ZAC BROWN’S JEKYLL + HYDE TOUR IS A WINNER AT NATS PARK
The nation’s capital, Washington, D.C., is essentially a melting pot of style, culture, and musical tastes. Steeped in history and laden with monumental stones, it’s seen its share of historic events, both peaceful and divided. The city’s musical history is as diverse as the people who visit here, and has often been of a reactive nature. It’s brought people together in both the best and worst of times. Most every night, at one of the cities many music venues, you can find live music to suit a variety of interests. The newest, and one of the largest outdoor venues in the city, is Nationals Park, located on the Anacostia River in the Naval Yard neighborhood. It opened in 2008, and is home to the National League’s Washington Nationals baseball team. When they’re on the road, it becomes a concert venue. Call it a Jekyll + Hyde transformation, if you will.
Zac Brown Band’s Jekyll + Hyde Tour made a stop at Nats Park Friday night, turned the outfield into a concert stage, and the fans into a choir. As summer nights go, this one was perfect, and the surrounding area became a moving backdrop for lyrics that resonated a little deeper here. When he opened the show with “Homegrown,” it felt like a patriotic anthem in this setting, a reminder of what we have to be grateful for. It would be a theme throughout the show. It was clear very early on that this would be no ordinary concert. The attention to detail was extraordinary. The quality of the musicianship was on a level all its own, and Zac’s appreciation for his fans was nearly palpable. This is not a show that relies heavily on video images, pre-recorded sounds, or other electronic gimmicks to entice the audience. Three simple elements brought this crowd to their feet: the instruments, the musicians, and rock solid vocals. If you’re going to step up to the plate in this setting, you better have your ‘A’ game in tow. This is no place for an amateur effort.
There is just one opening act for this show, The Avett Brothers, and just a couple of songs into their set, it was obvious how they landed this coveted slot. The group consists of two brothers, Scott and Seth Avett, together with Bob Crawford and Joe Kwon. They tour with drummer, Mike Marsh, violinist, Tania Elizabeth, and Paul Defiglia on keys and upright bass. Their performance is like lighting a match and watching it burn. It pulls you in from the first spark, and when the flame is extinguished, you’re still hanging on the smoke it left behind. They explode out of the gate with their first song and the energy never stops. It’s rock and roll energy, orchestral power in their instrumentation, and songwriter soul in their delivery, whether it be hip hop, folk, country, or rock styled. If they were performing with nothing to amplify their sound, you’d still hear them. That’s how hard they work on stage. You’ll have to check out their music on iTunes or go see them live, because there is simply no one I can compare them to. A unique and powerful force of musical poetry that doesn’t lean on the rock tradition of heavy guitar riffs for emphasis. The banjo and the violin are played to the extreme in this set, proving it’s not what you play, but how you play it that leaves an impression. They were warmly received by this D.C. crowd and a superb choice by Zac Brown.
In naming this tour after their latest album, Jekyll + Hyde, it became evident throughout the evening that it was a true representation of the live show. This band is as multifaceted as any I’ve seen, and their ability to perform both new and classic songs with equal mastery, is unmatched. The album has only been out a few months, but that didn’t stop Zac Brown from showcasing nearly the entire album at this show. Straying from his earlier traditional country sound, he tested the boundaries of his creativity and featured his band members’ diverse skills. The result is a live show that only this band could pull off without any trickery whatsoever. The challenge would be in turning the recorded songs into live entertainment while including the older hits and some of the most iconic songs of our time. Not only was the set list a crowd pleaser, they created some unforgettable concert moments only possible in this locale.
With the large number of musicians involved in this show, they are spread out across a vast stage area. The catwalk was used to create more intimate moments in the show and to feature individual instrumental performances. Zac never used this piece of the stage to bring attention to himself. He used it to connect with the audience, and through music, give back to the fans that he said allow them to do what they love. ZBB used the early part of the show to demonstrate the diversity of talent they possess. After opening with the first single off the new album, “Homegrown,” they quickly went to Led Zeppelin’s classic, “Kashmir,” followed by Charlie Daniels’ mega-hit, “The Devil Went Down To Georgia.” Where else but at a ZBB concert would you hear those songs back to back? Some may think those three songs are an odd mix, but looking at the history of this band, not really. Most of these guys grew up in the 70s and 80s when Zeppelin tunes were a radio standard. Several were born and raised in Georgia, steeped in traditional country music, where “The Devil Went Down To Georgia” is practically the state song. In this case, the boy’s name is Jimmy De Martini, and in this contest, the devil lost again. I’m pretty sure if you look closely, Jimmy’s playing a golden fiddle these days.
In a large stadium, it can be rather difficult to create the setting that best suits a tender song, or two. Getting a baby grand piano to the end of a catwalk, along with a number of other instruments used in the performance, takes a bit of set up time. To compensate for the lull in the show, stagehands on both ends of the main stage shot t-shirts into the crowd. It was a nice gesture, and much appreciated, and the two songs that followed were well worth the wait. “Sweet Annie” was ZBB’s tenth number one hit and made for one of the lightest moments of the show. When the opening notes were played on the piano, it got a big cheer from the crowd. At the conclusion of this one, Zac Brown sat down at the piano and quietly pulled the entire stadium into his lyrics. The words to “Let It Be” filled the night air, and it seemed like even the noise from the surrounding city stopped so the message could be heard. This city knows “times of trouble” all too well, and when the choir on stage picked up the chorus, it rang out like a prayer. It would be the first of several chill-inducing moments in the show.
With the length of ZBB’s set at 2.5 hours, there was a short break in the middle that Zac referred to as half-time. He changed clothes and returned wearing a button-down shirt and a Washington Nationals cap. Perhaps this change of attire was meant to mirror the change from Jekyll to Hyde. Promising that the second half of the show would be the best, they delivered in grand slam fashion. Guitarist, Clay Cook, has an uncle that played with The Marshal Tucker Band. In a salute to their legacy, ZBB covered “Can’t You See,” only Zac himself stepped aside and let Clay take the vocal. What followed I can only describe as complete annihilation in the very best of musical ways. Had the original members of The Marshall Tucker Band witnessed this performance, I think they would have ceded the song. Clay’s vocal was outstanding, but it was the instrumental parts of this one that shot it into another realm. Coy Bowles took all the heartbreak expressed in Clay’s vocal and poured it out on the strings of his guitar as if it would be the last thing he ever played. The original version of this song is 6:05 in length. I would say ZBB’s performance of it was at least double that. This was one of those live concert moments you wish would never end, when the musicians are so caught up in the performance, they don’t want to let it go either. Curfews be damned.
At every turn in this show, Zac seemed to create special moments that were unique to the song. During the playing of their current single, “Loving You Easy,” he handed out white roses to women in the crowd who were within his reach. A simple gesture, but a nice addition to the sentiment of the song. “Dress Blues” is a heart-wrenching song no matter where you listen to it. In Washington, D.C., it produced the most moving moment of the evening. The large video screens on either side of the stage changed from color images to black and white, and Zac turned his Nationals cap backwards to sing this one. With Arlington Cemetery not far in the distance, and the many monuments to the fallen nearby, the lyrics came face to face with reality. The crowd stood almost stock still, and Zac’s vocal, along with the band backing him up, was the only sound in the park. When the instrumental became “Taps,” tears fell, and Zac struggled not to lose his voice. Members of the military, in dress blues, crossed the stage and walked away through the crowd. I can’t think of a place where this song would be more heavy with meaning. It was the second chill-inducing moment of the evening, and not one that went unnoticed by the band, or Zac Brown. It was a stunning rendition of a beautiful song, worthy of the setting.
To end the regular part of the show, the band, once again, showed their diversity and the wide demographic of their fan base. “Toes” was the second number one hit for ZBB and a crowd favorite. Before beginning the song, Zac asked the audience if they would become a choir for this one and help sing the chorus. Who says no to Zac Brown? It was a fun sing-along and Zac expressed his appreciation for the noteworthy effort. Immediately following that, and only at a ZBB concert, would you hear “Bohemian Rhapsody” sung, word for word, by the same fans who just knew every word to “Toes.” I think even Freddie Mercury would have shook his head at that unlikely pairing. “Anyway the wind blows” indeed! Nothing like a little Queen in the capital of the democracy that fought for its freedom from a monarchy. There are very few bands that would take on that song and do it justice. ZBB’s performance of it was flawless, and a great way to leave the crowd wanting more.
The encore consisted of two songs, the first cut off the new album, “Beautiful Drug,” and ZBB’s first number one hit, “Chicken Fried.” Coming full circle, we were back to lyrics that talk about home and the things we appreciate most in life. Despite the fact that there are no Georgia pines in the vicinity and we were not on southern ground, the lyrics to this one still rang true for this D.C crowd. Our patriotism was on full display during the verse that says, “I thank God for my life, And for the stars and stripes, May freedom forever fly, let it ring. Salute the ones who died, The ones that give their lives, so we don’t have to sacrifice, All the things we love, Like our chicken fried…” The line about our appreciation for cold beer on a Friday night was also loudly applauded. It was the perfect end to a magnificent night of music.
This was a master class in concert performance, attention to detail, fan appreciation, and staying true to who you are. Musically, ZBB is flawless. Their skill level is something few would even strive for. Multiple times throughout the show, Zac thanked the fans for all they do to make what he and his band love to do, possible. He mentioned his work with Camp Southern Ground and how a portion of tickets sales goes towards that cause. The official sponsor of the tour is bai5, a health drink. That alone is a departure from the ordinary when it comes to tour sponsors. In addition, there were two things that left a lasting impression with me that sets ZBB apart from the rest. Quite simply, they seemed genuinely happy to be here. There seemed to be a true connection to the fans and the city they were playing in. More than just putting on the Nats cap and a jersey, they behaved like native sons who were very aware of their place amongst the surroundings, reverent towards its history, and respectful of what those monuments stand for. For me, the way Zac Brown ends the show is perhaps the most telling of his character. During the show, he featured his band members individually and called out their names. At the conclusion of the show, before leaving the stage, he introduced the band members, one by one, allowing for applause before moving on. He also mentioned the choir he travels with and the crew members who contribute to what they do every night. His admiration and appreciation for his fellow band members, tour members, and crew was not contrived in any way. This may not seem like a big gesture, but it’s nice to see an artist who understands that putting on a tour is not a singular effort. Bravo Zac Brown, and thanks for an exceptional night of music. As we say when the Nats are in town, that’s a winner!
THE ZAC BROWN BAND
L. to R. – Chris Fryar (drums), Clay Cook (guitar, keys), John Driskell Hopkins (guitar), Zac Brown (guitar, lead vocals), Jimmy De Martini (fiddle), Matt Mangano (bass), Daniel de los Reyes (percussion), Coy Bowles (guitar, keys).
Download Jekyll + Hyde through iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/jekyll-+-hyde/id974196236
Read the review of ZBB’s new album, Jekyll + Hyde: http://nashvillethreesixty.com/2015/04/30/zac-browns-jekyllhyde-is-a-declaration-of-musical-independence/
Visit Zac Brown Band’s website for tour information: http://www.zacbrownband.com/
Visit Camp Southern Ground’s website for ways to get involved: http://www.campsouthernground.org/
THE AVETT BROTHERS
L. to R. – Seth Avett, Scott Avett, Bob Crawford, and Joe Kwon.
Visit The Avett Brothers website: http://www.theavettbrothers.com/
ZAC BROWN BAND’S JEKYLL + HYDE TOUR IS SPONSORED BY BAI5.
Visit bai5’s website for product information: http://www.drinkbai.com/
Photos courtesy of Bill McClintic of 90 East Photography and Think Country UK.
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