Lookin' sharp, Zac.
Lookin' sharp, Zac.
Photos by Marco Torres

Zac Brown Band Chicken-Fries Up Rodeo Fun

Zac Brown Band NRG Stadium March 12, 2015

In the decade since they first surfaced in the country-music mainstream with 2005's "Chicken Fried," as down-home a finger-lickin' tune as you can download, the Zac Brown Band has now played the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo five times. Actually make that five in a row, putting the Atlanta-based octet on the fast track to someday having its bootprints enshrined in the rodeo's "Star Trail of Fame"; right alongside their "As She's Walking Away" duet partner Alan Jackson.

Thursday night at NRG Stadium, the ZBB gave the second-largest crowd of the 2015 rodeo season a taste of what the national TV audience of Saturday Night Live got last weekend. Yes, it tasted like chicken, but Brown and his nimble bandmates can rearrange their sound as many ways as there are to prepare that noble flightless bird for the dinner table. No matter the flavor, all of them were delicious.

But if the band has a "home" position (pardon the pun), it's the song they opened with on SNL and again Thursday, the new "Homegrown" -- comfort-food acoustic-based country that and makes generous use of fiddle player Jimmy de Martini's abundant talents while celebrating the simple pleasures of pretty girls, small towns and fireside nips of whiskey. They can do old-timey hoedowns where the feathers fly in more than just the lyrics ("Sic 'Em On a Chicken"), lighthearted blue-eyed soul where Brown's uncanny resemblance to James Taylor really steps to the forefront ("Keep Me In Mind"), or heartsick balladry full of luminescent harmonies ("Colder Weather"). In the sun-splashed subgenre of made-in-the-shade beach-country ("Toes"), they're as skilled as Kenny Chesney and godfather Jimmy Buffett, with whom they met their match in the 20 torch-passing 2011 hit "Knee Deep."

Zac Brown Band Chicken-Fries Up Rodeo Fun

And that's just the band's softer side. If they have a notion, the ZBB can also get pretty deep and dark too. The other song they played on SNL, "Heavy Is the Head," is a foreboding bit of Southern grunge not terribly far removed from latter-day Alice In Chains. A few songs before that Thursday, they got a huge pop from the crowd when they played the opening chords of Metallica's "Enter Sandman," with brusque-voiced bassist John Driskell Hopkins taking over lead vocals and Brown assuming the "now I lay me down to sleep..." part. They also straight-up nailed the myriad pieces of Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody," from the solemn piano chords and a cappella chorale of the introduction to the mock-opera middle section and headbangers-ball coda.

It was interesting to think that most of the youthful-looking audience probably knew the song more from Wayne's World than, well, the '70s, but no moreso than the thought that one of the few true contemporary stadium-rock bands in the U.S. is nominally a country act. However, "Heavy Is the Head" (featuring Soundgarden's Chris Cornell), is being added by some active-rock stations, so start phoning those 94.5 The Buzz request lines now and check back in a few weeks.

Story continues on the next page.

Zac Brown Band Chicken-Fries Up Rodeo Fun

Also of note Thursday was the breathtaking "Dress Blues," ex-Drive By Trucker and Americana idol Jason Isbell's 2007 salute to a fallen veteran, killed overseas not long after reaching the legal drinking age. Already on the short list of best songs ever written about the second Iraq war, the ZBB blew it up into a mural-size tableau of poignancy and weariness that leeched out some (but not all) of the bitterness from Isbell's original. If there's any justice left in the music industry, they could have another No. 1 single on their hands soon -- making it a direct line to their first, "Chicken Fried," which also contains a shout-out to our men and women in uniform.

So what we have here is a group that is not only a peachy-keen country band, or a rock band to be reckoned with, but above all a band that sells tickets by the truckload, and rightfully so. And not just at RodeoHouston, but at venues like Washington state's Gorge Amphitheater and the friendly confines of Chicago's Wrigley Field. To think that the takeaway from Thursday night's performance could have just been, "Hey...what happened to that guy's skullcap?"

Zac Brown Band Chicken-Fries Up Rodeo Fun

Personal Bias: Southern by the grace of God.

The Crowd: Young. Hungry. (Announced attendance: 72,602.)

Overheard In the Crowd: "You have nacho breath."

Random Notebook Dump: Hopkins' mutton-chop mustache was truly a sight to behold.

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