There’s something paradoxical about screaming the lyrics of a Buffet-esque ode to taking it easy at mellow-harshing volume. But don’t tell that the 1,200 or so militant back-kickers who packed at the 9:30 Club Wednesday night to declaim the chorus of “Toes” (as in, “toes in the water, ass in the sand / Not a care in the world, cold beer in my hand”) back at Georgia’s Zac Brown band. Y’alls have never been here before, have you?
Riding the wave of their No. 1 country single “Chicken Fried” — a slice of (literally) blue jeans and cold beer-venerating Americana that reads as reassuring and/or unbearably hokey in these waning days of empire — the group’s homespun sound is built around Brown’s warm, James Taylor-ific vocal timbre and Jimmy De Martini’s white-lightning fiddle. Fittingly, their 55-minute set opening for the country vocal quartet Little Big Town included a cover of the Charlie Daniels Band’s “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” though Brown later embroidered his wanderlust ballad, “Free,” with a few verses of Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic,” as if to demonstrate he has influences other than just the ones you can hear.
The result seems to land in the sweet spot between the Dave Matthews Band and Kenny Chesney. Perhaps “sweet” isn’t the word everyone would use to describe that thar spot, but it’s a big tent with room for dudes in knitted caps (like the one sported by Brown himself), dudes in ball caps, and dudes in cowboy hats. Also, women! Brown’s tendency to bathe even songs about a divorced father’s estrangement from his kids (“Highway 20 Ride”) in soothing acoustic sunshine may guarantee him a lucrative recording career (well, unless his fans from the country sphere turn out to be as enthusiastic about file-sharing as his jam-band constituency) but stunts like the De Martini-Brown fiddle-guitar duel were what elevated the band’s live show above the level of their often-generic (if well-crafted) material.
The Foundation, the group’s major-label debut, has been lodged in the Top Ten on Billboard’s country albums chart since its mid-November release, and is currently No. 39 on the Billboard 200. The band’s current lineup has been in place since 2004, honing its skills in some 200 gigs per year.
After Brown’s opening set, the 9:30 crowd seemed to thin slightly, but Little Big Town still managed to defend their headliner status despite strong competition from the undercard. Their energetic 90-minute set included slick, faithful covers of songs by their most obvious influences — those would be Fleetwood Mac (“The Chain”) and The Eagles, whose “Heartache Tonight” brought the evening to a rousing, high-fiving close. The group uses the former’s two-man, two-woman composition and the latter’s close vocal harmonies to impart their derivative material with more than enough flash and verve to keep the train rolling.
Which isn’t to suggest you could guess their every move. The group might have been dismayed by the 9:30 crowd’s refusual to quiet down for their a capella performance of “Lost,” but “Boondocks” — which pairs a hometown pride (or home-“town” pride) lyric to a made-for-the stage Appalaichain stomp — just about brought the house down. And opening their encore set with a cover of “Life in a Northern Town,” the mid-80s hit by the Dream Academy? You didn’t see that one coming.
A shorter version of this review appears in today’s Paper of Record.