When Zac Brown brought his father on stage after a heartfelt rendition of Highway 20 Ride — a song about an absent father who was on the road trying to make ends meet, a song written about the man standing next to him, a man he ‘only saw on weekends‘ — I couldn’t help but get chills. This wasn’t some gimmick. This song wasn’t written to win a Grammy. This was real life stuff. When Brown performed I Play The Road, a song to dedicated to his wife and mother of his four children, you could see the regret of history repeating itself in his eyes, and also the joy of achieving a level of success his father never did. The Zac Brown Band were on top of their game on their first night of two sold-out shows at Red Rocks and I couldn’t think of a better way to close out the summer season. On that note, I have some explaining to do.
On a certain night, in a certain condo, in a certain Summit County town, I got into an argument with a friend about Zac Brown Band. We were talking about the state of country music today and we were heavily intoxicated. My argument was that popular/bubblegum country sucks and that bands like Lucero, Drive-By Truckers and Glossary and guys like Ryan Bingham and Jamey Johnson were the future. She mentioned she liked Zac Brown Band and I lost it. I argued that they didn’t write their own songs, were the products of a dead industry and that songs like Chicken Fried represent everything wrong with country today. There would be no changing my mind. Of course, if you know Zac Brown Band, you know none of those arguments were based on fact (except for that Chicken Fried song, I’m sticking by that), in fact most of them were just plain untrue. I based all my points off the single song I had heard by the band and the fact that they won all these awards and just seemed corporate to me. It wasn’t until recently I heard the song Colder Weather and decided this band might not be so bad after all. So I did some reading about their history and listened to their two recent albums and I realized I wouldn’t mind seeing these guys live.
So here I am, throwing myself off Pretentiousness Pike onto my own sword and admitting that Zac Brown Band are very good at what they do. Sure, this is popular country and it’s never going to be my favorite genre, but I am going to come out and say I am sorry for all the negative things I have said about this band and even go as far as to say their ballads live up to the songs I loved in the early 90’s — songs from modern country singers like Travis Tritt, Clint Black, Alan Jackson and (early) Garth Brooks. This one is for you Krischel, you were right, I was wrong.
‘Life is good today‘ As Zac Brown and his band looked out at the 9,450 faces looking back at them, they couldn’t help but feel on top of the world. Having just headlined the Labor Day Festival in Snowmass the night before, they rode Harley’s over Independence Pass to Morrison where they would be recording a live DVD and a music video for Who Knows. Not only that, Zac‘s wife was there to see her husband perform two sold-out nights at ‘the world’s most beautiful venue‘. Being no stranger to Red Rocks, the band came out with a confidence usually reserved for artists in their golden years. The stage setup was the perfect balance between modern technology (four or five screens with various images from light bulbs to footage of the band) and the natural beauty of the rocks themselves. In fact, I don’t think I have ever seen the rocks lit up quite like they were last night. I am guessing this was for the benefit of the DVD, but it really added something special to the experience of those in attendance.
By the time the band took the stage at 9:15pm the crowd was ready to go. Nic Cowan and Sonia Leigh warmed everyone up, highlighting songs they had co-wrote with Zac Brown, but it was the Fat Tires,Coors Lights, Mike’s Hard Lemonades and other icy cold beverages that really had the urban-cowboy clad crowd on their feet (some of them barely). The set started out with the Jimmy Buffett-inspired Knee Deep and without pause went into a tight rendition of As She’s Walking Away — so tight you almost didn’t realize Alan Jackson wasn’t up there with them. John Driskell Hopkins’ voice isn’t something I have come around to yet, but It’s Not Ok brought everything back up after the heartbreaker.
The Zac Brown Band consisted of seven people on stage. Percussion and keys were on platforms above and behind the strings up front. Brown performs most vocals himself, and he is the best vocalist, but Clay Cook‘s version of The Band’s The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down proved he has the pipes to compete with the best of them. It wasn’t until after No Hurry that they took a break from the jam to interact with the crowd on a personal level. Highlighting their newly signed partnership with Jack Daniels and complimenting us on our ‘beautiful‘ venue, they took us away from the Rockies and to Where The Boat Leaves From, a place we stayed until the Whiskey’s Gone.
There was the (somewhat) common acknowledgement and thanks for ‘hard to come by/hard earned’ money spent on the show, before ironically going into a song called Free. Of course, this was a different kind of ‘free’ they were singing about, the type of free that allows a band like this to transition from a country ballad into Van Morrison‘s Into The Mystic like it was just meant to be that way.
A highlight of the night came with ‘the first new song from the new album‘ — a preview of a song called Sweet Annie. A ballad concerning late nights, bartenders and getting older ‘when my bark loses its bite‘. The song had a false start with no guitar, but they started it over to make it work for the DVD. Great song and should have everyone looking forward to the next album. Keeping with the ‘peaks and valleys’ concept, they carried us back up the mountain with the rockin’ Who Knows and an appropriate cover of Charlie Daniels‘ The Devil Went Down To Georgia.
I had been waiting for Colder Weather the whole night and while it was amazing (whenever you namedrop Colorado in a song at Red Rocks it’s going to resonate), it was the one-two kick in the gut of the aforementioned I Play The Road and Highway 20 Ride that made the night for me. I could have left happy after that, and shortly thereafter we did.
Originally I was taking my wife and daughter to Aspen for the Labor Day Festival this weekend, but I injured my back and had to cancel the trip. This is why we found ourselves at Zac Brown Band at Red Rocks last night. I just needed to get out of the house and take my family to do something. So after Colder Weather, when the band started on a cover song/jam session that took Stevie Wonder‘s Isn’t She Lovely to insane lengths, it was time to go. My daughter was falling asleep, my wife was tired from running the Boulder Marathon earlier in the day and my back was hurtin’ pretty good. But honestly, the main reason we left is because I cannot stand jam bands! And that is something I will NEVER apologize for!
On the way to the car, it was obvious they had brought it back around and the audience was singing along with hits like Toes, Whatever It Is and (of course) Chicken Fried. As we took that walk to the car, listening to the music swirling around in the warm breeze, echoing off the rocks, I couldn’t help but feel this really was the end of summer and all you have to do is walk out your front door today to know I was right.
As She’s Walking Away
It’s Not Ok
The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down
Where The Boat Leaves From / Crazy Love / Islands In The Stream
Free / Into the Mystic
The Devil Went Down to Georgia
I Play The Road
Highway 20 Ride
Keep Me In Mind
Can’t You See
Isn’t She Lovely
* show went on for quite a few more songs
images from a perfect night at Red Rocks, click for full size…