"I said, let me hear you scream!" It's a standard line for a Madison Square Garden headliner on a sold-out Saturday night, but these Louisiana-tinted words are coming from a chef, and this is a barbecue.
Welcome to the Zac Brown Band’s universe, where tours include a personal chef and concerts kick off with an Eat & Greet. The Georgia group, an open-armed hybrid of country, rock, roots music and bluegrass, mans the greeting lines and steam tables itself, shaking hands and ladling out food.
The 150-person crowd seated inside the Garden's auxiliary Theater venue fulfills its rock ‘n’ roll duty, howling enthusiasm. Chef Rusty Hamlin and Zac Brown run down the evening’s menu, which Rusty has prepared hours before using local products from the Union Square farmer's market. We’ve got pumpkin hash browns with chorizo, yellow and purple haze glazed carrots, and a few recipes from Brown's early days as a restaurateur — pocket knife coleslaw, pork tenderloin in Zac's "love sauce."
Watching the band sling grub onto heaping platters, easily assuming server roles ("would you like dessert with that?") and comfortably chatting with fans, I realize something: Until now I’ve assumed the group's biggest song, 2008's "Chicken Fried," was probably just another callous country music move to check off all the right boxes of twang and comfort. An easy way to cash in on a hit.
But taking in this atmosphere (and the food — Jesus, the food), that no longer holds up. I'm watching the band ooze authentic Southern hospitality and charm, bringing their anthem to life. It's the type of environment a Zac Brown Band fan would want to propose to his girlfriend in. It happens tonight, and it's not hard to imagine it's happened before.
Brown spends chow-time milling around tables of fans who swill whiskey (Jack Daniels, which will later have a massive banner at stage right) and lager (LandShark, same size banner, stage left, shout-out before the song “Toes”).
The soft-spoken 34-year-old frontman scoops up a young child in a cowboy hat. He’s present in all his conversations, talking about the food and hearing out personal stories of what the band has meant to people. Meanwhile, the fans — the Zamily, they’re called — are eerily laid back. I'm not sure whether to ascribe the vibe to NYC's "we're too cool to fuss over celebrities" schtick or something between the band and its fans. The scene looks no different than if Brown were attending an actual family reunion, long, affectionate hugs included.
If Brown's nervous about playing one of the most storied venues in the world, a task he says "has been on our list for the last 20 years of playing music," it doesn't show.
A billowing white curtain obscures the Garden's stage. Still picking barbecue from my teeth, I'm curious — can those mild-mannered guys, that almost shy frontman, seriously turn on the electricity a 20,000-person arena needs to jolt to life?
Halfway into opener "Keep Me in Mind," I realize performing is as easy for the band as shooting the shit with its fans. If anything, rubbing elbows with the Zamily prior to the show has given the band some a human reminder of how far they've come from their road dog roots (they averaged 200 shows a year not long after their start in 2000) and the independent label Brown founded a decade ago. I'm far from an acolyte of any of the folksy genres this band swings between, but I'm reeled in, like I've seen a wonderful family laughing in their living room and I kind of want to ring the doorbell.
My last two visits to the Garden were for a massive concert by Muse and the even more enormous Watch the Throne tour, and I can't in good faith say I'll leave the Zac Brown Band’s gig having had much less fun. These seven guys get so much joy out of hauling out their acoustic guitars and fiddles and jamboree tempos and classic rock homages and just playing. They recreate their albums' eclectic stylings faithfully, nailing tricky harmonies and lightning-picked solos while running amok onstage. Centering all those beards are some suspiciously familiar smiles. They’ve got no problem having fun, so they’re making sure we’re taken care of.
"I need y'all to sing with me," Brown requests before the Jimmy Buffet-indebted "Toes." It's nice of him to ask, but this crowd's participation doesn’t ebb for a moment all night, whether they're belting about toes in the water and asses in the sand or singing along to renditions of Nirvana's "All Apologies," Aerosmith's "Sweet Emotion," or the Marshall Tucker Band’s “Can’t You See.”
A quarter of the night’s set is cover songs, an unthinkable gesture for an arena act, unless that arena act is vying to be the sprawling, Great American Band that Zac Brown and Co. are shooting for.
And they’re basically hitting the target. The encore gives us “Jump Right In,” an island-flavored cut off their chart-topping July record Uncaged, then a bruising version of Metallica’s “Enter Sandman,” followed by, wait for it ... “America the Beautiful.”The only thing more inclusive would be an original song that stirs something in all these American guts.
That’s when “Chicken Fried” hits.