Southern Reel/Shore Fire Media
Last summer as singer-guitarist Zac Brown and his nine-piece band strolled unassumingly onto the Blossom stage, Brown, decked out in a black top hat and faded blue jeans, simply nodded in approval to the revelers in the small pit in front of the stage.
Brown clearly embraces his fans need to party hearty and that undoubtedly influenced the songs the band decided to play during a crowd-pleasing two-a-half-hour (with a 15-minute intermission) concert.
While Brown caters to a country crowd, he and his band played a bit of everything. And we do mean everything. They covered Charlie Daniels’ Band redneck anthem “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” offered up a grunge-y rendition of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” and paid tribute to the Marshall Tucker Band with an epic rendition of “Can’t You See.” And that’s not to mention covers of songs by Metallica, Queen and the Foo Fighters. While the rendition of “Can’t You See” meandered a bit mid-song, the choice of cover songs showed the band’s range. These guys can play anything by anyone. Their cover of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” was spot-on and even included a video treatment that was a send-up of the original music video.
“We try to push the boundaries during the live show,” says singer-keyboardist-guitarist Coy Bowles, who formed the band with Brown some 15 years ago, during a recent phone interview from his Atlanta home. “We’ll play Queen or something like that that people wouldn’t expect from us or from a country band. We never associated ourselves with being a country band per se. We grew up with it and have a deep relationship with it, but we just like to play good music. It’s not anything against anything. It’s just freeing to play different styles. We prided ourselves that we have such musicality.”
Bowles studied jazz for several years and says he spent five years listening to John Coltrane and Miles Davis in the process. When it came time to record last year’s Jeckyl + Hyde
, the band opted to let his various influences come to the fore. “Loving You Easy” features soulful vocals and features a retro-vibe with its perky synthesizers and cooing backing vocals. With its chirping strings and references to “an island state of mind,” “Castaway” sounds like a cross between Bob Marley and Jimmy Buffett. With its crunchy guitars, "Junkyard" verges on metal. The terrifically eclectic album defies genre.
“We arrived at the place where we might be able to get away with it,” says Bowles when asked about the band's approach. “We thought that people might allow us to play a rock tune like ‘Heavy is the Head’ with Chris Cornell and then go into ‘Mango Tree,’ which is a big band tune like something Sinatra might do. We were a little fingers crossed when we released the album that people don’t go, 'What are they doing?' In the back of our minds and our hearts and our souls, we knew that the songs were good and the performances were good. Worst case scenario, there are so many songs on the album that if people didn’t like some of the songs on the album, there would still be songs they were into.”
Judging by the album’s positive reception, the risk was worth it. More popular than ever, the band will again promote the album with this summer’s tour that includes a Blossom date. The 26-date tour also includes stops at both stadiums and amphitheaters as the band returns to venues such as Alpine Valley Music Theatre, Citi Field and Fenway Park.
“Our fans are smart people,” says Bowles. “They like music. They listen to the Eagles and Alan Jackson and Marvin Gaye. They listen to a lot of different stuff, so why not cater to that. It keeps you on your tiptoes. I’m not just playing country guitar all night. I’m playing a Les Paul through Marshall stacks and then jumping on organ to play a ballad and the playing slide guitar. It’s a musical workout for sure.”
And for fans who might’ve seen the band last summer but aren't sure they need to see it again, Bowles says there’s plenty of reason to come back this year. The group has worked out some new covers, including a rendition of the Nine Inch Nails’ song “Head Like a Hole.”
“We’re good at writing songs and doing albums, but the real experience is that you have to come see it live to see what that whole experience is about,” says Bowles. “When we first came out, we would do these radio shows. We would play a show that night and go to bed at 4 in the morning and wake up at 5 or 6. They would put us into this radio station and at the time, Brad Paisley and Alan Jackson and the people who wore cowboy hats and represented country music in that manner were the people who were big stars and still are. We would walk in with T-shirts and blue jeans and Zac would be wearing a beanie. We all had beards. The overall consensus of the radio station was what did we get into. We would play [songs such as] ‘Chicken Fried’ and ‘Highway 20,’ and their jaws would drop. They would be like, ‘Whoa. You guys really play.’”
Bowles says that as time has gone on, the guys have decided to “dress the pat more.” But the band’s commitment to musicianship remains.
“Being able to play the music and being players has been who we are and what we do,” he says matter-of-factly.
Zac Brown Band, 7 p.m. Friday, June 24, Blossom Music Center, 1148 West Steels Corners, Cuyahoga Falls, 330-920-8040. Tickets: $35.50-$71.50, livenation.com.