On October 17, 2014, as part of their Great American Road Trip tour, I was able to see Zac Brown Band perform at the San Manuel Amphitheater. San Manuel, formerly known as the Glen Helen Pavilion, is an outdoor venue. It features several rows of stadium-style seats, as well as a lawn area where you can sit on lawn chairs or blankets. I was seated on the lawn, where I felt more comfortable and free spirited, not to mention it was far less expensive than the standard seats. Although one cannot see the stage as well, you do get a good view of what’s going on via the big screens. The sound quality was excellent also, so I did not feel lacking for what I could not see on the stage as closely as I would have in the seats.
Zac Brown Band is marketed as a country music group. Their influences, however, span several genres. There are elements of Jimmy Buffet-style folk, blues, southern rock 'n' roll, bluegrass, Mexican folk, hard rock and funk. As a group, Zac Brown sings lead and plays guitar, though the other members of the band have several songs that they each sing lead on.
This concert was surprising for me. Most concerts I have attended have a strong current of marketing the band’s up-and-coming or newly released album. They often play their well-known songs and include the newer songs that have not yet been heard. While Zac Brown Band does have a greatest hits album that will be released soon, I was surprised that there was no reference to it. Uniquely to this concert, Zac Brown Band played only their well-known songs, and half the concert was made up of songs that the band was covering. This made the concert memorable and distinctive. After playing several of their own songs, beginning with “Let it Rain” written by Zac Brown, they took a turn and covered Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” wonderfully, showing that they are skilled at far more than country music, and exposing their hard rock influence.
After their first set, the band changed speed and began an acoustic set. As they sat on bar stools in a half circle, we were able to get a picture of how a jam session might take place for them. They covered Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Under the Bridge” with soul and angst. Then their organist and keyboardist Clay Cook took a turn on vocals with a cover of Billy Joel’s “Piano Man.” This may not be at all what one would expect to hear when attending a “country” concert, yet they pulled it off convincingly. Their next cover of “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” by Charlie Daniel’s Band revealed their Bluegrass influence and showcased fiddle player Jimmy De Martini’s exemplary skills beautifully.
Because the concert was so full of music and songs, a brief intermission after the acoustic set was appropriately provided. At this time, lead singer Zac Brown pulled a little girl up on stage, quickly signed one of his own guitars and gifted her with it. I have never seen this done at concert. This showed that the band cares deeply for and appreciates their fans. After the intermission, Zac Brown went on to share that $1 of each of the ticket sales would go to their charity Camp Southern Ground, which gives opportunities for children with disorders including autism and Asperger’s to attend camp the same way other children are able to do so. They shared this information without a hint of superiority or a ploy to draw attention to their charity, but rather directed a sense of gratitude towards the audience for helping to fund this camp.
The overall feel of the audience was one of inebriation. By intermission, the majority of spectators were so drunk that some of them could not stand up straight. The ones that were able to stand were dancing happily to the music. Zac Brown Band is about having a good time, and the audience was certainly having one. This isn’t the type of concert that can be enjoyed sitting stoically on your seat. You have to smile, and you have to dance!
After some of their more upbeat songs, Zac Brown Band surprised us again by covering Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir.” Once more, this showcased their rock and roll roots. Continuing on with their own music, we were then gifted with Chris Shiflett of the Foo Fighters coming onstage and playing a cover of Marshall Tucker Band’s “Can’t You See” with the band. It is always a welcome surprise and a wonder when another well-known performer joins in. One of the band members mentioned that Shiflett had only come to hang out, leading me to assume that this portion of the concert was unrehearsed. Whether it was or not, it was an amazing part of the show.
At this point, the stage went black for several moments. Suddenly, black lights shone on stage and we saw the band dressed in glow in the dark skeleton costumes for “Day for the Dead", also penned by Zac Brown. This showed their theatrical influence, and was a subtle wink and nudge to performance acts like KISS and Alice Cooper. “Day for the Dead” references the Mexican holiday Dia De Los Muertos. This song, combined with the image from their Unchained album cover, and several other songs including Spanish lyrics shows how Mexican culture and folk music has inspired the band.
Nearing the end of the concert, the band covered Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”, again not at all a song I would expect to hear at any concert. Although it was a good effort, and Zac Brown’s voice is wonderful, he could not hit Freddie Mercury’s high notes. This this was the one moment of the concert I was less than impressed with. That being said, the band was able to capture the essence of the song with their fantastic instrumentation. The band finished the night with one of their most popular songs, "Chicken Fried", inviting members of the Marines to come on stage in tribute.
Zac Brown Band is highly interesting in that there are so many members of the group. There are eight musicians that play various instruments including the mandolin, petal steel, banjo, ukulele, organ, piano, keyboard and congas, as well as standard guitar, bass, standup bass and drums.
Zac Brown founded the band in 2002. Initially consisting of Brown on lead guitar and backed by a drummer and bassist. Brown quickly realized he desired another lead instrument, as well as someone to sing harmony. At this point, Brown met fiddle player Jimmy De Martini. After playing several shows together, De Martini was asked to join the band full time. In 2005, John Driskell Hopkins was invited to join the band after stepping in as an upright bassist during the recording of their first album The Foundation. The first single released off The Foundation was “Chicken Fried”, released in 2008 and written by Zac Brown. Within a month of its release, “Chicken Fried” reached number one on the country charts. Since that first song, Zac Brown Band has accumulated five members and fifty-five award nominations, winning eight. The awards they have won include Grammys for Best New Artist and Best Country Album, and the Academy of Country Music award for Top Vocal Event of the Year.