This is a guest article by author John Cherry. He is the author of two books, Better Than Lennon and Paul McCartney’s Solo Music Career 1970-2010 he can be found at Betterthanlennon.com – Simon

The advertised start time for the Zac Brown Band (ZBB) show at Germain Arena in Naples, FL was 7 PM. I should have done more research about the show, although I did have a set list from the band’s show in Nashville on December 29th. There were two warm up bands, so our arrival at about 7 PM did not create any heartache about missing some of the headline band’s performance.

Opening the show was Nic Cowan, who will be on his own tour of smaller venues over the next two months. His feature song was his latest single “Hard-Headed,” and his five piece band out of Atlanta performed admirably. I’d expand further, but the focus of the review is on the Zac Brown Band. Following Cowan and his band was Sonia Leigh. Sonia is an enthusiastic lead singer and guitarist. She plays on the same Southern Ground label as ZBB, and has co-written some songs with Zac Brown. A highlight of her performance was the announced filming of a portion of the show for her new single video.

After the two opening acts, there was a 10-15 minute wait for the headliners. They opened the show behind the curtain attached to the stage lighting, their silhouettes visible in the now expanded two tier stage. Early in the song, the curtain disappeared, delighting the crowd that was clearly enthused to see the band. The band all started on the top tier of the stage before descending down the steps to the lower main stage. Both drummers and a keyboard remained on the upper stage. As in Nashville, the opening song was “Keep Me in Mind,” and the band was in excellent sound and voice. The old playlist went out the window on the second song with my personal favorite, and one of the band’s most popular songs, “Knee Deep.” Zac asked the crowd if they wanted to “get lost tonight.”  The crowd roared its approval after the song, definitely some of the loudest applause of the night. The main bass player, John Hopkins, took over the main vocals for “It’s Not OK,” a rollicking song that had the crowd amused and enthused.

With video of vehicles on a road and a city with skyscrapers in the background, “I Play the Road” from the latest CD was next, another strong performance. “As She’s Walking Away” has an appealing and substantial Allan Jackson vocal performance on the original recording, but Hopkins filled in admirably on that part of the song. The excellent sound of the performance, almost recording studio quality, was strongly evident in the playing of “No Hurry Today.” Zac’s potent vocals were also a highlight. Violinist Jimmy De Martini was front and center stage (there was an extended middle portion of the stage that split two standing general admission floor areas) for “Whiskey’s Gone.” Other members of the band took turns visiting the stage extension during the show, to the delight of the crowd. De Martini also led in the next song with the violin intro of “Jolene,” which had extensive crowd participation and featured a fine saxophone portion by David Englehart.

Zac introduced “Quiet Your Mind” as a song written while on the Florida coast. This song again featured a hearty Zac vocal. Following the song, there appeared to be a small skirmish to the left of the stage, and Zac quickly and emphatically implored the agitators to cease their activity, or “You’re Out!” His directive quieted the disturbance.

Following the song, Zac spoke of “Camp Southern Grand,” which he founded as a facility to help children overcome their emotional, academic and social difficulties. The camp is scheduled to be built on 500 acres in Fayette County in Georgia. One dollar from every ticket sold on the ZBB tour is being allocated to the camp, which is scheduled to open in two years.

The Jimmy Buffet flavored reggae “Where the Boat Leaves From,” which also contained snippets of older songs “Crazy Love” and “Islands in the Stream,” was notable for it’s amazing violin picking by De Martini.

A surprise of the night was the performance of the upcoming single for the CD that Zac announced would be released in two months. “The Day that I Die” had a passionate Zac vocal emphasizing his love of music and the lyric that he would be content to be found in his home with guitar in hand on his last day.

Before launching into the cover of Charlie Daniel’s “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” Zac implored the crowd to “have a drink and hoist your cup.”  The song was played at a feverish pace, and the band seemed uplifted as well as they took turns visiting the front center stage, and tossed a tambourine into the crowd.

Calming down a bit for “Who Knows,” the crowd enjoyed another prominent sax performance by Englehart, and subsequent center stage visits by most of the band, including Zac playing lead on guitar and yelling to the crowd. An extended version of the Allman Brothers sounding song also featured an exhilarating solo exchange between Englehart and guitarist Clay Cook.

Hopkins moved to the standup bass next for “Highway 20 Ride,” another huge crowd favorite. Cook played a superb pedal steel guitar as the crowd sang along for most of the song.

Introducing the song as one that some guy told him to play, Zac led into the comedic “Sic ‘Em on a Chicken,” which included a false ending. Solos came from the mandolin and the violin.

Zac asked the crowd to “help me sing this one,” as he launched into the famous “Toes.” The crowd obliged Zac’s request in full, bringing a big smile to his face. This song also brought out the dancers in the standing area in front of us.

On “Make This Day,” Zac asked the crowd for help with the chorus. Toward the end of the song, a huge black man came out and added an inspired rap portion to the song. I could only hear that his first name was apparently Matt. His appearance clearly incited the crowd.

This led to the encore, which started with the drummers doing solos, quite skillfully. The full band then returned and was led by Clay Cook in the Marshall Tucker Band song “Can’t You See.” Cook exhibited a strong voice, and also played an impressive lead guitar solo. Di Marti also lent a strong violin lead in an extended version of the song that finished with a solo by Cook.

Zac again picked up the crowd with his exceptional vocals on “Colder Weather.” Cook returned to the keyboard, guitar and violin solos were superb, and then the arena went dark at the end of the song.

Thrilling the crowd, Zac and Cook led the fans into “America the Beautiful,” which fed directly into the show closer of “Chicken Fried.”

ZBB’s portion of the show was a full hour and forty five minutes, and it is show that I think should be at the top of most people’s must see list of shows. The sound was hearty and clear, and the complete band played with total enthusiasm. I do have a minor complaint and that was the exclusion of “Whatever It Is” from the song list. Since there were t-shirts sold with the song title on it, I thought it would be played, and it is also a personal favorite.

Nevertheless, I look forward to seeing ZBB again in the near future, and am pleased that they will have a new CD out in a couple of months.

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