BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- The Zac Brown Band only has one country hit -- that being the unavoidable "Chicken Fried" -- so, at first, it's surprising just how tight their live show is. Spot-on harmonies, no cheesy banter, a set list that flows well. And then you recall that they've been playing music together since 2004 and probably played a thousand shows in bars and clubs long before country radio ever noticed them. Judging from a thoroughly enjoyable, sold-out concert here Thursday night (Feb. 19), they are officially ready for their country close-up.
Photo Credit: Craig Shelburne
On the second night of a two-night run, this particular concert at WorkPlay, a concert venue in downtown Birmingham, was probably the most no-frills country show I've seen in a long, long time. The soundstage essentially looked like a warehouse decorated for a prom, with padded walls and a huge chandelier dangling from the ceiling. The band itself didn't have any special effects, such as a jumbo video screen or a fancy backdrop, and they certainly didn't need anything like that, either, since the crowd was only about 15 rows deep. In other words, if you didn't like the music, you had nothing else to distract you, aside from the people-watching.
That's probably the coolest thing about the Zac Brown Band. If you're a Southerner who loves all kind of music, you will quickly see yourself reflected in the lead singer. He definitely has his own look -- a bigger guy who wears a stocking cap, a vest and a beard. At one point, I thought I spotted him in the audience, too, which was kind of weird. Brown is the kind of singer who effortlessly appeals to a broader audience because he's totally at ease on the stage. Instead of trying to play up his sex appeal, he simply relies on music to establish a connection to both men and women.
Brown recently added Clay Cook to his band to help bring out the high vocal harmonies. At times, it sounded like the 1970s in there. If the classic rock format could break new artists, I would imagine his record label would be the first ones knocking. Interestingly, every age range was represented, without one demographic totally outnumbering the other.
Also, his songs have a down-home vibe, with "Chicken Fried" being the obvious example. But more than once, I could hear the Allman Brothers' influence in the melodies. (Both groups came through the ranks in Georgia.) Brown also credited singer-songwriter Shawn Mullins, who lives in Decatur, Ga., as a catalyst for his own career and capably covered Mullins' "Lonesome I Know You Too Well." Usually I get aggravated when there are too many covers, but I wasn't bothered at all during this show to hear Charlie Daniels' "The Devil Went Down to Georgia," Ray LaMontagne's "Jolene" (which is on the ZBB's latest album), Van Morrison's "Into the Mystic" or Bob Dylan and The Band's "I Shall Be Released," only because those tunes belong in my own CD collection, too.
Something else to be grateful for is that he doesn't just sing vague lyrics about love over and over and over. He draws on his rough-and-tumble childhood on songs like "Highway 20," about getting driven back and forth as a child of divorce. At the end of the night, he preached about letting the hatred go, as he did with his stepfather when he wrote "Junkyard." They also offered an "unlove song," as Brown referred to it, with "Nothing," a composition written by the band's bass player, John Hopkins. (The hook: "The rest of my life has nothing to do with you." Ouch.) Stories like that don't always translate to larger stages, but even the heavy drinkers were quietly listening when Brown was talking. Or maybe they were just guzzling the whole time.
Naturally, being a bar band, he's got his fair share of fun songs, too. "Sic'em on a Chicken" won't make the vegetarians happy, but it is kind of clever. The other one, "Toes," is taking on a life of its own. Everybody seemed to know the words to this beach bum song. The new country single, by the way, is "Whatever It Is," but I'll bet when the weather warms up, you'll be hearing "Toes" wherever you go. Bohemian spirits will also gravitate toward "Free," about driving across the country in a van and living off love. And whenever the fiddle starts cranking, there's no denying his country influence.
As always, I propped myself up near the rear exit so I could take notes without distracting anybody, and I wasn't drinking at all since I had to juggle a camera and a notebook. For about a minute -- and it must have been on a slow song -- a parade of people headed out the back door to the restroom and you could hear this in perfect rhythm: clink, clink, clink, clink. In this era of family-friendly country music, it is truly refreshing to hear the beer bottles crashing into the trash again.
When I looked at my watch, I realized they had been playing for an hour. (Time flies when you're having fun, I guess.) Occasionally they would take a few seconds to tune their guitars or adjust their ear monitors, and I couldn't always catch what Brown was saying when he was talking into the microphone. Of course, I could say the same about any club show and, ultimately, who cares? It's not like we're hanging out at the symphony hall here.
Brown brought along singer-songwriter Sonia Leigh as an opening act, and she returned for the finale to sing one of her own songs. And as any club performer will do, he emphasized the merchandise table in the lobby. No shame in that. Remember, he's made his living doing this for the last five years.
I don't know how much longer the Zac Brown Band will be playing clubs and theaters, but if you happen to see them up close in the next few months, you'll probably walk away with a lot more respect from those guys who do "Chicken Fried."
View photos from the Zac Brown Band's concert.