CHICAGO — Zac Brown said he was going to take the 8,000 Chicago fans on a musical journey Thursday night (Aug. 19). And he did, although it wasn’t a route typically taken during a country concert.
The Grammy-winning Zac Brown Band has so much pure, raw musical talent, and they proved that throughout their two and a-half hour show at Chicago’s Northerly Island on Lake Michigan. While the sold-out and mostly standing-room-only crowd craved the band’s infectious hits, rowdy drinking anthem and carefree boating tunes, the band also emphasized extended instrumental jams.
Brown can flatpick any and every guitar as if his life depended on it. And guys like Jimmy De Martini bowed and plucked the hell out of his fiddle, John Hopkins played his bass guitar with fury and Clay Cook took the mandolin to places mandolins don’t usually go.
Opening with “Whiskey’s Gone,” the band raced through that rowdy arrangement, telling the crowd, “We have no choice but to whip this show with a belt.” The fiddle played such a dominant role in the song, it felt like De Martini was channeling Charlie Daniels even if they weren’t playing “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” yet. When it came time for “Where the Boat Leaves From,” a fitting song with Lake Michigan sitting quietly about 200 feet from the edge of the stage, Brown managed to slide a few verses of Bob Marley’s “One Love” into the middle of that tune.
“I hope that tonight that whatever BS you had to deal with all week, you can let it go,” Brown asked of the fans before letting Hopkins sing his signature, deep, rapid-fire delivery of the band’s “It’s Not OK” hoedown. Then Brown brought out some of the new stuff from the band’s upcoming album, You Get What You Give, including “As She’s Walking Away,” a track they recorded with Alan Jackson. It’s a powerful harmony tune with more vocals than instruments and lyrics about how “my heart won’t tell my mind to tell my mouth what it should say.”
Then Brown introduced another new one, “Knee Deep,” which they recorded with Jimmy Buffett. If Brown was not there singing it, you’d think it actually was a Buffett song. But later on in the night, Brown did another new one he called “my favorite song we’ve ever written.” The selection, “Colder Weather,” is a solid country ballad about being born for leaving and having a gypsy soul to blame. Brown didn’t say why it was his favorite, but the fans seemed to echo his sentiment even though most were hearing it for the first time.
Other than remarks to promote the new CD or his Letters for Lyrics postcard program, Brown didn’t take time to talk much during the show until he was ready to tell the story behind new song “I Play the Road.” He explained that the band had stopped at a restaurant on their way to a show when the waitress asked, “Are you in a band?” They told her yes, and she asked what instruments they all played. When it was bus driver Big George’s turn, she said “What do you play?” And he said, “I play the road.” Thus inspiring the song. There have been some mildly successful country singles about road life over the years, but this one may beat them all.
“The highway is our song/The city’s like the same three chords that help bring us along,” they sang. The song ends with a bittersweet question from one of the singer’s three little girls: “Daddy, where do you go with your suitcase and your guitar? Daddy, where do you go?”
The way the stage was set up — propped with a moonshine still, mason jars and vintage-style saloon stages for the drum set and keyboards — anyone would quickly classify the band as a country one. But the Southern rock edge to their songs makes them feel like no other country band on the radio right now. Maybe it’s that fusion that earned them the Grammy for best new artist earlier this year. That award is rarely given to a band, and the Zac Brown Band is the only country band in Grammy history to have won it. Carrie Underwood won in 2007 and LeAnn Rimes in 1997, but it was a breakthrough win for Brown and his group.
As a songwriter and vocalist, Brown’s talent is just beginning to shine. But as a guitar picker, he sounds as if he was born with the instrument in his hands. He almost played a different guitar on each one of the 20-plus songs they did. So when the band launched into what would be a very, very extended play of Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely,” Brown was ready for that 10-minute freeform jam in the center of the song. Instrumental breaks like that had the crowd making comments about how these guys are a “hillbilly honky-tonk jam band” and how they are reinventing the Marshall Tucker Band. (Mandolin player Clay Cook is a former member of the Marshall Tucker Band, the originators of “Ramblin’,” a song the ZBB performed Thursday.)
During the show, opening acts Casey Driessen and the Wood Brothers returned to the stage for a few songs, and Brown moved the show along with his peppy reggae-rocker, “Settle Me Down,” before mellowing out a bit for slower songs, such as Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic” and their own sad-but-true “Highway 20 Ride,” complete with upright bass and a sparse guitar intro and closing that hushed the crowd. Then came time for “Toes,” which tied for second place in the loudest singalong of the night. They also squeezed in never-released songs off their first album, like “Different Kind of Fine” and “Sic ’Em on a Chicken.”
And finally, two hours after they started, the band put nearly everyone in a two-steppin’ dance mood with “Chicken Fried.” After a couple of encore tunes, the city’s sound curfew set in as the band ended the night with their latest No. 1 hit, “Free.”