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DARIEN - A sold-out Darien Lake crowd welcomed the Zac Brown Band to the rural outdoor amphitheater Saturday night, as the Georgia-grown musicians enthralled an all-ages audience with a two-hour serving of earthy party groove.
With a signature sound built on solid songwriting and world-class musicianship, the septet's set was a clinic in big fun hooks, four-part harmonies, relatable lyrics and sing-along melodies, classic covers done justice, and tightly knit happy jams that make a big crowd smile, sway and howl. Like many fellow stars in the modern sounds of country-and-western, they display a wide range of influences. And unlike a lot of the schlock that shapes today's pop-country, their songs sound as if they were made to move souls before sales.
One debatable exception is their breakout hit, "Chicken Fried," which appears on the surface to be every bit pandering to the passions of the average southern American, from beer and jeans to moms and the military. Brown's deliberate approach is documented, but by the time he and his band delivered it to close an extended encore - complete with an "America the Beautiful" intro - it came off as an honest country credo from a handful of good guys who just wanna make people feel as good as they do - y'know, the ol' "three chords and the truth."
From the top of the show, Brown and his bandmates asserted their eclectic approach, opening with "Uncaged," the more-Allmans-than-Aldean title track of their fifth and latest studio album, and following with the beach anthem "Toes," which could be to the Texas Riviera what "Margaritaville" is to Florida. "It's Not OK" saw bassist John Driskell Hopkins sing brooding baritone verses over a blazing bluegrass-style beat before Brown, guitarist Clay Cook and fiddler Jimmy De Martini joined in for a harmonized chorus that gave way to a wild solo trade-off between Brown, Cook, De Martini and drummer Chris Fryar.
The ballad "As She's Walking Away," which with help from Alan Jackson won the band a 2011 Grammy, would do well at a school dance; "Ain't in No Hurry" was easy, just like Sunday morning. Cook took lead duties for a textbook take on the Marshall Tucker Band's "Can't You See," fitting because Brown plucked him from the still-touring MTB.
A certain emotional peak of the evening came during the heart-wrenching "Colder Weather." As Brown sang of his rolling-stone status stopping him from being there for his best girl, he grabbed his mic and stepped out to the catwalk for the final verse, looking out to the crowd as if he truly lived and lost the song's storyline.
Brown urged the crowd to become "the biggest choir in New York" during the breezy "Jump Right In," then brandished one of their best party beats with "Keep Me in Mind" before stripping down acoustic and inviting opening act Levy Lowrey to lead the band in his own "Wherever We Break Down," a plaintive ballad that recalled the humble, silver-lined, somber style of him and his Community House Band's opening set. Brown and company stayed seated and stripped down for a suite of Nirvana's "All Apologies," a new tune with a hook of gold in "One Day," and Aerosmith's "Sweet Emotion."
A stirring late-set serving of their chart-topper "Free" effortlessly segued into the ethereal bliss of Van Morrison's "Into the Mystic." Having reached superstardom, it seems safe to say that Zac Brown Band is poised to stay on top for a long time.