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Live: Zac Brown at the Mint

December 11, 2008 | 12:39 pm

Last night at the Mint, Zac Brown stood shoulder-to-shoulder with his band; five players squeezed onto the small stage like moving-company men in an elevator. It was a fitting, if uncomfortable, circumstance for a group quickly growing too big for the space to which it's been confined.

Brown is a 30-year-old Georgia native and former chef (best bio detail: He likes making fig preserves) who's been gigging around for years now, hoping for a break. He got it with "Chicken Fried," an ode to all things generically American that's currently No. 1 on the country charts. The song is basically a novelty with some uniform-honoring patriotism thrown in, but a quick spin of "The Foundation," the band's Atlantic Records debut, shows that Brown isn't just another opportunistic redneck.

At the Mint, Brown bore out the potential that "The Foundation" reveals. Looking like a lost member of the metal band Mastodon in a skullcap and a beard made to collect crumbs, Brown was a gentle storyteller between numbers and a fiercely focused guitarist and crooner when the music played.

His supple, soulful voice is a major asset, helping him wax laconic on his funny songs and pull heartstrings on soft-rock ballads like the exquisite "Free" -- with its all-too-relevant chorus, "We don't have a lot of money, all we need is love" -- and the divorced dad's lament "Highway 20 Ride." Brown threw in a little of Van Morrison's "Into the Mystic" during "Free," a nice reminder that country music has as much to do with blue-eyed soul as with Blue Ridge Mountain breakdowns.

Brown and his mates also can deliver the latter. The other cover offered by this very seasoned former cover band (200 dates a year and counting) was by Charlie Daniels, and the hard edge they gave that Southern rock grandpa's classic nearly turned it into "The Devil Horns Went Down to Georgia." Fiddler Jimmy De Martini had a touch that was both jazzy and homespun, and multi-instrumentalist Coy Bowles alternated between Muscle Shoals-style keyboard fills and scorching guitar runs.

Update: The original version of this post misidentified multi-instrumentalist Coy Bowles as Cory Bowles.

Brown's songs foreground his Southernness, but like most commercial country now, they blend many musical influences. One standout was "Junkyard," a spooky, protracted tale of child abuse and revenge that, in a different setting, could have been by Metallica. "This song helped me get rid of a lot of the hate I'd been carrying around in my heart," Brown said when he introduced it, offering some fodder for the magazine profiles soon to come.

Not one to leave his fans stranded in his last therapy session, Brown took the band right into "Toes," a bit of Jimmy Buffett worship that ends with a nice recession-era twist. After running out of pesos, the tune's tropical vacationer ends up back at the lake in Georgia, having traded in his tequila for a Pabst Blue Ribbon. The fans clearly identified, hoisting their cold ones high.

On record, the reggae lilt of "Toes" recalls Kenny Chesney, but live it confirmed Brown's connections to the jam rock scene. He's assembled a band that can easily move from bluegrass to tropical rhythms to headbanging rock without abandoning its countrypolitan roots. As Sugarland and Little Big Town have already proved, this is the sweet spot for 21st century country pop: versatile, unpretentious eclecticism grounded in musical proficiency and an expanded sense of birthright.

Finishing up the hour-plus set, Brown thanked everyone who had helped him arrive at No. 1, from his lawyer to his wife to the guy behind the merch table. It was a bit over the top for a club gig, but what the heck -- his horizons are expanding. "I'm not getting an award or anything, but I have, I've got so many blessings," he concluded. Seems like he's in for many more next year.

-- Ann Powers

Photo by C. Taylor Crothers