It’s easy for music “purists” to pan the Zac Brown Band’s pandering breakout hit “Chicken Fried” for its admitted catch-’em-all checklist of things that make you go, “Cheers!”
But get to know the north Georgia septet a bit better and the song becomes more of a means to an end mission of just making people feel good, which the band did brilliantly at Darien Lake Performing Arts Center Sunday night, selling out the near-22,000 capacity venue for the second straight summer and again making a convincing case that its aim is pure.
The band’s widespread success has earned a relatively diverse audience. While its nine No. 1 hits have all come on the country charts, the usual moonlight cowboy and cowgirl couture that comes out of the closets of local country concert crowds was less seen on this scene. What we’re seeing instead is the emergence of an American melting pot party band with unlimited potential.
At the center of this is Brown, whose penchant for penning big-hooked anthems is propelled by his punchy, percussive guitar picking that appears to have a bluegrass base but is actually all over the place. His inviting low tenor leads frequent four-part harmonies from a band that brandished incredible instrumental ability over 26 songs and two hours, mixing many styles into its own material while masterfully mining covers that ranged from stirring to stunning.
After well-received opening sets from fellow Georgians Nic Cowan and Levi Lowrey, the band first appeared as silhouettes behind a full curtain, appropriately opening with the island-infused invitation of “Jump Right In.” It was followed by “The Wind,” another single from its fifth and latest album, “Uncaged,” as Brown, electric guitarist Clay Cook and fiery fiddler Jimmy De Martini traded bluegrass solos driven by a train beat from dynamic drummer Chris Fryar.
The Grammy-winning “As She’s Walking Away” offered a ballad with a sway before the quick pickin’ of “Whiskey’s Gone” got the crowd going. The sentimental “Free” segued seamlessly into Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic” and back, and at the moment the latter song broke open with a running jump onto the catwalk by Cook and bassist John Driskell Hopkins, so, too, did the crowd.
After a well-received new number in “Day for the Dead” came complete with a feel-good chorus, mid-song riff-off and a cappella breakdown, Brown said, “this band right here is one of our heroes” before beginning a near note-for-note cover of Dave Matthews Band’s “Ants Marching” that strayed only when the fiddle breakdown broke into the Edgar Winter Group’s “Frankenstein,” all of which met with constant roaring approval.
The band launched T-shirts into the crowd with a slingshot and air cannon while stagehands set a cabin-like scene on the catwalk that included cajons as chairs, a couple of tables and lamps and a touch of taxidermy. Once seated, Brown, Cook, De Martini and Hopkins offered the Eagles’ a cappella hit “Seven Bridges Road” written by fellow Georgian Steve Young before taking up acoustic instruments and being joined by the rest of the band for Ray LaMontagne’s soul-tugging “Jolene,” which appears on its 2008 breakout album “The Foundation.”
The acoustic mini-set closed with an all-percussion spin on James Taylor’s “Frozen Man” that percussionist Daniel de los Reyes took lead to close while others ducked out to kick straight into an electric “Keep Me in Mind,” the big-hooked hit anthem for the hopefully forlorn from the 2010 album “You Get What You Give.”
After introducing Grand Island native and longtime band production manager/sound tech Eric Roderick amid a run of hits from the beachy “Toes” to a take on John Mayer’s “Neon” led by blistering solos from De Martini and guitarist Coy Bowles, the band nailed Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” in the most surprising moment of the night.
The band then called for donations to its Camp Southern Ground for kids, gave goosebumps in the perfect ballad “Colder Weather,” and closed with the obligatory “Chicken Fried” before a three-song encore that could have gone all night to the crowd’s delight.
Bring on the stadiums – Zac Brown Band is bound to go down as one of the biggest bands of its generation.