The sun hung in the sky and audience members were still making their way to their seats as the Atlanta-based outfit Zac Brown Band launched into a feisty take on the Dropkick Murphys’ “I’m Shipping Up to Boston” on Friday. Kicking off the first of two nights at Fenway Park with that song felt like a gesture of friendship, one solidified by Brown’s confident declaration that his group would serve as its own opening act and play for three solid hours.
In the years since their 2008 breakthrough single “Chicken Fried” topped Billboard’s country-radio charts (and even brushed the Hot 100’s top 20), Zac Brown Band has established itself as one of country music’s premier live draws. Their appeal lies in their ability to create a heady stew from the simplest elements, a la the old folk tale “Stone Soup”; their foundation is traditional country music played exceedingly well, although their songs also borrow from other styles that pack concert halls, from prowess-filled jamming to blustery heartland rock to the devil-may-care resort odes popularized by Kenny Chesney. (You could call that last style Corona-core.)
The first half of the show mostly consisted of the band’s own material, with each member showcasing their skills while a top-hat-topped Brown, no slouch in the guitar-playing arena himself, served as master of ceremonies and chief high-fiver. During a brief interlude prior to intermission, the band pulled up some stools and let their roots show on covers of David Allan Coe’s “You Never Even Called Me by My Name” and the Outlaws’ “Freeborn Man.” Here, Brown got a bit emotional, eventually confessing that Fenway might be “my favorite place that I’ve ever played.” Heartfelt moments like this and the Doobie Brothers’ arrival onstage for a rousing run through “Black Water,” combined with the undeniable chops on display, only enhanced the feel-good vibe.
Most people would have been satisfied after two and a half hours capped by a patriotism-tinged version of “Chicken Fried,” but Brown and his band weren’t done. They returned, clad in glow-in-the-dark skeleton outfits, to tear through the growling “Day for the Dead,” which appeared on the 2013 EP The Grohl Sessions — as in Dave — and had the muscular feel of the Doobies’ “Long Train Runnin’.” From there they went into a faithful cover of Pink Floyd’s eerie “Comfortably Numb,” and that song’s relative (if uneasy) calm set the stage for an explosive finish: A speeded-up take on “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” that was so fast and technically adept it could have inspired headbanging. The song raced to a close and as Brown introduced his bandmates, it was possible to sense the crowd pulling for more — all in a night’s work for Zac Brown Band, whose combination of easy charisma and expert dishing out of country make even their spikier songs go down smooth.