a jam band more than they want to call any genre home. By the end of “Stay”…well, by the end of “Stay” you were too busy singing along and swaying and throwing your arms up because you realized he was launching into “Chicken Fried” to realize you think ZBB The Leader of the Jam Bands is a pretty good idea. (But you do, and it is.)
The set list.
This may be Brown and Co.’s biggest tour to date, but it’s by no means their first they know how to give their legions of fans what they want. From opening the show with their years-long practice of “Sweet Annie” into “Uncaged” into their Zeppelin cover to enthusiastic, near-gleeful trips through “Knee Deep”, “Toes”, and “Chicken Fried” (which meant they were saving two of the most loved for the encore: “Colder Weather” — which Brown, wearing a Mets ballcap now, performed from his knees as he shook hands, high-fived, and embraced his crowd — and recent Country Radio no. 1 “Homegrown”) everyone had a chance to sing along.
Zac Brown, rock-star wailing.
Banjo-and-bearded Brown may be the most welcoming Brown, but in light of the fact that this is a man who delivers enormous tunes to enormous crowds with profound ease, watching him twist his face and rip through “Heavy Is The Head” — which features rock-wailer No. 1, Chris Cornell on the studio version — is unadulterated headbangers delight.
ZBB returns to Citi Field tonight for the second night in their stand. The full Friday setlist is below.
Devil Went Down To Georgia
Tomorrow Never Comes
I’ll Be Your Drug
Day For The Dead
Keep Me In Mind (Empire State of Mind)
Heavy Is The Head
Loving You Easy
Encore: Colder Weather, Homegrown
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