“We’re going to take them on a journey all over the place,” says Zac Brown on Friday September 25, a mere hour before taking the stage at a sold-out Wembley Arena. “Take them way down, take them way up and make them go nuts, and then bring them back down.” A good four hours later, following a set that included material from their first three albums, new record JEKYLL + HYDE, and covers of Bohemian Rhapsody and Under the Bridge, it’s fair to say that Zac and his band met that expectation, and perhaps more accurate to say that they exceeded it.
The reason for this is that the Zac Brown Band, particularly in this current phase in their careers, are undoubtedly one of the most creative acts in country, remaining unfettered by creative restraints in spite of their mainstream commercial success. A commitment to trusting their instincts has inspired their most ambitious album to date, which claims influences from rock, pop, and more unexpected genres such as EDM.
The response to this has been predictably mixed. The aptly-named JEKYLL + HYDE certainly isn’t a collection for those who only like country, though Zac shrewdly notes that most music fans have varied interests. “It was the best collection of songs that we’ve written,” he says, justifying the plan to mix things up. “Each song has its own life and decided what it wanted to be. Within the 16 songs there’s a whole album like someone would expect from us, and then there’s seven songs that are us adventuring and doing the other styles that we’d like to play. The live show has always reflected the versatility that’s on this album, but we’ve never previously released an album with that in mind.”
You very much get the impression that the Zac Brown Band doesn’t set out with a strictly defined agenda before getting down to recording new material. Zac confirms this, adding, “We never know what we’re going to do until we start doing it. Like I said, each song is born and it has its own identity. You’ve gotta figure out what kind of dress it wants to wear.” This attitude towards expression clearly filters down into the ZBB repertoire. “To be the same kind of music every time is a bit like if you were an actor, and you had to play the exact same role in every single thing,” says Zac; “And for us we have a cast; we have an orchestra and a company, so we decide ‘this song is best backed up by a big band sound, like a Sinatra theme, or it’s best backed with a rock theme.’ It really has no rules to it.”
The acting comparison is a neat one, and the Zac Brown Band can be applauded for avoiding typecasting in a genre that offers more than ample airtime to lyrics centred on trucks, booze and girls in denim shorts. Instead, Zac’s going for something broader and more insightful. “To me it’s about, ‘does this song have integrity? Does it achieve what it’s trying to do? Does it make them feel something?’ Music should make people feel something. Whether it makes them feel joy, or [feel like they] want to jump around. Whether it makes them thrash or tie with their emotion. Does the song connect? That’s what we try to do.”
The quest for new and relevant influences has taken Zac and his band to some unexpected places, including SKRILLEX AND DIPLO PRESENT JACK 0. “That record’s unbelievable,” he says. “I love the world sounds that are in it, but in an electronic format. So I’ve been listening to and studying a lot of electronic music, studying what makes people move, and what I like about it.” This doesn’t mean that Zac has forgotten about his roots, however, as he cites Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton and Kasey Musgraves as major influences. “Our taste for music is very diverse,” he adds. “There are people within each one of those pockets that are incredible, and that’s what I’m drawn to.”
You might be wondering how the band decides which influences to represent on their albums. The process, as Coy Bowles explains, starts with a simple discussion. “We influence each other,” says Coy, “and we’re always texting each other saying ‘check out this video, check out this new tune.’ Then we start writing tunes and it’ll be a guitar riff or a drum beat or a vocal line that’s reflective of what we’ve been listening to. It’s all over the place and it’s never in just one genre ever.”
The next question you might ask, regarding the mishmash of approaches on JEKYLL + HYDE, ‘is does it work?’ That one’s open to debate. For the iTunes generation it’s a surefire winner.
Deselect a few tracks that you don’t like and you’re left with a great album that should still be pretty lengthy. However, listening on a CD offers some jarring shifts in gear. For instance there’s a major jolt from the warm country tones of Homegrown, to the A swing sound of Mango Tree, and then to the hard rocking riot that is Heavy Is The Head. At other points in the album there’s Tomorrow Never Comes, which appears to borrow from chart-friendly dance music, offering some great crossover appeal; then there’s opening track Beautiful Drug, which bears the EDM influence. It’s an album with some great moments but in terms of coherence, for those who want it, it’s all over the place. £
“The reviews we’ve received that are poor were all saying ‘this is not country’,” says Zac, addressing the criticism of what is, nonetheless, a very good album. “We’ve never said that we’re just a country band. For us we’re establishing ourselves as artists, and that’s a battle we talk about a lot. People are used to diversity. People don’t just like one thing anymore, and we’re very unique in our ability to pull off all the different things. I think that’s one of the greatest strengths that we have.” And as for country? “We don’t want to abandon any of the people who love country because we still do that and we do that very well,” he continues. “We want to also gain more listenership and fans, and people who really appreciate the craft of music.”
In terms of the live show, Wembley Arena responded well to the varied set it was treated to. The 20 minute riffing session in the second half of the show, however, seemed to drag on a little; a shame considering the impressive talent and variation on display. At other points the crowd seemed unsure of how to react, yet all 4 would probably agree that it had been a night well spent.
The talent on show and the Wembley gig perhaps serve as a signpost for the position the band is in. Zac is a natural frontman, and Coy is a man of many talents and more than capable of owning the stage himself. Jimmy De Martini’s work on the fiddle, especially during a cover of The Devil Went Down To Georgia, was an absolute masterclass throughout, and his backing vocals, particularly throughout the highs and lows of Bohemian
Rhapsody, were terrific. John Driskell Hopkins is another great artist and natural showman; his scats and vocal contributions brought a cheerful dimension to the performance. Then there’s the frantic and on-point drumming of Chris Fryar, with Daniel De Los Reyes backing him up on percussion. Clay Cook, meanwhile, offered deft support behind the keyboard, while the band’s newest member, Matt Mangano, worked solidly on bass guitar.
With such a talented group, which seems to possess creativity in spades (if creativity can be said to come by the spadeful), you can see how an album like JEKYLL + HYDE came to be. These guys are adventurous and still want to do what they do for the love of it. I think that’s why the new material isn’t neatly packaged as a country album, or a pop album, or a rock album. This is going to split opinion but I’d contend that they’ve moved in the right direction, considering that they want to push boundaries and satisfy the musical inclinations of each and every member.
I’d also resist the accusations, made in some of the gloomier corners of the internet’s many murky comment sections, that the band has sold out. Zac hasn’t necessarily done himself any favours with recent comments to Rolling Stone saying that he “wants to gain new market,” and there are some who will be understandably suspicious of such wording. Regardless, I’d say there’s far more driving this band than commercial and financial riches. The band wants more people to listen to their music and their live show pays testament to all that they do. Sure, there’s electronic backing and bright lights, but the act that backs this up is genuine. It should also be pointed out that the Zac Brown Band could have simply trotted out an unambitious country album and raked it in. Instead, they’ve created something unique.
A final, and somewhat unrelated point to make, is that the band is about as friendly as you could hope for them to be. Every member of staff to have met them at Wembley Arena had good things to say. “It’s about knowing what matters,” says Zac when I ask how he stays grounded. “We’re connected and really family-orientated too,” adds Coy. “Your family’s going to keep you in check; all of us still hang out with our parents a lot and we have families of our own. Being family focused is one of the things that keeps you grounded.” Zac chimes in again: “The whole organisation is built on respect and love. For our music and what we do, and for our fans.”
Any talk of ‘markets’ notwithstanding, I don’t find it hard to believe that Zac and the band are anything other than fully committed to their art. “We’ll try to move the crowd as much as we can and make them feel like one of us,” says Zac before he departs for the warm-up set. “For one night we’re unified with them and we don’t want to settle until we’re all entirely connected in that show. It takes a few songs to get it to that point, but we’re going to get them tonight.” Ian Horne www. zacbrownband.com.
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