Zac Brown Band – Fenway Park, Boston, MA (August 21, 2016)
Written by Jody Smith
Zac Brown Band – Fenway Park, Boston, MA (August 21, 2016)
Written by Jody Smith
Eric Church – Red Rocks Amphitheatre, Colorado (August 9 & 10, 2016)
Written by Kristin Hamlin
The weather couldn’t have been more perfect for the first of an epic two night special acoustic event by Eric Church at the legendary Red Rocks. Lightning flashes went off everywhere, but never a sound all night, but there was no rain. It was almost as if the Heavens were enjoying this show as well.
Eric Church. Two words, but one big meaning.
I was fortunate to land sixth row, smack dab in the center at Red Rocks for both nights of Eric Church last week. I have been to my share of concerts at this Amphitheatre, but I knew this time would be different. The way the stage was set up was as if you were in Eric’s living room; rugs and candles lit the stage, with just a piano and a microphone.
You could hear a pin drop as the lights went down and Eric was about to come on stage. As soon as those familiar ray bans and side smirk became visible, the crowd erupted into a standing ovation. Eric sat there in awe for a about a minute, taking it all in, and then the familiar chords of ‘Mistress Named Music’ started playing, and everyone began to sing as loud as they could, never missing a beat. What none of us were expecting, was when Eric broke out into covers of other people’s songs in the middle of Mistress. (like a rock, ain’t got money, piano man, troubadours) and then ended it with the last chorus of Mistress. It was incredible.
Without missing a beat, he flowed into ‘Mr. Misunderstood’. The crowd was so loud singing it back to him, he let us sing the chorus to him, and as we did, he just smiled and mouthed ‘thank you for this’ to us. That was definitely one of my favorite parts of the night. He then went on to sing Smoke, Drink in my Hand and Record Year, and then ‘Mixed Drinks About Feelings’. Next was his upcoming single, ‘Kill a Word’, and before singing it, he told the crowd how he didn’t think there was a more appropriate song to sing with all that has been going on in the world. The passion in the way he sang this song was goosebump-worthy, as you could tell this song meant a whole lot to him. Then came ‘Pledge Allegiance to the Hag’, ‘Rock and roll Jesus’, ‘Homeboy’, ‘Creepin’, ‘Dark Side’ ‘Living part of life’, ‘Jack Daniels’, and ‘Wrecking Ball’ – where he even had Peyton Manning jamming right behind him. The crowd didn’t miss a word!
What happened next warmed everyone’s hearts. Eric spoke quietly and said ‘I promised someone I would play this…I hope I can make it through the song’ and turned around to where his son was sitting and blew him a kiss. ‘Three Year Old’ was the song he sang for him and I teared up watching him singing it, because I knew behind those sun glasses, he was doing the same thing. It was absolutely magical. Then came ‘Cold One’ and ‘Chattanooga Lucy’ and the energy was wild!
Next, Eric had said the next song he had never played live before, but he wanted to play it because the first time he came to Red Rocks, this song came on his bus, and it stuck with him so much, and he had told his band just hours before he was going to play it. The second the first verse came from his mouth, the audience didn’t make a sound, and we all watched in awe as Eric played Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ – his voice as strong as I’ve ever heard it. It was probably at that moment, that I realize I was witnessing the best live act I have ever seen in my life. I have never been that impressed and touched with any artist I’ve seen, but this show was much different.
He followed that by singing ‘Knives of New Orleans’, ‘These Boots’, ‘Talladega’ and ‘Holding My Own’ and bowed his head and said thank you again and left the stage. The crowd, who never sat down once, chanted his name, and in seconds, Eric was back out, singing my personal favorite ‘Those I’ve Loved’. This was the best closing song I could think of.
The show the next night was completely different, which made this concert experience unlike any other. He had said he had one song he knew he was going to sing for sure, and the rest he just made up as it went, following the energy of the crowd. As soon as the show ended, the quiet lightning stopped.
Dawes – The Capitol Theatre, Port Chester, NY (July 14, 2016)
The best part of doing this blog is the fact that I am always being introduced to new music and new bands I ordinarily would not hear if I was just a casual radio listener. Last January, I attended country super group, Zac Brown Band’s Mexican Music Festival known as “Castaway With Southern Ground”. On that bill was a number of acts spanning multiple genres of music. One such band was Dawes, a band I had never heard of at the time. I did my due diligence getting to know each of the acts appearing Castaway and was more than pleasantly surprised with what I heard from Dawes. Not only have their four LPs now become some of my most used records, but they have become one of my truly favorite bands in all of music today. When I heard they were coming to my area and playing the Capitol Theater in Port Chester, NY, I did not hesitate in the least.
And not unlike what I witnessed in Mexico back in January, Dawes set off like a bullet out of a gun with the rousing I Can’t Think About It Now and never looked back. It was great to see the entire theater at max capacity, with the crowd singing and even, at times, jumping up and down, to the alternative rock/folk tunes that make Dawes seem so very authentic. I had a friend with me who was relatively new to their music, but came along because of how much I’ve been talking about them. And when Duane Betts ripped into his first of numerous solo’s on his electric guitar on that first song, his eyebrows went up and simply stated, “oh wow”.
And that expression really summed up the entire night as each song seemed to turn into its own rock show as all five members of the band showcased their incredible musicianship with Taylor Goldsmith controlling the forefront with his impeccable vocals, unstoppable energy, as well as impressive bouncing skills while ripping the guitar. Songs such as If I Wanted Someone, Things Happen, Fire Away, and Most People were full on sing-a-longs, while others were complete jam outs admist the original lyrics of the song (Now That It’s Too Late, Maria seemed to turn into a fifteen minute song). The brothers Goldsmith, Griffin and Taylor, took to the forefront for two passionate acoustic songs, highlighted by the beautiful Take Me Out Of The City. And the entire crowd erupted when the anthemic When My Time Comes (which was recently featured for the NBA Draft) was performed with vigor and zeal.
However, the true highlight of the night, was during A Little Bit Of Everything, which was introduced by Taylor exclaiming “…it’s a weird time right now, but it is times like these that remind us that we love each other a lot. We are all on the same team!” The song spoke to the truths of love, heartbreak, and all the feelings you encounter in life. Taylor sang the song almost with a preaching tone that made the message all that more effective. And when the band ended the spectacular set with All Your Favorite Bands, another song with a hopeful message, it was clear this band called Dawes is one of the most authentic and talented today’s music has. They have won me over as a fan and, I am sure, if you were in the building last night, you understood the brilliance that this band has achieved as well.
GARTH BROOKS – YANKEE STADIUM, NYC (July 9, 2016)
After years and years of hearing about how amazing Garth Brooks was as a live performer, I made my way into the Bronx on Saturday afternoon bracing myself for a once in a lifetime experience. When all was said and done at 2 a.m., my feelings were certainly mixed, mostly due to the unfortunate and confusing three plus hour rain delay. However, there is simply no way I could overlook the performance and spectacle that Garth put forth late into the night.
I got to my seat at approximately 8:15, just fifteen minutes before he was supposed to get on stage. I had just had an amazing dinner at NYY Steak and was feeling like the evening was set up perfectly to be a memorable experience. With a light drizzle in the air, the last thing I was thinking about was a delay. Even at 9:15, more than forty five minutes after the start time, with the entire Stadium seating filled to capacity, we all thought it was just a matter of time. But, then, the stage crew began to come out with tarps and plastic to fill the giant sized circle stage extension and we all began to fear there was a delay, despite there being no announcement. Finally, after 10 pm, more than one hour and a half from the start time, with still just a drizzle (if that) in the air, the Stadium announced we were in a rain delay. Most were furious, including me, that it took this long to make the announcement, but more so that they could have gotten most of the show in already. What was worse, was they cleared the pit and floor area, and alcohol sales ended. The scene within the Stadium was angry, tired, and anxious.
Finally at about 11 pm, we were allowed back to our seats. It had rained extremely hard during the 10 to 11 pm hour, but that did not make anyone feel better about the situation. At midnight (yes, freaking midnight), Garth finally took to the stage. There was simply no energy from the crowd at that point as people half heartedly clapped when he came out. I was expecting some dramatic entrance, but instead Garth just walked out and apologized for the wait. But then something unexpected happened, song by song he won back the crowd and energized the iconic Stadium deep into the night air.
From Rodeo to Two Pina Coladas to That Summer, it was clear Garth was going to do everything he could to salvage the night. He moved from side to side of the huge stage and even used the slick circle extension a few times. He told the crowd he was not going to be able to do some of the performance runs like he usually did (another bummer due to the rain), but all in all it was clear he was born to perform. And the crowd was in the palm of his energetic hands by the eighth song of the night as the huge screens flashed lighting and rumbled thunder as he put forth an amazing rendition of the epic Thunder Rolls, with the hidden verse included (to the crowd’s delight). From there on, the crowd was up and standing, singing, and dancing in unison.
He claimed that they were “making up the setlist as they went along”, but that was hardly true as it very much mirrored the night before, despite some changes and crowd requests. One such change from the previous night was my favorite Garth song of all time, “Much Too Young (Too Feel This Damn Old)”. The twang of his voice echoed in the Stadium and truly made me appreciate not only the mastery of his performance style, but the perfection of his voice in a Stadium, at that. Halfway through the show, his wife Trisha Yearwood came out to perform a five song set. The crowd went crazy when they shared an embrace at the end of In Another’s Eyes, but her solo performances of How Do I Live and She’s In Love With the Boy got two of the biggest responses from the fans all night. Her mid show set was a great change of pace and I got a new found respect for Trisha as a performer as well.
The true climax of the show occurred with the three songs before the rather forgettable encore, consisting of a bombastic Callin’ Baton Rouge, followed an epic sing-a-long Friends In Low Places and concluding with the heartfelt The Dance. No three songs may say more about Garth Brooks’ career in terms of the depth, reach, diversity, and passion he has for his music. After those three songs it really sunk in to me that I was seeing one of the best performers I’ve ever seen in the 500 or so concerts I have seen.
The encore was a mixed bag for me as I felt his best songs were already performed and it was so late (1:45 in the AM) I was beginning to expire. He ended the night with a Billy Joel cover of Piano Man followed by Standing Outside the Fire which included five minutes worth of fireworks, which seemed unnecessary due to it being 2 am. However, all in all, I am glad I waited out the annoying rain delay because the show itself was indeed a spectacle and Garth is a world class performer. But, I can’t help but feel like I was cheated out of the full Garth Brooks experience, but I guess that just means I will have to see him again in the future.
COUNTRY STAMPEDE – MANHATTAN, KANSAS
JUNE 24, 2016 – Tim McGraw, Chris Janson, Josh Abbott Band, High Valley, and Gunnar & The Grizzly Boys
by Austin Earl
It was a lazy Tuesday afternoon in Manhattan, Kansas. With the temperature being 104°, there was nothing I wanted to do outside, so I played around on Twitter and sent an innocent Tweet to Dierks Bentley and Chris Janson. With their upcoming shows in Manhattan, I wanted to inform them that this future fish biologist could show them some good spots around town to catch white bass and walleye. Janson responded with the most unexpected, best Tweet I have ever received.
The tickets were for Day 2 of Country Stampede. Stampede is the largest music festival in the state of Kansas, and brings out the big names of country. Headliners this year included Sam Hunt, Dierks Bentley, Tim McGraw and Jake Owen. The Day 2 artists were Gunnar & the Grizzly Boys, High Valley, Josh Abbott Band, Janson, and McGraw. Will call was having problems finding our tickets, so we missed most of Gunnar & the Grizzly Boys.
High Valley exceeded my expectations. They had a good bluegrass feel in a lot of their songs and entertained the crowd well. They were very interactive and did not look awkward like a lot of artists that are in a similar career stage. They went full bluegrass while playing I’ll Fly Away and their talent was evident. They also showed some Florida Georgia Line-esque music with their song County Line. If they stick to their bluegrass roots they could be a very entertaining band for crowds in the future.
For me, the day really started when Josh Abbott Band took the stage. JAB has always been one of my favorite acts since I heard the song I’ll Sing About Mine for the first time a couple of years ago. The “Band” portion of the namesake put on a great show. The fiddle player had a crazy amount of talent. Unfortunately, Abbott’s voice just wasn’t there for him. I do not know if he had a cold or what was going on with him, but he could not hit the high notes that makes his range so impressive on the studio albums. In fact, he sang all of the chorus of Amnesia down an octave. As an entertainer, he was very good. He was energetic, brought out a t-shirt cannon, and made fun of the Kansas Jayhawks—always a welcome pander in Manhattan. I would be interested in seeing him again at some point to see him with his full voice.
After JAB finished, it was finally time for Chris Janson. Many people only know Buy Me A Boat, but Janson has a lot of good cuts on his debut record. The hour and a half long set let him showcase those songs as well as play some of his favorite older songs. I had heard rumors about his crazy antics on stage, so I had high expectations for his show. He did not disappoint. Janson was absolutely electric on stage. He said “you’re about to see 135 pounds of skinny white dude play a harmonica like you’ve never seen” and then he did exactly that. His vocal range was as ridiculous as his harmonica playing. He doesn’t sing high all that often on stage, but he covered Merle Haggard and hit every note in the song. He also played an oddly fun punk rock version of Ring of Fire by Johnny Cash. He interacted with pretty much everyone along the stage, signing hats and talking directly with the people. While singing Buy Me A Boat, he brought four little girls up on stage and had them sing with him. He lit up the stage and looked like he had just as much fun as anyone at the festival.
The headliner Tim McGraw finished up the day. I was personally most excited for Janson coming into the day, but it hit me about five minutes before McGraw took the stage that he was someone I’ve listened to since I was two. Words to his songs were some of the first words I knew in any music. He was one of the influential artists that helped foster my love for not just country music, but music in general. When you’re a 49 year-old with 52 number one hits, you can basically send your band out there alone and the crowd will sing all of your songs for you. McGraw didn’t do that, thankfully, but he did let the crowd sing most of his old songs’ choruses. It was kind of chilling to hear how many people McGraw’s music has touched as almost every person—from 16 to 60 year olds—in the crowd knew every word. As someone who would like to get into making music and performing, it was amazing to see how an artist can transcend generations. McGraw had a lot of energy and made the concert fun, but the star of his set was his music rather any antics. At this stage in his career, it would impossible for that not to be the case.
Overall, my girlfriend and I enjoyed a wonderful day of diverse country music in the middle of a field. To me, it just doesn’t get much better than that.
Josh Abbott set list:
1. Road Trippin’
2. Live While You Got It
3. Hangin’ Around
4. All of a Sudden
5. I’ve Been Known
7. She Will Be Free
8. Where’s the Party?
10. She’s Like Texas
11. I Just Wanna Love You
12. Flatland Farmer
13. While We’re Young
14. Callin’ Baton Rogue
15. My Texas
16. Wasn’t That Drunk
17. Oh, Tonight
19. Highway to Hell
Chris Janson set list:
1. Back in My Drinkin’ Days
2. Redneck Revival
3. Eastbound and Down
4. Better I Don’t
5. Save a Little Sugar
6. White Trash
7. Country Boy Can Survive
8. Holdin’ Her
9. Love This Life
10. Dancing in the Dark
13. Yeah It Is
14. Good Hearted Woman
15. Right in the Middle
16. Buy Me a Boat
17. Ring of Fire
Tim McGraw set list:
1. How Bad Do You Want It
2. Green Grass Grows
3. I Like, I Love It
5. Southern Girl
6. Real Good Man
7. Red Rag Top
8. Here Tonight
9. Just to See You Smile
10. One of Those Nights
12. Shotgun Rider
13. How It Will Always Be
14. All I Want is a Life
15. Indian Outlaw
16. Truck Yeah
17. Something Like That
18. Live Like You Are Dyin’
DAVE MATTHEWS BAND – June 11, 2016 – Xfinity Theatre – Hartford, CT
Dave Matthews Band took to the Xfinity Theatre stage in Hartford, Connecticut this past Saturday night to celebrate twenty five years of turning themselves into one of the biggest touring acts on the face of the planet. This night, per usual in New England, the show was sold out. And one of the best things about this DMB crowd was that there were people of all ages, from teenagers to people in their 60s. And that is a testament to who they have become as a touring act as they have not changed their jam band sound along the way, and it appeals to generations abound.
Each and every setlist at a Dave Matthews Band show is different and full of surprises. I have been to approximately seven of their shows dating back to my first in 1999 and I’ve always appreciated the diversity of songs from all eras of their career chosen to be part of their shows. To me, this shows true showmanship and musicianship in a live act. Nothing is worse than the artist who goes out and performs the same practiced setlist night in and night out, with no surprises or nothing to keep their fans guessing. And this night was no different.
Right off the bat, DMB sunk their teeth into Pig and Proudest Monkey, followed by one of their most commercially accepted songs, Crash Into Me, all from their earliest albums. But then the song selections jumped from their newer albums like Seven back to Grey Street, with “commercial” songs sandwiched between, like the nostalgic The Space Between. And as the night went on, the jam outs and guitar solo’s became longer and more intense. I was overjoyed to hear two of my personal favorite songs live in Rapunzel and Why I Am, while some of the die hards seemed to sing louder to If Only and Belly Belly Nice.
Dave Matthews, himself, is an unique lead man. He seems to be a bit reserved with an odd sense of humor. However, he was full of smiles and jokes throughout the night and even traded his acoustic guitar for a piano on two songs. His talented band members seemed to sit back a lot more than in shows past, as they were happy to let their lead man get most of the limelight. Either way, their musicianship surely shined bright during the band’s jam outs. And, at no time did that shine brighter, than during the encore when the band ripped into a cover of Bob Dylan’s legendary All Along The Watchtower. I was surprised that it was only an one song encore, but it was a great show nonetheless. I hear that DMB is taking off next year from touring to create a new album, but I foresee many, many more touring years in this great American band.
With the release of his new CD, Lattin 101, Pat Lattin is ready to break into the newest echelon of singer-songwriters. A native of Bridgeport, Connecticut, Pat has been serious about music since he picked up his first guitar at the age of twelve. He attended Berklee College of Music in Boston where he studied performance and songwriting. He formed his first bands soon thereafter and recorded several demos. After some time, he assembled a group of studio veterans and laid down an EP.
Lattin 101 marks a new direction for Pat. At the helm is fellow Berklee musician, drummer and producer Tyler LeVander. The songs range from ethereal to contemplative to no-holds-barred rock and roll. All have the stamp of something that is not just innovative, but mold-breaking.
Flying in the face of conventional artists, Pat Lattin—and his music—defies description. One may hear familiar melodic structure, but then comes the unexpected: complex, unique chord structures; songs with multiple “movements”; rhythmic adventures with wonderfully jarring changes.
Unlike some other singer-songwriters, Pat Lattin can play. Acoustic, electric, rhythm, lead, you name it. Listeners will hear subtle nuance, supple backing and scorching leads, all combining in a sound that, quite simply, breaks new ground.
“I feel new songs,” says Pat. “Some picking can become a head, a verse or a chorus. I have a simple rule on guidelines: I disregard them. Some songs are culled from others. I just assemble what sounds ‘at home’ to me.” The result: tunes that comfort, provoke, and surprise. Some veer close to a precarious edge but somehow never lose control. They can turn heads and startle, but concurrently seem to bring the listener to a landing—if not a seamless, safe one.
Pat is equally adept at playing solo as he is with his band. At every venue, he manages to invite the audience into his world—a world of wonder, texture and new horizons. Perhaps an early listener described a Pat Lattin performance best, “I don’t know what I just heard … but I need to hear it again. Right now.”
Speaking thematically, Pat Lattin compositions touch on friendly discord (“Thanks for the Advice”); a Poe-like walk through the macabre (“Mad Hatter”); the plaint of a lonely sailor (“Edge of the World”), and possibly the world’s first song about a baggage claim (“Queen of the Carousel”).
Audiences can pick up Lattin 101 on June 20th. The album will be available via all popular digital outlets. Physical copies will also drop on that date.
For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
BILLY JOEL – MADISON SQUARE GARDEN – NYC – MAY 27, 2016
I had the extreme privilege of seeing yet another musical icon, amidst a recording breaking run of sold out shows at the “World’s Most Famous Arena”, when I saw Billy Joel at Madison Square Garden. I have been to a low of shows in my lifetime, and dozens at Madison Square Garden and can say that this venue always has a unique aura of electricity from the crowd. And this night was no different, as the sold out crowd was loud and proud to be Billy Joel fans all night long. And Billy returned the favor, treating the crowd as if he personally knew them.
Billy was seated at a rotating piano for the entire show sans the encore. During the set, he played mega-hits, such as Movin’ Out, New York State of Mind, and The River of Dreams, and expectedly received beams of applause from the dancing crowd. But, early on, he did something I’ve never seen another live performer do before. Two separate times, he announced two songs and asked the crowd to pick between the two by their applause. The winning songs were Vienna (over The Stranger) and Zanzibar (over Big Man On Mulberry Street). It truly showed how comfortable Billy Joel is as a live entertainer. At no point did anything he or his band did seem staged or practiced. It was just a man and his band going out and playing for a bunch of people who felt like they knew him. And knew his music they did.
Other highlights included Billy bringing out twenty or so members of the Navy during Goodnight Saigon. Not only was it Memorial Day weekend, but also Fleet Week in New York City. Chants of USA thundered down from the entire arena during this moving moment. On the other side of things was when Billy dedicated The Entertainer to Donald Trump. I personally think, based on the lyrics of the song, that it was done as a jab at Trump. But, the Presidential Nominee obviously did not think so since the next day he took to Twitter to thank Billy personally for the dedication. However, there was no louder portion of the show than when he ended his set with two of his most famous songs, Scenes From an Italian Restaurant and Piano Man, the latter of which the crowd did most of the singing with Billy sitting there in awe.
Billy came out to a stirring six song encore chock full of classics. And instead of sitting at his baby grand, he took to the edge of the stage with an electric guitar and jammed out. During the final song, Only The Good Die Young, you could literally feel the arena floor bouncing. All in all, the concert was a great experience and one that everyone should get a ticket to as Billy continues his run as the first ever music franchise.
ZAC BROWN BAND: BLACK OUT THE SUN TOUR
MAY 19, 2016 – HARTFORD, CT
WITH SPECIAL GUEST, DRAKE WHITE & THE BIG FIRE
Last night, Zac Brown Band kicked off their new Black Out The Sun Tour in Hartford, Connecticut and absolutely captivated a sold out crowd. This show had a little bit of everything for the music fan in everyone, from country to rock, with a little reggae and electronic mixed therein. More than anything, what separates a ZBB live show is the fact that, every night of the tour, you are going to get a completely different setlist, not the same 18 songs in the same order like most of the other acts out there touring. Of course, this was night one of the tour, but you could tell the song choices were strategically chosen and masterfully executed.
For anyone who has been to a ZBB show before, a highlight is always what covers are they going to play. Because, not only are they a band who has pumped out 15 #1 hits and 4 #1 albums, but they are probably the best cover band out there as well. In years past, I’ve seen them cover songs from Metallica, Rage Against the Machine, Bob Marley, Tom Petty, Queen, and so many more. This night did not disappoint in the least, as they performed four amazing and very diverse cover songs: “No Way No” by Magic, “S.O.B.” by Nathaniel Riley, “Wrong Way” by Sublime, and “Teenage Wasteland” by The Who. Yes, you did not read those four titles wrong.
On top of it all were the hits, like “Homegrown”, “Toes” and “Chicken Fried”, as well as a great acoustic portion which featured “Sweet Annie”, “Colder Weather”, and a rare song found on ZBB’s first album which was an independent release, called “On This Train”. Only the diehard ZBB fans know about that album, and many having been dying to hear that song live, which was a special treat. The stage was intense, with multiple levels, a new horn section, and graphics that were very high tech. During the song “Tomorrow Never Comes”, the Black Sun illuminated the entire amphitheater and turned it into an intense rave with trippy colors and the band jumping in unison. Overall, the show is a can’t miss this summer from music’s most talented live band.
And not to be overlooked in the least, was Drake White & The Big Fire, who opened the show to much intrigue and acceptance. Sometimes being a relatively unknown act without an album for fans to get exposed to your music may be held against an artist in a live setting. However, Drake White took to the stage with the performing swagger of a season veteran. He pumped out country anthems such as “Back To Free” and “Living The Dream” as well as feeding to the ZBB crowd with covers such as a Beatles classic. “It Feels Good” had the crowd grooving as Drake used every inch of the stage and showed no signs of being a rookie. I caught up with him after his show and he told me he was excited about his first album and that he is shooting for an August release date. Fans need to get ready, because he is going to be around for a long time.
Zac Brown Band’s Castaway With Southern Ground
at the Hard Rock Hotel – Riviera Maya, Mexico
with Trombone Shorty, Dawes, Michael Franti, Kacey Musgraves, The Wailers, Brett Dennen & Darrell Scot
This past January, Zac Brown Band embarked on a familiar mission of giving its fans a healthy dose of great music, food, and entertainment, but this time, in a not so familiar setting. I have been a fan of the Zac Brown Band since their beginnings. I have been a member of their fan club, the “Zamily”, since its first few weeks of its existence. So, when I heard that ZBB was putting together an all inclusive concert vacation at the Hard Rock Hotel in Riviera Maya, Mexico, I was all in. While this is not the first time a band or artist has put together a concert vacation experience, and it was not ZBB’s first time (they previously did one a few years ago in Punta Cana), they are usually paired up with similar artists in the same genre. What I love so much about ZBB is that you cannot fit them into any single genre, and this was so evidenced by the acts that Zac hand picked to be a part of the four night extravaganza. Instead of your typical country music festival feel that acts like Luke Bryan or Lady Antebellum have put together in resort settings, Castaway was much more than that. With acts such as Trombone Shorty, Dawes, Michael Franti, Kacey Musgraves, The Wailers, Brett Dennen, and Darrell Scott, the music side of Castaway became a true celebration of all music.
When putting together an event like this, all details must be worked out ahead of time, and ZBB, Could 9, the Zamily, and the Hard Rock Hotel did this and more. Not only was the resort enormous and beautiful, but it was kept clean and had all the options you could think of for a resort vacation. What was very cool was they gave each resort guest a number of resort credits that could be used in a variety of ways. My wife and I used them to upgrade menu choices at some of the restaurants, private cabana’s on the beach, and for entrance to the spa as well as services there. There were various pools located at the resort where the party crowds seemed to gravitate towards, while the guests who wanted to relax and unwind had a plethora of choices along their enormous beach front. And right in the middle of it all, was a huge stage fit for any large music festival, where the musical magic went down at night.
Each night had a different line-up consisting of different artists and different set times. The first night was kicked off by Brett Dennen, an eccentric musician who has a very different delivery, but one who I enjoyed a great deal. He has had some hits that have showed up on different commercials and movies, such as “Comeback Kid” (look it up, I am positive you’ve heard it). When he hit the stage, the Castaway guests were chomping at the bit for some music, so his show was accepted very positively. With the music playing, the cool Mexican breeze blowing and the neon lights flashing in the sky, you knew you the next few nights were going to be something very special. The second act of the night was The Wailers, Bob Marley’s old backing band who has continued to tour after his untimely passing. And for fans of the old Bob Marley & The Wailers Greatest Hits, there show contained every single one of the classics. The lead singer did very well to engage the crowd as the entire concert courtyard turned into a dance party. “One Love”, “Jamming”, “Exodus” and many more were full out sing-a-longs as The Wailers played on to midnight closing out a very fun and diverse first night of music.
However, the second day was the one all the guests were looking forward to the most as Zac Brown Band was set to take the stage right before sundown. I caught up with Clay Cook, multi instrumentalist for ZBB and a solo artists in his own right, and he told me how much he was looking forward to taking the stage because the band hadn’t played together for a few months. He told me he was meeting up with Zac that afternoon to discuss the setlist because “they knew it had to be something different and special”. And different and special it was, as ZBB performed a flawless two hour set full of song from each one of their projects, including songs I had never heard live before despite the fact that I’ve seen them live more than two dozen times.
Naturally, their set began with “Castaway” and was finished off by “Toes”, two of their island themed songs. But it was tracks such as “Day That I Die”, “Cold Hearted” and “Natural Disaster” that made this set so memorable for the die hard Zamily members who paid their way out to Mexico hoping to see their favorite band celebrate their career. Of course, there were the hits such as “Free”, and “Homegrown” thrown in, because, well, ZBB has hits. But it was refreshing to hear all of their catalogue played live. And to make this set even more memorable for me, personally, was the fact that I got to watch the majority of the show from a rooftop suite overlooking the stage with the ocean in the background at sunset, thanks to a few good friends I made while on the vacation. This set, for me, will always be one of my favorite two hours of live music that I’ve ever witnessed.
After ZBB’s set it was announced by T-Bird, the Zamily’s Manager, that Brian Collins was going to be performing at one of the bars on the resort. I had never heard Brian Collins’ music before but my friends urged me to go and see him and I am happy I did. Brian has a true Southern Ground type feel to his music and he performed a stirring acoustic set with his guitar and harmonica, as well as help from ZBB’s Daniel De Los Reyes and John Driscoll Hopkins. The catchy song “Healing Highway” really stood out to me and made me buy his album when I got back home. And I unfortunately did not get to see Michael Franti’s performance that night, but from what I heard, he had some of the best energy of any of the performers and hope to catch him in the future.
The next day we were treated to a songwriting seminar with Coy Bowles of the ZBB and a guacamole cook off with Chef Rusty Hamlin, the band’s touring chef. The seminar with Coy was outstanding as he spoke on how the band comes up with lines in songs and musical breakdowns. For instance he told us that the band goofily created the song “Castaway” based off a dance some older women were doing in the front row of a ZBB show. Or how the intro to “Colder Weather” was just stumbled upon at 5 am by Clay Cook at a piano at Kid Rock’s house, while he was still half asleep. To hear how some of the songs ZBB fans love were created was truly priceless. I even got to meet the lead singer of Dawes, Taylor Goldsmith, at the bar that afternoon. Overall, it was a solid day with lots of fun and personalized options for the fans.
That night we were treated to shows by Dawes and Kacey Musgraves. For me, aside from the ZBB sets, the two hour set by Dawes was the most memorable of the four nights. I had never heard their music before they were announced as a performer at Castaway and I spent the months leading up to the vacation, experiencing their four albums on vinyl. And wow, was I blown away by their live performance. I would describe Dawes as a folk-rock-jam band as they take a folk like approach to their songwriting with a lot of rock rifts, but then jam out for minutes at a time on almost every other song. “My Time Comes”, “Things Happen”, and “All Your Favorite Bands” are probably their most well known songs, but it was other tracks such as “I Can’t Think About It Now” and “Somewhere Along The Way” that were most impressive live because each of the band members absolutely owned their instruments with bombastic jam outs. They completely won me over and I will now see them live every time they are in my area.
Up after Dawes was country sweetheart, Kacey Musgraves. She put forth a low energy, free flowing set that paired very nicely with the breezy Mexican night. Kacey’s first album, “Same Trailer, Different Park” has become one of my favorite albums, although her second album did not really connect with me the same way. Her stage persona has changed a bit as she used to be very earthy, but now dresses in a strange tutu as her bandmates dressed in pink suits. It all comes across as a bit cheesy to me, but her songs, nonetheless, are pure country and of much quality. I watched half the set with the crowd and half the set from my friend’s rooftop with a cigar and some whiskey, which really brought together the relaxing atmosphere that Kacey creates.
The final day of Castaway included tequila tasting seminars, a dance class with Daniel De Los Reyes, and a Tropical Sunset dinner prepared by Chef Rusty with acoustic music from Darrell Scott. The food was amazing as Rusty cooked up suckling pigs and some freshly caught fish along with lots of authentic Mexican food. Darrell Scott performed on a stage that was in the middle of the ocean with help from ZBB band member Matt Mangano. It was a perfect kick off before the final pairing of Trombone Shorty and Zac Brown Band.
Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue performed on the main stage first on the final night and they put forth an equally impressive and energetic set. Trombone Shorty himself is a dynamic performer who uses every inch of the stage while he sings, raps, and plays a number of instruments, most notably, the trombone. His band members were extremely skilled as his guitarist ripped filthy solo’s and his horn and sax sections had their time to shine as well. Trombone Shorty had everyone dancing and grooving from start to finish and was much more than just a warm up for the finale of the vacation. I even got to hang with him in the crowd during ZBB’s set and he was incredibly personable.
ZBB performed the finale set of the Castaway experience with another two hour set chock full of hits and rare cuts from all of their albums. Incredibly, they did not repeat a single song from their previous Mexican set two days earlier, which I dare you to find me another act who can do that. “Quiet Your Mind”, “Settle Me Down”, and “Different Kind of Fine” were some of the rarely heard live songs that were performed, along with hits such as “Keep Me In Mind”, “Goodbye in Her Eyes” and “Beautiful Drug”.
A few highlights included Darrell Scott coming out for the song he co-wrote with Zac, “Remedy”, fiddler Jimmy De Martini’s face melting solo on their cover of “Neon”, and the “Broken Arrows” performance that Zac is featured on with the EDM artist, Avicii . Over all, the show was high energy and Zac and the boys were amped up throughout. Fittingly, the four night concert experience was capped with ZBB’s breakout hit, “Chicken Fried”, which made the courtyard feel like a family style sing-a-long. It was a masterfully executed event on all fronts as the music, food, resort, and personal attention were impeccable. Zac told the crowd he wanted to do this again next year right back at the Hard Rock. Mark my words, if they do it again, I will be there. It truly was easy living down in paradise …