Zac Brown and his band of nimble-fingered shredders never shy away from taking risks and don't back down from broadening an already exceedingly eclectic sonic palette. And Friday night in Nashville, where — following a warm-up show Wednesday night in Tupelo, Mississippi — the band officially opened its bold and adventurous Jekyll + Hyde Tour at Bridgestone Arena, was no exception.
"Thank you for your patience throughout the evening," Brown bantered after leading his 10-piece band through an opening "Homegrown." "We've got a lot of new tricks up our sleeve."
That was an understatement. Among said tricks in the two-and-a-half-hour show: a tiered, three-story stage made of LED screens; guest appearances from the likes of Jewel, Kid Rock, Bela Fleck and up-and-coming fellow bearded-and-behatted country crooner, Drake White; covers of "Let It Be" and "Bohemian Rhapsody"; left-field forays into EDM territory; at least one fully dedicated faux show tune; and a 26-song set that featured no less than 14 of 15 cuts from Jekyll + Hyde, an album that, released last week, rivals Clash records in the amount of genres it tries to take on. Notably, the Chris Cornell collaboration, "Heavy Is the Head," was the one Jekyll track conspicuously absent from the set list.
It was an ambitious show, rife with a head-spinning variety of sounds highlighted by vivid visuals, but not necessarily the type of loose, down-home, spontaneous shred-fest ZBB faithful have come to expect. With nine stadium dates on the books — including two shows at New York's Citi Field and a three-night stand at Boston's Fenway Park — this is Brown and company's biggest tour to date, and they want to make a statement: that they want to be, and can be, a million feel-good things to a million feel-good people. But, typical of a big, bold tour kickoff, at this early stage in the jaunt they're still figuring out how to strike that balance.
Last night, ZBB's best moments weren't the big ones planned out on paper — the star-studded guest appearances, Beatles and Queen covers or stadium-ready production — but instead came when they simply just did what they do best: emotionally delivered airtight renditions of sprightly Jimmy Buffett-indebted summer jams, soaring Southern-rock stompers and lush, heartfelt ballads. Naturally, the band nailed it when handily delivering inevitable crowd-pleaser staples like "Sweet Annie," "Toes" and "Chicken Fried." And they executed Jekyll jams like the tender acoustic-turned-full-cranked power-ballad "Bittersweet" and the bouncy, confetti-cannon-featuring "Castaway" with the same confidence. Meanwhile, performances of gospel-Celtic mashup "Remedy," which featured Darrell Scott guesting on Dobro, and the breezy, blue-eyed R&B tune "Loving You Easy" were simply exquisite.
On the flipside were some more adventurous left-field moments, like the almost heroically hokey big band excursion "Mango Tree" (which, like a 6 a.m. alarm clock, jarringly interrupted a rousing arena-wide "USA! USA! USA!" chant in the wake of "Dress Blues," the Jason Isbell song Brown and guest star Jewel had just performed). Or like the transparently crossover-aiming, EDM-tinged endeavor "Beautiful Drug," which showed the band isn't quite comfortable in its new skin. . . yet.
On "Mango," Brown in crooner mode wore a nervous smirk like a first-time skydiver as he worked the stage in search of duet partner Jewel, never really finding a groove. And on "Beautiful Drug," it seemed the band was at war with its own song, battling throbbing bass loops and club-ready synths that threatened to swallow acoustic guitars and actual drums whole. That juxtaposition between processed sounds of the day and the organic tones of a traditional string band might be at the musical heart of Jekyll + Hyde, but last night it was hard to tell which side of the fence Brown and band were on.
Certainly the most adventurous moment came in the encore, when the group reclaimed the stage dressed like 1800s coal miners for an elaborate performance of "Junkyard." Hammed-up dialogue between Brown and multi-instrumentalist John Driskell Hopkins was lovably self-aware and almost purpose-built for a This Is Spinal Tap moment. They came dangerously close to such a moment when, mid-song, roadies emerged and placed connected portions of a cartoonish inflatable dragon atop band members' heads. Bandmates then tried their best to keep coordinated while making a conga line loop around the stage, before stopping and finishing the song while dancing in place.
Earlier, during the main set, the band busted out an endearingly ramshackle cover of Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody," which elicited almost as deafening a response to surprise guest Kid Rock. Rock sprinted out to lead the crowd through a campfire-like sing-along of Stephen Stills' "Love the One You're With" during a mid-show acoustic set on the B-stage. Far from perfect in execution (the fact that Rock even tried to pull off scream-singing that Stills classic in a key miles above his range is emblematic of his star-making bravado), those adventurous moments made the show.
Through it all, the band never lost the cold-beers-in-hand Friday-night crowd, and near show's end, Brown, in a tone suggesting he himself wasn't fully convinced all the new tricks were working yet, thanked his rapt fans for following the band "wherever [the] adventure takes us." And that's what's long made ZBB one of modern country's most exciting acts — they're always headed somewhere.