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Zac Brown Band gives adoring crowd a folksy, rocking party

For the Zac Brown Band unenlightened, here’s a hippie-for-hillbilly reference point: Imagine a modern-day Grateful Dead, but trade the tie-dye for cowboy boots. Or liken it to Jimmy Buffett and his partying Parrotheads. In showcasing the abilities of his six-man band, the bearded, top-hatted Brown even has a streak of Bruce Springsteen and E Street.

Traces of each of those legends were evident Saturday night as Brown turned Darien Lake Performing Arts Center into a two-hour, two-act jam party that was equal parts folksy and rock.

Now let’s be fair. Though Brown is a Grammy winner, he’s no Bruce, Buffett or Jerry Garcia. But the 36-year-old is country’s next-gen version. He’s been on the scene less than a decade but in that time has developed a loyal fan base that’s anything but casual. I’d like to tell you which songs connected most with the audience, but in this case I’d be simply printing the set list, because the nearly full crowd sang along to all.

A word on that set list: Brown deserves credit for varying it up in a way that would make those aforementioned legends proud. Two of the songs (“Keep Me in Mind,” “Goodbye in Her Eyes”) that were among his final tunes one night earlier in Toronto were in his first half-dozen in Darien.

One of the most musically complex and emotionally powerful songs of the evening – “Can’t You See,” a cover of the Marshall Tucker Band song – wasn’t even performed in Toronto, according to my sources. In the Brown Band rendition of the song, which they first released with Kid Rock in 2010, guitarist Clay Cook delivered towering vocals – the strongest of the evening – while fellow guitarist Coy Bowles and bassist Matt Mangano contributed throbbing solos.

Brown himself added a creative acoustic guitar bit, picking the strings on the instrument’s neck while beating the hollow wood with a drumstick.

“These guys are amazing,” said the guy behind me, between singing the lyrics, which neatly sums up the reaction of the crowd. Their collective mood evolved with the music, from doing a mass tiki dance to “Island Song” (read: Buffett connection) to wrapping arms on shoulders and swaying en masse to an acoustic cover of Billy Joel’s “Piano Man.”

Brown unabashedly plays covers, much more so than most artists of his stature. His four-song intro included two of his own (“Whiskey’s Gone” and “Uncaged”) which melded straight into Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” and Charlie Daniels’ “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” which showcased Jimmy de Martini’s hard-core approach to fiddling and Brown’s cutting guitar. (Had he not become a frontman, Brown likely could have made a nice living as a lead guitarist.)

Brown ended the show on a pair of memorable notes: The encore began with the band clad in psychedelic skeleton suits (a dead ringer for the Dead logo, by the way) for “Day for the Dead.” It ended with his first hit, “Chicken Fried,” for which he brought a pair of servicemen onstage to salute the erupting crowd.

The picky side of me wishes Brown chatted up his fans a bit more, though I get the sense they were happiest hearing him play. And more than most artists, Brown’s songs and band’s style tell a story unto themselves. That’s why the covers work as well as originals, and it’s why he’s country’s answer to artists who specialize in developing a deep, devoted fan base. He’s a long-term taste.

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