Zac Brown

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It’s a fair bet that, for the throngs of punters who braved the ever-present threat of rain to catch Zac Brown Band’s headlining set at Bluesfest in the Byron Bay hinterland this March, the Georgia act’s clear devotion to all things sand and surf was the defining feature of their set. Guest appearances from both Jack Johnson and G Love can only have underscored the feeling. The band’s rendition of breakout hit and laid-back summer anthem ‘Toes’ translated perfectly in the subtropical setting, as did the Caribbean warmth of new number ‘Castaway’. The latter track sums up that most familiar of ZBB’s inspirations in a single line: ‘I’m in an island state of mind – I think I’m never gonna leave.’

But the band’s performance also foreshadowed a change in the wind. A handful of songs hinted – albeit subtly – at the palpably rock-stacked sounds the band were then preparing to unleash with forthcoming record Jekyll + Hyde. Both a Led Zeppelin cover and a strikingly faithful rendition of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ spoke volumes.

Jekyll + Hyde is the fourth major label long-player for the 2010 CMA Award winners and favourite sons of Atlanta, GA. The album undeniably delivers on Brown’s own promise – made to Rolling Stone Country late last year – that the eight-piece outfit’s “…boundaries have dissolved and we’re going to still do things that are somewhat familiar that people like, but we’re also going to stretch out and take chances beyond what we’ve done before. Some people are going to be really surprised.”

Acknowledged festival drawcards, Saturday Night Live alumni, and the progenitors of global smash hit ‘Chicken Fried’, Zac Brown Band have certainly earned the right to branch out with their sound. The group – consisting of anchorman Brown, fiddler Jimmy De Martini, multi-instrumentalists John Driskell Hopkins and Clay Cook, guitarist/keyboardist Coy Bowles, drummer Chris Fryar, bassist (and 2014 newcomer) Matt Mangano, and percussionist Daniel de los Reyes – live a charmed life. They’ve sold more than seven million records, earned three platinum album certifications – including triple-platinum accreditation for major label debut The Foundation – totted-up a string of twelve No. 1 singles, and turned out a Greatest Hits collection and two live albums.

Recorded in part at Driskell Hopkins’ own Brighter Shade Studio, the band’s major label debut The Foundation (Atlantic, 2008) was a laid-back, roots-inspired smash. Follow-up You Get What You Give spawned radio favourites such as ‘Knee Deep’ (featuring, fittingly, Jimmy Buffett) and ‘No Hurry’, while third album Uncaged (2012) impressed with feel-good hits ‘Jump Right In’, ‘The Day that I Die’, and ‘The Wind’.

There’s still plenty of soft sand, chilled tequila, and whispering waves to be found across Jekyll + Hyde but the game has undeniably changed for ZBB. Lead single ‘Homegrown’ (a call-back to the title of the band’s first independent LP, and the original name of Brown’s own record label Southern Ground) soared to the No. 1 Country Chart spot, and follow-up single ‘Heavy is the Head’ went to No. 1 on the Mainstream Rock airplay chart – the latter achievement being a first for the band. They’re just the second act to achieve the feat of scoring both Country and Mainstream Rock No. 1 singles, following in the footsteps of eternal greats Bon Jovi.

What, then, to make of Jekyll + Hyde?

The band’s familiar brand of Southern country rock informs several tracks, as does the aforementioned Jimmy Buffett idolatry. But to such familiar flavours Zac Brown Band have here added an expansive grab bag of new sounds.

…continued in Country Update Issue 77 – out now.