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The Zac Brown Band may be the closest to a true definition of a current day Summerfest mainstay as you can get. Their cross genre approach has wide appeal and while firmly anchored in their traditions and heritage the band is constantly evolving, taking risks, and adding sounds, personality and styles. Just like Summerfest.
So, when ZBB stepped onto the Marcus Amphitheater stage Sunday night at just past 8 p.m. for the third time in five years, the crowd knew what to expect while also expecting the unexpected since, well, the band's latest release is titled "Jekyll + Hyde."
The third "country" headliner this year, Zac Brown is so far from its "Chicken Fried" days that you can almost sense a reluctance to even go there. Of course any great band knows that you gotta give the fans what they want so the song was on the set list. In fact, it closed its Summerfest show with the tune but they did it in an almost "damn we’re glad that one wasn’t in the middle of all the other great stuff we have" manner.
"Jekyll + Hyde," is a great album. It's full of variety, risks and fun, and its song choices complement the musical styles and skills of the band. It has soul, pop, rock, funk and heart, especially inside its first single "Homegrown" that opened the band’s Summerfest show.
"Homegrown" clearly falls into the keeping them close to their roots category with lyrics like, "I got some good friends that live down the street. Got a good looking woman with her arms ‘round me. Here in a small town where it feels like home. I got everything I need and nothing that I don’t." But the band’s next few songs – "Uncaged" and a cover of Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir" – showed the diversity they can command while reminding us that they can more than own a legitimate cover or two, as well.
"The Devil Went Down to Georgia" (Charlie Daniels Band) quickly came and got the crowd worked up and singing proud. Jimmy De Martini, as he always does, shines on his fiddle during "Devil."
From "Devil," ZBB powered through a set that led with the military inspired "Dress Blues," classics like "Knee Deep" and "Keep me Mind," the powerful "Bittersweet" a new song about learning that a loved one is about to die and a smashing version of the Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Under the Bridge" that ended with a "fan" (who the crowd soon found out was a fake) getting leveled by former Badger and 2014 NFL Defensive Player Of The Year JJ Watt. After the tackle, Brown proclaimed that Watt was "Summerfest’s new head of security." It was a fun moment, and truly one of those ‘you had to be here’ type ones that make you mad if you missed it.
Some critics claim that "Jekyll + Hyde" is a bit too much and a bit too all over the place. Sure, I can that, but its variety helps showcase the band’s styles and doesn’t pigeonhole them. On Sunday, though, it was this variety that made the more than two-hour show shine.
After "Remedy," a song Brown called "the most important on the new record," the Summerfest screens flashed information and photos of Camp Southern Ground. Brown reminded fans that $1 of every ticket benefits the camp he helped found.
"Toes," "Whatever It Is" and "Beautiful Drug," flowed into "Loving You Easy," one of my current favorites. The new "Loving You Easy" sounded amazing and worked its way nicely through the clear, and nearly perfect Summerfest sky. Brown even handed out flowers during the number.
Many of Brown’s shows include short intermissions, but not on this Summerfest night. He seemed certain to help cement his place in the fest’s best of category so after a long guitar solo that also put the spotlight on bandmate Douglas "Clay" Cook, Brown and his multi-level stage powered through "Highway 20 Ride," the beautiful "Tomorrow Never Comes," and a dazzling version of "Bohemian Rhapsody."
The encore, as I noted, ended with a sing-a-long of the "Chicken Fried," but began with "Heavy Is the Head," a "J+H" tune that features Chris Cornell on the studio version. "Heavy" was hard, loud and even a bit jarring. Unexpected, a bit, but fitting for this band that’s always moving ahead while stay grounded in what got them here.
Indeed, like Summerfest, Zac Brown had something for everyone on Sunday. And whatever ZBB is to you, or whatever you want them to be, they are. And, on Sunday at Summerfest they were all that and more. It’s the only way they know how to be.
The band plays Denver’s Coors Field next on July 3.
The Devil Went Down to Georgia
As She's Walking Away
Keep Me In Mind
Under the Bridge
Day for the Dead
Whatever It Is
Loving You Easy
Who Knows (guitar solos)
Highway 20 Ride
Tomorrow Never Comes
Heavy is the Head
A life-long and passionate community leader and Milwaukeean, Jeff Sherman is a co-founder of OnMilwaukee.
He grew up in Wauwatosa and graduated from Marquette University, as a Warrior. He holds an MBA from Cardinal Stritch University, and is the founding president of Young Professionals of Milwaukee (YPM)/Fuel Milwaukee.
Early in his career, Sherman was one of youngest members of the Greater Milwaukee Committee, and currently is involved in numerous civic and community groups - including board positions at The Wisconsin Center District, Wisconsin Club and Marcus Center for the Performing Arts. He's honored to have been named to The Business Journal's "30 under 30" and Milwaukee Magazine's "35 under 35" lists.
He owns a condo in Downtown and lives in greater Milwaukee with his wife Stephanie, his son, Jake, and daughter Pierce. He's a political, music, sports and news junkie and thinks, for what it's worth, that all new movies should be released in theaters, on demand, online and on DVD simultaneously.
He also thinks you should read OnMilwaukee each and every day.