Having done summer tours with Kenny Chesney and Dave Matthews -- placing them smack between the country and jam-rock scenes -- the Zac Brown Band got a chance Sunday night to show what it can do with a full headlining set at a jam-packed First Niagara Pavilion.
The Atlanta band, Grammy's Best New Artist in 2010, goes all over the map musically -- a big part of the appeal -- so there's no risk of everything sounding the same over 20-plus songs.
The seven-piece ZBB, sporting an impressive array of beards, arrived on a simple stage with five strips of screen centered in a giant ring of lights. It started with the breezy, bland funk of "Keep Me in Mind" and quickly got around to the new album, "Uncaged," flashing its fluid Southern picking on the two-step single "The Wind."
It was still about 80 degrees when he hit the stage, but Mr. Brown was wearing a big smile and that knit hat most people put away in April. There wasn't a cowboy hat to be had on the stage.
The band's members can play country fine without them, as they showed, sizzling through "Whiskey's Gone," driven by Jimmy De Martini's devilish fiddle, and galloping through "Natural Disaster" and "As She's Walking Away."
The sprawling "Who Knows" went full-on DMB instrumentation by adding saxophonist David Englehard to spar with the fiddle and the guitars of Mr. Brown and Clay Cook, which went off like the Allmans or the Dead at the Fillmore. That whole thing would have raised some eyebrows at the Country Music Awards.
A sit-down acoustic set highlighted the vocal harmonies on "One Day" and a cover of Aerosmith's "Sweet Emotion," with Mr. De Martini's fiddle hammering the Joe Perry part. From there, the easy-flowing ballad "Free" spun off into a big joyous version of Van Morrison's "Into the Mystic."
Mixing up the tempos, the ZBB hit the Parrothead demographic with the beachy "Toes," which sounds suspiciously like "The Pina Colada Song," and powered through "Isn't She Lovely/Neon" with the "All Along the Watchtower's" riff. If the Charlie Daniels Band comparison wasn't obvious enough, the Georgia boys left no doubts by firing up the bow on a breakneck "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" before getting around to "Chicken Fried."
The Zac Brown Band came to fame only in the past few years, but it's been perfecting its chops for a decade. It's not winning points on originality by any stretch, but with playing like that, you can bet all those hard-partying country/jam fans will be scrambling for tickets the next time it comes back.
Scott Mervis: firstname.lastname@example.org; 412-263-2576.