Down on Brown
Concert ducats are expensive these days (thanks, Ticketmaster!) so it’s refreshing when a band tries its hardest to reconcile the experience with the price of admission. The Zac Brown Band attempted this very feat on Nov. 16 at Syracuse University’s Carrier Dome. Yet what was meant to be a rolling celebration of modern country music came off like laughable burlesque—an unintentionally comedic tale of a great American music form in saddening decline.
The evening began with a four-song set from Georgian singer-songwriter Levi Lowrey. Raspy, bearded, and sedate, Lowrey looked like a road-worn busker on stage, as he and guitarist Danny McAdams doled out snippets of stripped-down classic country. Lowrey’s closing number “All American,” a free-verse narrative reminiscent of Shel Silverstein’s “A Boy Named Sue,” was one of the night’s few highlights.
Next on stage were the Atlanta-based Southern rawkers Blackberry Smoke, who went all backwoods a la This Is Spinal Tap. Singer-guitarist Charlie Starr (no offense, Ringo) tried out his Chris Robinson impression on the cowboy hat-clad New Yorkers that packed the Dome. The hair was there, but not the voice.
The band’s songs, most from their latest album The Whippoorwill (Southern Ground, Brown’s label), were stale blues-rock clichés. “Six Ways to Sunday” and “One Horse Town” were just about unbearable. And while Starr, who actually has nice chops, slung on an acrylic electric guitar for a cover of the Allman Brothers’ “Midnight Rider,” nothing special happened.
Zac Brown and crew went on around 9 p.m. and played 23 songs. The hits were there, as “Toes,” “Knee Deep,” “Cold Weather” and “Chicken Fried” all drew rousing audience approval and unfortunate public displays of dance. The band also pulled off nice covers of Nirvana’s “All Apologies” and the Steve Miller Band’s “Space Cowboy.” Fiddle player Jimmy De Martini played like a man possessed during a cover of the Charlie Daniels standard “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.”
Aside from an ill-advised take on John Mayer’s “Neon,” the music was solid. It was the spirit that seemed to be missing. All of it felt so fake. Halfway through the performance, in fact, Brown loaded up a T-shirt gun and shot merchandise into the audience for around 10 minutes.
Promotional merchandise was everywhere. Jack Daniels lorded over the entire show, as whiskey barrels lined the stage and huge Jack banners hung from metal crowd barriers. There were multiple set changes and a grating, obviously planned percussion solo featuring rapper and Zac Brown collaborator Massif. Also, you could enter win Toby Keith’s Ford F-150.
Nashville’s disgusting need for commercial gratification was on full display. Sell tickets, expand demographics, forget tradition: Such is the new, more appropriate motto for this thing we call modern country music. It’s a shame the Zac Brown Band has been sucked into the void.