Review: Zac Brown Band mixes things up in Charlotte

It started predictably enough.

The Zac Brown Band opened Thursday night’s show with four of its top hits, back-to-back, at PNC Music Pavilion. They threw T-shirts to the crowd, one after the next, using slingshots. They left the stage early, after their first finale, when everyone knew they’d be coming back.

When they returned to the stage, they were wearing glow-in-the-dark skeleton suits and painted skull masks, and before long there were seven skeletons dancing around on the stage in their glowing suits and flowered masks: jamming on their guitars, fiercely pulling on the strings of their violins and singing about – what else? – chicken fried.

Then all at once there was a soldier up there with them, saluting. Brown had his arm around him, thanking him, and audience members had their arms around each other, leaning on each other. Everyone in the arena sang the final slow notes of the band’s biggest hit and wondered out loud, again, why the musicians were wearing skeleton suits.

The finale costumes, turns out, were a nod to the first encore song (“Day for the Dead”) but they represented something else, too: one of many steps the band was making to push themselves outside the confines of the traditional country music concert.

Over more than two hours, to a mostly-full-but-not-packed amphitheater, Brown showcased what he and his band could do in different music genres. From the costumes to the changing backdrops to the various cover songs they played – from Foo Fighters’ “Times Like These” to Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic” – they bridged into a realm that more closely resembled soulful rock music, perhaps with a Southern twist.

Instrument solos took center stage. Intricate and high-energy, each stretched longer than the last, eventually culminating in an impressive yet self-indulgent instrumental toward the end of the show that spanned 15 minutes and gave many in the crowd a good opportunity to go to the restroom or grab another beer.

But Brown didn’t have to keep fans engaged. He’d ask for help singing a bridge or a chorus – once pulling a young kid on stage to sing a verse of “Colder Weather” – and they happily obliged. “You sound great!” he’d yell, as they shouted along to “Toes” or recited a full verse of “Chicken Fried” before he even touched the microphone.

But the loudest cheers came when Brown, a Georgia native, talked about returning to the South after touring led him elsewhere.

“It’s good to be back,” he said, and the audience erupted – linked now not just by this night and this music but by these Southern roots.

“It feels like home.”

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