Earlier this year I got a chance to see the Zac Brown Band at The Joint in the Hard Rock Casino in Las Vegas. I have to admit I was completely blown away by their performance.
The group places musicality at the forefront of their act with five part harmonies and orchestration that is reminiscent of the early Eagles. They intertwine their chart topping hits with an eclectic mix of covers that lesser bands would drop after they emerged from the bar circuit. During that first performance, I heard a little Zeppelin, Stevie Wonder, Dave Matthews Band and Rage Against the Machine. I have since argued that the Zac Brown Band may be the best “musician” band out touring.
Earlier this week I found out the group was returning to Vegas to play the much, much, larger MGM Grand Garden Arena and I had to go. For one, I enjoyed their first concert so much that I wanted to see them again in the same year. Second, I wanted to see if they could handle a crowd of 15,520* compared to the Hard Rock’s 4,300 capacity*. I had recently watched a master of larger stadiums, Billy Joel, kill the room with a spectacular show and was anxious to see how Zac would captivate such a large audience.
Not surprisingly, Zac did it by showcasing the entire group’s superior musicality. Out of the gate, they played the up tempo hit Whiskey’s Gone with an extreme focus on tightness. A few moments later the group had burned through Uncaged, Kashmir by Led Zeppelin and then introduced a pumped crowd to fiddler Jimmy de Martini with a bad ass rendition of The Devil Went Down to Georgia.
It was amazing, it was tight and it sounded so good, but, YAWN, I had heard it before. It was the same opener from their performance at the Hard Rock that year. I knew that if the group tried doing the same show as the Hard Rock it would fail. A bigger audience needs something more and when your show is on the strip in Vegas it better have the ability to cut through the noise of the horde of million dollar Cirque and headliner shows in the immediate area.
I started to lose confidence, but the band’s musicality, combined with the fact that five part harmonies leave a puddle in my seat, kept me from falling off the edge. It was enough to hold me over until the rock stopped and the mood changed. The group broke from their amplified instruments and took center stage seated on four lonely bar stools. From this configuration that resembled a writer’s night at Nashville’s famed Blue Bird Café, they broke into a set that included a powerful rendition of Dan Fogelberg’s classic Leader of the Band, a new cover of Under the Bridge by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the group’s classic Toes and a closer that knocked me out of my seat…Piano Man by Billy Joel before they broke for a ten minute intermission.
After the intermission, the group returned to Let it Rain and my personal Z.B. favorite Goodbye in Her Eyes, which was followed by Metallica’s Enter Sandman and a lot of confused audience members who thought they attended a “country” show. The musicality and covers didn’t stop for the rest of the night. There were Z.B. hits like Knee Deep and Cold Weather combined with classics by James Brown and the Temptations among others. The group closed out with their, make you wiggle your butt, hit Jump Right In.
I have to say, Zac Brown’s performance was spectacular. However, I found that the overall presentation was a tad bit lacking, especially in their lighting design. The team did have some great ideas. At times they dropped scrim curtains in front of the stage and lit them with video. This created some cool effects in Let It Rain and the intro to Day for the Dead, but the lighting design was weak. It rarely followed the tempo, theme or mood of the song and in my opinion could have been done much better. On numerous occasions I wondered if the lighting operator had ever heard a Z.B. tune as things just didn’t line up.
They did redeem themselves on the encore opener, Day for the Dead, where they lit the stage in a cool vibrant blue wash and accented the band, who were in full dead costume, with neon emphasis. I wish they had spent this amount of time for the entire show. Some may argue that this is not needed, but in Vegas you have to go big or go home, a lesson Elvis learned during his first round in the city.
I really don’t think anyone else noticed the minor flaws of their lighting design. The group hid them well with their extreme musicianship. At the end of the evening, they broke into the full version of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, a tune that 90% of today’s bands can’t pull off because they lack the vocal harmonies and musical prowess to facilitate. But Zac and his troubadours could and did…very well.
They closed the night with their chart-smashing hit Chicken Fried. During the verse of “I thank god for my life…and for the stars and stripes…may freedom forever fly, let it ring,” two full dressed marines marched onto center stage to be welcomed by a roaring standing ovation. They stood like statues through the lyrics “salute the ones who died…the ones that give their lives…so we don’t have to sacrifice…all the things we love,” as the crowd cheered on in a moment where everything seemed just fine with America.
All in all, Zac Brown had won me over again. They proved that they can rock any room, be it 4,300 or 15,520. Why? Because they place a high value on musicianship, and when that is at the peak of its game Nothing Else Matters.
Hey Zac, cover that Metallica tune, would you?
You can check out the entire set-list from Zac’s MGM Performance here.
*Figures from Pollstar.