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Review: Zac Brown Band, Kacey Musgraves surprise, inspire fans at Tampa's MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre.

You think you know what to expect from a Zac Brown Band concert.

You know you’ll get a fiddle-twistin’ hootenanny, for sure, with a few rowdy, genre-busting covers amid their many country-crossover hits. You know people will come primed to party. You know they'll leave having done just that.

Then the Georgia boys go and record a smoky, soulful, Southern rock EP with the Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl. They book two shows at Tampa’s MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre, tagging as an opener one of country music’s brightest young stars, Kacey Musgraves.

And then, at the first of those damn-near-sold-out shows, they say hello by saying goodbye – or, in the words of opening salvo Toes, “Adios, and vaya con dios.” Before long, the whole band is wearing skeleton costumes, jamming away on Pink Floyd’s Comfortably Numb, and you realize: This is why people come to see Zac Brown time and time again. You just can’t predict how the night’s going to go down.

Severe wind and thunderstorms at the outset nixed part of the day's itinerary, including an opening solo set by Brown's guitarist Clay Cook and the band's traditional pre-show "Eat and Greet" cookout with select fans (although, in a nice, karma-preserving move, Brown himself came out to apologize to those fans and promise a make-good).

But with a damp crowd still filing in, and thunder rumbling and lightning striking all around her, Musgraves, the zealously lauded 25-year-old Texan singer-songwriter, hit her mark on time.

She's as much of a Nashville outlier as Brown, but more for her grown-up restraint than for any sense of devil-may-care personality. Up on stage, flanked by neon cacti, the winsome Musgraves is unshowy, almost laconic, which sort of fits her wry, folksy brand of Texamericana. Her flashiest stage maneuvers included a brief, leisurely stroll around a center thrust stage, and ... well, that's about it. (Unlike Taylor Swift, Musgraves probably COULD lay claim to not being a cheer captain.)

But it's her songs that tell the story, not her voice or stage antics. Lived-in ditties like Merry Go 'Round and Follow Your Arrow are as thoughtful as they are toe-tapping, devoid of any over-the-top bombast or climax. A song like her gorgeous, mariachi-tinged cover of George Strait's I Just Want to Dance With You belongs in the Bluebird Cafe, not on American Idol.

Musgraves did display a bit of whimsy at the end, when, for closer My House, she and her band huddled at the center of the stage, with the boys bobbing in sparkling rhinestone suits that lit up like Christmas trees. Musgraves beamed and waved her hands, and closed the song with a simple harmonica flourish. It was quirky, earnest and endearing, something you might see on a 21st-century version of Hee Haw. Not to suggest that Musgraves is in danger of being swallowed whole by the big, bad pop charts, but a career as a theatrical folk singer, a la Alison Krauss or even Dolly Parton, could sustain her for several lifetimes.

The biggest commonality between Musgraves and Brown might be that they both have a habit of pushing the musical envelope. Zac Brown Band’s new EP The Grohl Sessions, Vol. 1 feels like a natural evolution for the band, considering they enjoy covering producer Grohl’s bands, Nirvana and Foo Fighters, in concert. (What, no love for Them Crooked Vultures?)

Zac and the boys surprised the audience by starting their show with a quick acoustic set, including homespun takes on Billy Joel’s Piano Man and the quintessential Southern harmonies of the EaglesSeven Bridges Road.

But when the band plugged in, oh, did they ever plug in. Cook unleashed hell on The Grohl Sessions’ All Alright and the jam-rock title track to 2012’s Uncaged. And the band’s signature mash-up of John Mayer’s Neon and Stevie Wonder’s Isn’t She Lovely burst with frenetic, virtuosic solos from multiple members – including Brown’s Tenacious D-quality power-strumming – until it sounded like some unholy conga-rock cross between All Along the Watchtower and Turn the Beat Around. Same with the band’s take on The Devil Went Down to Georgia and the bouncy story-song It’s Not OK, two tracks that border on novelty but are delivered with such awe-inspiring fierceness that they can’t be denied.

Ever a man of the people, Brown took a lap around the packed Amphitheatre seating area on Keep Me In Mind, and on Colder Weather, he must’ve slapped fives and bumped fists with more than 100 fans near the stage. He even pulled four young kids up there with him.

And then, for the encore, their greatest trick: Those goofy blacklight skeleton costumes for Day For the Dead, Comfortably Numb and their biggest hit, Chicken Fried. The Party City wardrobe may have been overkill, but those are some disparate freaking melodies. Why not embrace the lunacy of it all?

That’s the reason Zac Brown can command a two-night stand in Tampa, and why fans flock to see him year after year after year. He always delivers something new, something unexpected, something guaranteed to get you out of your seat and smiling. That much, you know you can expect.

*****

Zac Brown Band and Kacey Musgraves return to the MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre at 7 p.m. Friday. Tickets are $31.50 and up. Click here for details.

-- Jay Cridlin, tbt*

[Last modified: Friday, May 30, 2014 1:19am]

    

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