Saturday was Gasparilla, so it is no surprise Tampa was invaded by a jolly, bearded man in a cap.
Only instead of shanties about grog and rum, he warmed up the masses with songs about sweet tea, pecan pie and homemade wine.
A sold-out crowd of 19,500 kept Gasparilla's good vibes rolling until late Saturday night, as the Zac Brown Band treated Tampa's 1-800-Ask-Gary Amphitheatre to a rollicking revue of heavenly harmonies, hoedowns and general country feel-goodery.
And what a man to take on Tampa's biggest party! Artists like George Strait, Taylor Swift and Matchbox Twenty have capped G-Day with concerts in recent years, but none seemed as well-suited to the job as this roly-poly redneck and his madcap menagerie, who manage to blend country, jam, rock, soul and gospel into one delicious, beardy gumbo.
From the get-go, the boys were in in a partying mood. Entering to a wall of funky horns (did we all accidentally wander into a midnight showing of Super Fly?), the group immediately proved their mettle on As She's Walking Away and the hell-raising hootenanny that is The Devil Went Down To Georgia, which ended with a furious fingerpicked solo from Mr. Brown himself. Anytime Brown cut loose with a virtuosic solo, it was a joy to behold.
That isn't to say he was the sole star of the show on Saturday. His band is a crackerjack team of musicians, particularly fiddle player Jimmy De Martini, who went from bright and bubbly on Quiet Your Mind to flat-out wicked on the rockabilly rave-up Whiskey's Gone; and shaggy bassist John Driskell Hopkins, who sang lede on the hoedown story-song It's Not OK. Zac even brought in a saxophonist for a series of sax solos. Just like Lady Gaga did on Edge of Glory! They're like twinsies, Zac and Gaga!
All night, the star of the show (aside from Brown himself) was guitarist/organist/do-it-all sidekick Clay Cook, who may be the country equivalent of Lindsay Buckingham, both in terms of talent and in overall Guitar Faces Achieved (GFA). Every time he stepped to the forefront – such as on a 15-minute cover of Marshall Tucker Band's Can't You See – you kept thinking he deserves to be a star in his own right. Can we just go ahead and make him an honorary Allman Brother and be done with it?
All that said, lest there were any doubters, the Zac Brown Band is, without question, a true B-A-N-D. On slower ballads like Free and the skin-prickling Colder Weather, it was clear the group's stellar four-part harmonies put them head and shoulders above almost any vocal group this side of Fleet Foxes. The new song Sweet Annie could become country's version of The Weight, and Levon Helm himself probably wouldn't mind the comparison.
But hey, why get too deep into the harmonies when there's a booty-wagger like Chicken Fried yet to be played? And what about that Florida beach-bum's mantra Toes: Toes in the water, ass in the sand, not a worry in the world, a cold beer in my hand … As that song played, I wrote in my notes: "This song was written for a day like today."
It's hard to believe this was Zac Brown Band's first proper headlining concert in Tampa Bay. It's long overdue. We may be inching ever closer to the day when Jimmy Buffett headlines Gasparilla night in Tampa, but until then, I can't imagine another artist doing much better than this.
-- Review/photos by Jay Cridlin, tbt*