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Review: Zac Brown Band jams up a diverse night of WE Fest music

Zac Brown kicks out a solo during his WE Fest performance Saturday night in Detroit LAkes, Minn. Brian Basham / Forum News Service

DETROIT LAKES, Minn. ­– Saturday was a microcosm of what the main stage at WE Fest has become over the past few years. The finale of the three-day country festival featured honky tonk (Travis Tritt), pop country (Thompson Square) and hard rock country (Brantley Gilbert).

Headliner Zac Brown Band added a whole different dimension to the lineup by being the first country jam band to play WE Fest.

It’s hard to label the group, though they've landed eight No. 1 tunes on the country chart and won a number of awards in country categories. But the seven-piece was just as comfortable playing bluegrass, Southern rock, Caribbean riffs and even a faithful rendition of Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” – albeit with fiddle – Saturday night. If that didn’t have you second guessing how strictly country Zac Brown Band is, the 15-minute jam probably did.

The other thing that really sets the group apart is that they are a group. Zac Brown may be the lead singer, songwriter and a heck of a guitarist, but there was plenty of time to let each member shine, something that’s not often seen in country.

After opening with the whirlwind bluegrass blast, “Whiskey’s Gone” and the also energetic “Uncaged,” the spotlight started moving around. Keyboardist Coy Bowles took over lead vocals for a cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir,” which bled into “Devil Went Down to Georgia.” Naturally fiddler Jimmy DeMartini was featured, but drummer Chris Fryar got more than his fill with a solo, and Brown stepped up with some blistering picking himself. 

Bassist John Driskell Hopkins switched to guitar and took lead vocals on “It’s Not OK.” Neither Bowles or Hopkins have Brown’s polished pitch (think James Taylor crossed with Alabama), but it’s great to hear different voices sing such wildly different songs. It’s hard to imagine Brown singing “Enter Sandman,” but Hopkins’ lower, rougher delivery fit the bill, and the crowd ate it up.    

That same crowd that was headbanging one song was swaying the next to the beautifully sad, “Colder Weather.”

The band may touch on different genres musically, but they harmonize splendidly, particularly on “As She’s Walking Away” and “Sweet Annie.” Similarly, the musicians have a great knack for melody, from “Goodbye in Her Eyes” to the poppy “Keep Me in Mind.”

If they indeed fall into the country category, you could consider them in the Jimmy Buffett/Kenny Chesney camp, as they definitely have a thing for beach tunes like “Knee Deep” and “Toes.”

And they will never be a typical country band – which made them so much fun for the WE Fest finale. The group got into the spirit of the full moon above and returned for an encore dressed in black-lit skeleton costumes to play “Day for the Dead.” They kept things eerie with a spot-on version of Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb,” complete with an eloquently expressive solo by guitarist Cook.

Less of a surprise was their closing number, their signature hit, “Chicken Fried.” At 12:30 a.m. and after nearly 12 hours of music, fans still jumped and danced for the plucky number. 

Brown signed off saying he hoped to be back if invited. Organizers would be well-advised to take him on his word and have him return for another night of high energy music, heavenly harmonies and enough surprises to keep music fans sticking around at the end of a long day.