If you were to ask the staff at a certain Saratoga Springs wine store, the wine marketed by country musician Zac Brown is way better than the wine pushed by jam-band star Dave Matthews.
That’s just one local opinion, but the music of both artists is wildly popular every summer at Saratoga Performing Arts Center, where both play an annual stand: Matthews every July and Georgia-native Brown typically to close out the SPAC season at the end of August.
Sure enough, Z. Alexander Brown wine was available at the concession stand when Zac Brown Band returned to SPAC on Friday night for “The Owl Tour” with special guests Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real.
Fans of the charismatic country performer tend to know what they’re getting: two sets and an intermission; flashy solos by Brown’s talented band; some light-hearted, feel-good tunes balanced by serious numbers; a mini acoustic set featuring a James Taylor song; and a handful of fun covers.
That tried-and-true Zac Brown formula was in full effect to kick off a weekend of music at SPAC, which also included the farewell tours of Lynyrd Skynyrd and Peter Frampton on Saturday and Sunday.
In their first set, Zac Brown Band warmed up the crowd with some fan favorites, including the ode to small-town living, “Homegrown,” and the sun-worshiping, Jimmy Buffet-inspired “Knee Deep.”
Violinist/fiddler Jimmy De Martini is always one of the highlights of Zac Brown’s gigs, and his time to shine came three songs in, on the band’s oft-played cover of the Charlie Daniels Band’s legendary fiddle battle-off, “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.”
Wearing a black t-shirt, vintage jean jacket and his trademark weathered hat, the bearded Brown welcomed opener Lukas Nelson to the stage for a cover of the Allman Brothers’ “Whipping Post,” which churned to an epic conclusion after a frenzied solo from guitarist Coy Bowles.
Brown’s mid-set acoustic turn featured James Taylor’s “Sweet Baby James,” selected by a little girl from Ballston Spa who spun a wheel of chance to determine the number; Jason Isbell cover “Cover Me Up”; and beach ballad “Toes.” His new song, “Leaving Love Behind,” was a tear-jerker written about his 2018 divorce.
After an intermission, highlights of the second set included “Someone I Used to Know,” the uplifting “Beautiful Drug,” nostalgic love song “Sweet Annie,” and crowd-favorite “Free/Into the Mystic.”
After a dueling guitar-solo contest by Bowles and his excellent guitar compatriot Clay Cook, the encore was all about the covers, including ‘80s rock-glam throwbacks “Hot for Teacher” (Van Halen) and “Pour Some Sugar on Me” (Def Leppard).
The night ended with fiddler De Martini seemingly in his element as he ripped out the vocals to Rage Against the Machine’s aggro-anthem “Bulls on Parade.”
Fresh off a stint opening for the Rolling Stones, Lukas Nelson opened the show with his 13-year-old band Promise of the Real.
The son of country legend Willie Nelson, Lukas has rib-length brown hair like his dad and a touch of his father’s nasally voice.
“Not too far from here, a magical thing happened. A lot of young people got together to celebrate peace and love,” Nelson said before a cover of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s “Carry On/Questions,” a highlight of the opening set.
Nelson and his band have a rollicking sound, part rowdy roots-rock and part carefree country. Other highlights of the well-received opening set included “Civilized Hell,” a song about “badass” women, and up-tempo blues-rockers “Find Yourself” and “Something Real.”