SPAC – “For a lot of years, I played by myself – just me and my guitar. We’re going to start out that way tonight,” said country-rock frontman Zac Brown when he came onstage at Saratoga Performing Arts Center on Thursday for his group’s Out In the Middle Tour. Alone on guitar, he launched into “Toes,” a happy-go-lucky beach tune brimming with island vibes.
Colored neon signs lit the backdrop, and a bartender set up a prop bar onstage. It was all for show, as Brown reportedly doesn’t allow band members to drink or get a buzz until after their musical responsibilities are over. Healthy living is paying off for the singer-songwriter. The band’s latest album, “The Comeback,” features the heavily tattooed frontman soaking in a river, looking buff with a black cowboy hat on his head.
Professionalism is part of what sets Brown apart from the country-music pack. He has assembled one of the most talented bands around, recruiting some of them during his early musical years in Atlanta, Georgia, including fiddler Jimmy De Martini, whose violin solo kicked off “Free” and drove a blistering cover of Charlie Daniels’ “Devil Went Down to Georgia.”
The crowd cheered bassist and vocalist John Driskell Hopkins whenever he sang. A founding member of the band, Hopkins went public in May with his diagnosis of ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Guitarist Clay Cook is another indispensable band member who first met Brown while gigging around Atlanta. Brown explained some of these connections onstage at SPAC, yet his patter was often muffled or drowned out by the din of the crowd.
Cook and a handful of Zac Brown Band members — including Hopkins, percussionist Daniel de los Reyes, and new member Caroline Jones, a singer and multi-instrumentalist – were forced to open the show in ad hoc fashion after a cancellation from gospel-funk outfit Robert Randolph and The Family Band, who posted on social media that a member of their entourage tested positive for COVID-19.
In a round-robin format, seated on stools, the band members improvised, largely playing solo versions of their own tunes. Highlights included Cook’s “No Such Thing,” which he co-wrote with John Mayer, and Hopkins’ “I Hate to See Good Whiskey Go to Waste.” “So Many Skies” was a winning number by Caroline Jones, who was Zac Brown Band’s opening act for three years before joining the band in 2021.
Although concert cancellations have become a fact of life in the COVID era, Randolph’s was an especially disappointing one. Not only is the pedal steel guitarist a singular talent, but his band and Zac Brown Band were slated to combine talents for the last third of the show — bolstered by horns and background singers. It would have been a spectacular pairing.
But as true professionals, Zac Brown Band barely let this absence show and adapted their set list accordingly. They plowed through new songs from “The Comeback,” including “Fun Having Fun,” “Wild Palomino,” “Same Boat” and the title track, as well as old hits, including “Homegrown,” “Jump Right In” and “Knee Deep.”
The centerpiece of the set was a super-medley of soul and R&B songs. Conceived as a collaboration with Robert Randolph, it was still one of the highlights of the show. Various Zac Brown Band members, all showing impressive vocal chops, took turns taking the lead on a handful of glorious retro hits, including Prince’s “Kiss,” Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke,” Bell Biv DeVoe’s “Poison” and Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up.” Sheer fun.