It’s been a turbulent few years for the Zac Brown Band as various projects and albums have met with differing levels of enthusiasm and acclaim. Riding into town on the back of their best album (The Comeback) since 2012’s ‘Uncaged’ they were ready and primed to close down the third and final night of the C2C festival in their own, inimitable way.
What is clear from speaking to Zac Brown before the show is that he 100% sees the band as a collaborative effort. Their success is his success. This isn’t some ego trip or passion project from an attention seeking frontman and Zac speaks at length about that and what the definition of success means to the band in this phase of their career in the video below.
Taking the stage to ‘Homegrown’ with some beautiful graphics on the screens behind, it was clear that what Zac had said before the show about always wanting the live performances to evolve and grow and be how the band will be defined is perfectly true. Tracks like ‘Free / Into the Mystic’, ‘As She’s Walking Away’ and ‘Sweet Annie’ are gorgeous songs that highlight the passion and the skillset within the band but they are evolving into immersive pieces of art in this incarnation of the band’s live set. The graphics on the video screens augment the inclusive feeling engendered in the arena, with the songs and the harmonies all part of the jigsaw too. It felt less like a standalone performance in the O2 arena and more like an immersive installation experience at times.
Classics came and classics went. ‘Knee Deep’ provoked the first sing along of the set, although if you listened hard enough there was a ‘London choir’ singing along underneath most of the songs on offer, something that Zac was very aware of. ‘Toes’ provided the crowd the opportunity to provide backing on the ‘ass in the sand’ part. ‘Man,’ Zac said at the end of the song with a huge grin on his face, ‘You all sing so good.’ ‘Keep Me in Mind’ also morphed into a sort of campfire, ‘kumbaya’ moment too as the O2 arena found a Sunday night singalong to be good for the soul.
No Zac Brown show is without its curveballs and covers. Early doors we got multi-instrumentalist John Driskell Hopkins treating us to ‘The Foundation’ album deep cut, ‘It’s Not Ok’. Part spoken word, part long instrumental, ‘It’s Not OK’ gives various members of the band a chance to shine with individual solos which had the crowd up and dancing. Similarly, newest member and artist in her own right, Caroline Jones, got to play the version of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Big Love’ that she released back in 2021. This was one of the highlights of the whole set. Jones’ vocals soared around the arena on this galloping redneck cover and Lindsay Ell provided some awesome guitar histrionics alongside some meaty drums and furious fiddle playing too.
Covers came in the form of a wonderful, atmospheric version of Springsteen’s ‘Dancing in the Dark’ which segued into a rousing ‘Sex on Fire’ that had fists pumping and voices hollering all over the arena. Later the band launched into a ferocious version of the Rolling Stones’ ‘Paint it Black’ which brought us the best light show of the evening as the song roared its way up to its impactful climax. The album that this cover is taken from, ‘Stoned Cold Country’, is out on Friday March 17th and features the likes of Erich Church, Ashley McBryde, Little Big Town, Brothers Osborne and more re-interpreting Rolling Stones songs. We bought an advance copy of the vinyl at C2C after being able to see the premiere of the accompanying film.
The set, oddly 4 or 5 songs shorter than the shows Dublin and Glasgow got to see this weekend, was brought to a close by a triple whammy ‘Out in the Middle’, ‘Colder Weather’ and ‘Chicken Fried’. I was surprised that the band only played ‘Same Boat’ and ‘Out in the Middle’ from the tremendous new album, ‘The Comeback’ but I guess that gives them a reason to come back on their own tour again next year, right? ‘Colder Weather’ is quite simply one of the greatest Country songs ever written and inserting a chunk of the Eagles’ ‘Take it to the Limit’ inside it was a genius move that only seemed to elevate the impact of the song whilst ‘Chicken Fried’ is simply just ‘Chicken Fried’! The perfect set closer and a song that never seems to age or to lessen in musical joy and comedy value as the years go by.
As a headliner and an artist chosen to close down the whole C2C festival in London, Zac Brown Band were the perfect fit. Precise and intentional with the feel, style and visuals of some songs, they let loose with Rock ‘n’ Roll abandon in other ones too. Brown is an erudite guy, a deep thinker and not someone who wastes words, lyrics and time on frivolous things. There was no flab, no filler or no going through the motions in the band’s performance in London: everything was planned and happened for a reason. This made for an engaging and intelligent show where you could have as much fun as you wanted in some places and then reflect, via songs like ‘My Old Man’, which was one of the most pivotal and meaningful moments of the whole evening, in others. ZBB are a band that has transcended the genre that birthed them now. They can do what they like, be who they like and experiment with how their music is presented to the fans. They don’t have to play the Nashville machine anymore and it will be fascinating to watch them in the next phase of their careers as they continue to re-invent both themselves and the wonderful songs that define one of the best bands in the history of Country music.
Set list: 1. Homegrown 2. Knee Deep 3. Free / Into the Mystic 4. Dancing in the Dark / Sex on Fire 5. It’s Not OK 6. Toes 7. My Old Man 8. As She’s Walking Away 9. Paint it Black 10. Loving You Easy 11. Jump Right In 12. Sweet Annie 13. Same Boat 14. Big Love 15. Out in the Middle 16. Colder Weather 17. Chicken Fried Venue: O2 Arena, London Date: Sunday 13th March