Of all of pop-country’s presumed heirs apparent to the Jimmy Buffett chaise throne, none are more effectively selling the blue-collar everyman on a perpetual vacation vibe than Zac Brown is right now.
He spins No. 1 singles out of colloquialisms and good intentions that seem both effortless and obvious, augmented to megahit status by the kind of intrepid live reputation that is conferred to jam-heavy predecessors like the Dave Matthews Band or Widespread Panic. Unlike those associations, the Zac Brown Band’s ever-growing gaggle of fans arrive at its shows with a set of clearly defined expectations, most immediately among them are the hits. There hasn’t been a full set lacking the vacationer anthem “Toes” or the band’s earnest but kitschy breakthrough hit “Chicken Fried” since the former was released in 2009, and that wasn’t about to change when country music’s top working band came to the Greensboro Coliseum on Saturday.
“Working” remains the operative descriptor for Brown’s six-piece unit, as they toiled to scale down the crowd of nearly 14,000 to something of a friendly barroom gathering. Midway through their 25-song set, the huge lighting rig went dim as they huddled up center stage for an unreleased tune, the gently rocking “One Day,” with percussionist Daniel de los Reyes down from his perch and tapping out the rhythm on a cajon next to his seated bandmates.
Earlier on, Brown turned the mic over to ever-stoic bassist John Driskell Hopkins for the Commander Cody approximate “It’s Not OK,” not at all happenstance that Hopkins just re-released the song on his solo debut backed by Asheville bluegrass group Balsam Range. There’s undoubtedly agency among the band’s entire membership, and Brown isn’t subtle in expressing it. The Zac Brown Band hasn’t quite fashioned the kind of dyed-in-thewool set of clockwork staples that Buffett enjoys (or belabors, depending on your vantage point), but with every prescribed show closer of “Chicken Fried” or sweeping uptick of “Free” into Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic,” he gets a little closer to forming a canon.
It’s the more unexpected elements of its shows, however, that differentiates it from the strict Big Country vernacular, as Brown gives as much stage time to an ever-growing repertoire of cover songs as he does his originals. The first of which on Saturday was a veritable free-for-all on the Marshall Tucker Band’s “Can’t You See,” which included guest guitar work from opener Blackberry Smoke’s Charlie Starr. As the ZBB logo overhead bore an uncanny resemblance to that of MTB, Starr’s own stick-straight blonde hair (and method of soloing) recalled one of the Allman clan itself. The lead was kicked around like a bean bag as the band still seems hesitant to go full jam, though they never seem to resist the characterization.
Though their acknowledgements of influences were sincere, things on that front got a little worse before they got better, with a “One Love” bar pulling up lame in the midst of an otherwise harmless “Where the Boat Leaves From.” Hopkins, born with the most metal of growls but destined for country, redeemed. His lead was deadon for Metallica’s “Enter Sandman,” which kicked off jukebox hour to include especially good takes on Sweet’s “Fox On the Run” and Nirvana’s “All Apologies,” in which Jimmy De Martini’s fiddle was as far flung from the Seattle minor key as one would hope.
Like the Chesneys and McGraws of his idiom, Brown isn’t exactly immune to the pitch bug. He thanked a well-known distiller of spirits for sponsoring this large, ostensibly successful gathering of ZBB fans, many of whom reflected his very look of beard, plaid and (sometimes unseasonable) beanie. While he’s not bombarding fans with truck commercials at length in the middle of his show like Toby Keith, or emblazoning the Cracker Barrel logo on an overhead projection screen like George Jones, Brown will eventually reach a crossroads like Buffett did. He can remain the sun-kissed, goodhearted busker with a slight perma-buzz, or be the insufferable peddler of bad beer and even worse franchise concepts — think chicken-fried everything and free beanies for the kids. The safe bet is on Brown and his band remaining the working-class heroes. It’s hard enough to please everyone, but they’re doing as good job of it as anyone.