By Tad Dickens | 777-6474
Zac Brown Band has rolled through the Roanoke Valley as consistently as any act at the top of the country music game — about once every two years, touring behind each of the band’s three major label albums.
With that kind of consistency comes familiarity. Fans can be sure they’ll hear the hits — from 2009’s “Toes” and “Chicken Fried” to 2010’s “Colder Weather” to last year’s “Goodbye In Her Eyes.” They can be sure of such covers as Charlie Daniels’ “The Devil Went Down To Georgia” and Van Morrison’s “Into The Mystic.” And they can be sure the songs will come across strongly, aced by Brown and his six band members, all of whom get time to shine.
Maybe all of it can feel too familiar. Or maybe Friday night’s colder weather, plus a snow-dump, had sapped the collective strength of more than 7,000 at Roanoke Civic Center. Even though the band seemed on, the crowd in the sold-out venue was more laid back than expected.
But as the nearly two-hour set, including encore, drew closer to the end, Brown and his group dropped in some surprises that fired it up.
It started with an acoustic set on the catwalk that seemed about the norm until the guitar and bass patterns of Nirvana’s “All Apologies” emerged. The line “everyone is gay” is far from the norm at a big box country show, but Brown had the folks singing along.
Then John Driscoll Hopkins popped out some more crowd-pleasing notes from an unfamiliar instrument — a ukelele-sized bass guitar — and the band was laying into Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion.”
By the time Jimmy De Martini’s fiddle sawing transitioned the band from that classic rock nugget into ZBB fan favorite “Free,” with its foray into the Morrison chestnut, the crowd was wide awake and rocking.
With an encore that started with a hot percussion and drum solo, moved into Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” — with a wild-eyed Hopkins taking the lead vocal — and finished with a verse of “America The Beautiful” segueing into ZBB signature song “Chicken Fried, the Atlanta-based band kept things interesting for the faithful.
And since that first appearance, at Salem Civic Center, the faithful have been consistently supportive. The band drew 4,640 in October 2009, and 8,876 at Salem Football Stadium in May 2011. The crowd might have been a bit smaller at Roanoke Civic Center on Friday, but the venue had moved enough tickets for a sell-out, even if a few seats were empty, probably due to the snow.
As usual, Brown had his friends along. Blackberry Smoke, a Southern-rocking country band signed to Brown’s Southern Ground record label, played a 35-minute set of strong material, with the rowdy “Sleeping Dogs” and the pounding “Leave A Scar” landing best. The volume was relatively low, which was unusual given the recent trend of ear drum-rattling country concerts at the civic center. Brown’s set was considerably louder.
Levi Lowrey, who was first on the bill, is another Southern Ground artist. Lowrey, on acoustic guitar, and a bass player did four songs. The strongest was “Trying Not To Die,” an earnest number about a guy who quit taking chances. He would go on to join both Blackberry Smoke and ZBB for portions of their sets.