The Zac Brown Band brought some Southern flair to the Saratoga Performing Arts Center on Friday night, kicking off the summer concert season in raucous and rowdy style.
For an hour and a half, the six-piece band sweated through a set heavy on country licks, funky rhythms and the occasional snatches of reggae and folk, while the sold-out crowd enthusiastically danced and drank the night away.
A few raindrops early in the evening couldn’t dampen the crowd or the band’s spirits, and the group’s sunshiny mix of sounds kept things summery long after the sun had set.
Brown and company kicked things off with the energetic “Keep Me in Mind,” immediately setting the upbeat tone that the rest of the evening would take. “Whiskey’s Gone” was even more frantic, with ample solo opportunities for fiddler Jimmy De Martini, organist Coy Bowles and mandolin and guitar player Clay Cook.
“Knee Deep” took things at a slower pace but kept spirits high with its lilting, anthemic melody. The song was the first inkling of Brown’s massive talent on the acoustic guitar, which only blossomed as the evening progressed. A brand new song from the band’s yet-to-be released new album followed, with a stark church organ giving way to haunting three-part harmonies before the whole thing exploded into one of the band’s trademark galloping country exercises.
The “band” in the name Zac Brown Band is not to be overlooked, as this tight ensemble proved over and over again. Whether it was fist-pumping, high energy anthems such as “The Wind,” another new song, or gentler, introspective songs such as the slow-building “Free” later on in the set, the band tackled each song with just the right balance of muscle and finesse.
Things came to a high point with the epic-length mid-set mash-up of “Isn’t She Lovely” and John Mayer’s “Neon”, featuring some fine Hendrix-esque guitar playing from Cook, more fleet-fingered fiddling from De Martini and, best of all, a funked-out breakdown from Brown that led into a massive finale worthy of the best jam bands.
An acoustic mid-set stretch proved to be a nice breather, as the group turned in a worthy tribute to Levon Helm with The Band’s “Ophelia.” Brown traded vocals with Cook on a fun, lighthearted acoustic take on Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion” — a surprising choice that actually worked quite well, as unusual as it might seem.
The main set climaxed with an emotional version of “Highway 20 Ride,” with the full amphitheater singing along to the slow, burning ballad. The next song featured the band members suspended mid-air, to the screams of the crowd, but nothing could have matched the emotion of the previous song.
Two singer-songwriters kicked the party atmosphere off early at 7 p.m. (if you were able to fight your way through traffic to get in on time), starting with amped-up Joan Jett sound-alike Sonia Leigh. Nic Cowan and his five-piece band, newcomers to the tour, followed up, ripping through a strong set of originals that set the mood with heavy doses of reggae, ska, country and funk. Highlights included party anthem “Hardheaded,” featuring the band’s bassist playing trumpet while laying down the bassline at the same time, and the gentler “Illumination,” which allowed Cowan to truly stretch vocally.