Weeks before the Zac Brown Band's Wednesday night show at the Huntington Center, band member Coy Bowles told The Blade that the most impressive thing about his boss is his ability to connect with a crowd.
That gift was on full display from the moment that Brown darted from behind a curtain, sprinted to the front of the stage, and broke into “Jump Right In.”
The crowd, which packed the arena despite a strong winter storm that finished lashing the area just hours before the show, greeted Brown with a roar as the curtain dropped, revealing the remainder of his band.
It wasn't long before Brown had fans clapping and toe-tapping.
PHOTO GALLERY: Zac Brown Band plays sold-out show
He hit his stride with No. 1 hit “As She's Walking Away,” but he really delivered with the next segment that included Jimmy Buffett's “Volcano” and “Toes.” For a 10-minute period, the lousy weather and chilled bones were forgotten as images of the beach and ocean flashed across a large videoboard.
“Let's bring a little bit of the island to the snow,” Brown said.
It was one of the rare times that Brown directly addressed his fans, but his true talent is that he could connect with them with his music and his actions without saying a word.
At one point band members interrupted the show to fire T-shirts into the crowd with a slingshot and air cannon. At another, Brown took a stroll around the entire arena while singing “Keep Me in Mind.”
But he saved his best moments for when he sat on stools with his band members in a semicircle and broke into a jam session. It had a living room feel, and hearkened back to the band members' early roots in Georgia when they would play for tips and beer money.
Bowles said previously that this part of the show is unscripted, and it was a pleasant surprise to the hard-core rockers in the crowd when he started this segment with Guns-N-Roses' “Patience” and later broke into Billy Joel's “Piano Man,” complete with Brown on harmonica. The result was some of the loudest singalongs the Huntington Center has seen in a while.
There's little debate that Brown is truly one of Nashville's most gifted musicians. What he also is is very much his own man. In the early days of the band, they were openers for big names, including Alan Jackson. At some point, Brown said no more, that they were meant to be headliners, even if it meant playing for a thousand people. As evidenced by his string of sold-out shows, that hard-headedness has paid off.
But Brown also has a loyal side and a deep appreciation for his roots. Instead of using Wednesday night to promote only his own songs, Brown paid tribute to artists he admires and was influenced by. Besides Guns N'Roses, Billy Joel, and Jimmy Buffett, Brown also covered James Taylor's “Frozen Man.” And his No. 1 hit transitioned into Van Morrison's “Into the Mystic.”
He also used the night as an opportunity to promote the music of his friends. Brown likely could choose from among dozens of up-and-coming acts who would jump at the chance to open for him, but rather than stack his lineup with rising stars, the AJ Ghent Band and Levi Lowrey opened the show. Both acts are friends of the band and popular in southern rock and gospel circles, but were relatively unknown to the Toledo crowd.
Lowrey had a hand in writing ZBB's “Colder Weather” and a couple other tunes. Ghent comes from a line of famed steel guitar players, including his father Aubrey Ghent and his grandfather Harry Nelson, who is behind the “Sacred Steel” style of play used by most of today's steel guitar players.
Even though the majority of the crowd may not have been familiar with him, Ghent set the tone for the evening with amazing musicianship, leading the crowd through covers of Dobie Gray's “Drift Away,” Prince's “Purple Rain,” and Little Big Town's “Boondocks.” Strumming a 12-string lap steel guitar, his five-song set never lagged and had the vibe of a fun jam session at a local blues bar.
The energy slowed a little bit during Lowrey's six-song, 30-minute set. There's no doubting his musicianship, and he showed it off with his acoustic guitar and fiddle, but there was noticeable restlessness as he ran through a number of unfamiliar original songs.
However, there was no restlessness when Brown darted from behind a curtain at 8:45, acoustic guitar in hand. Moments later, a large curtain dropped, and his band kicked off the show with “Jump Right In.”
There weren't pyrotechnics or special effects, except for the encore when the band appeared in black-light illuminated skeleton costumes to play Led Zeppelin's “Kashmir” and Charlie Daniels' “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” But the crowd didn't need a light show. Zac Brown knew exactly what they needed on Wednesday night.
Contact Brian Dugger at: firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @DuggerCountry.