Zac Brown Band and the art of the cover song at Jazz Aspen Labor Day fest
September 3, 2018
"I have one of the greatest bands in the world behind me," Zac Brown told the sold out crowd at the Jazz Aspen Snowmass Labor Day Experience on Sunday night after stepping back on-stage for an encore. "Let me show them off for a minute."
Brown and his seven-man crew then launched into an eight-song medley of covers — a staple of the band's summer stadium tour that showcases their ability to nail just about any genre. Each band member took the lead and sang a verse on their own song, with idiosyncratic selections far beyond the Zac Brown Band's country-rock wheelhouse.
They did Living Colour's "Cult of Personality" and Elton John's "Benny and the Jets," they did The Police's "Message in a Bottle" and Sly and the Family Stone's "Thank You." Bass player John Driskell Hopkins rapped Sir Mix-a-Lot's "Baby Got Back" and Brown himself took the lead vocals on AC/DC's "Thunderstruck" before they closed the night with the Beastie Boys' "Sabotage," fiddle player Jimmy De Martini center-stage on the mic doing the Ad-Rock part. (The day's opening band, The Record Company, also closed their set with a "Sabotage" cover.)
The remarkable thing about the Zac Brown Band's covers – which were also peppered throughout the set – is that the band doesn't do ironic country-fied versions of these songs from far-flung genres. They approach them earnestly, bringing the band's stellar skills to hip-hop and metal and funk. Brown knows he's got a band that can do anything, so he lets them try to pull off everything.
On Sunday when they played Metallica's "Enter Sandman" – with Brown playing bass and Hopkins on vocals – it was as menacing a heavy-metal scorcher as the original. Their straightforward version of Kings of Leon's "Use Somebody," likewise, was the band's honest take on a soaring pop number. Both got the crowd in Snowmass Town Park roaring and singing along.
This high-wire act actually works. And it may be why the Zac Brown Band and has made it into the stratosphere of American pop music and has been filling stadiums across the U.S. all summer.
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Their "Whipping Post" is the closest their covers come their home genre, but seeing organ player Clay Cook and his mates do karaoke Allman Brothers – including dueling guitar solos from Brown and Coy Bowles – was a Southern rock thrill worthy of the Allmans.
Of course, just about every pop acts works some covers into their sets. Especially when they're playing to a big festival crowd like Jazz Aspen's Labor Day fest, in front of people who may have come out to see somebody else, it's a surefire way to get an audience on board. But few bands are doing it with such unexpected material and results as the Zac Brown Band.
The previous night's headliner, Jack Johnson, also worked a ton of cover songs into his set. But his approach was more conventional. He stuck to songs close to his laid-back rock style – his cover choices are all Jack Johnson adjacent. And he used the covers mostly as interludes within his own songs. (Zac Brown Band does some of this, too. They did short interludes of the Eagles' "Take It To the Limit" and Van Morrison's "Into the Mystic" between verses of their own songs Sunday.) On his "Sitting, Waiting, Wishing" Johnson dropped a few verses of The Cars' "Just What I needed. On "Flake," he interspersed a bit of a Grateful Dead-styled "Not Fade Away." Later it was bits of Sublime's "Badfish" and Steve Miller Band's "The Joker" and Bob Marley's "Soul Shakedown."
Johnson also brought out the opening act, Bahamas, to join him for a sweet and winning Tom Petty tribute, playing "You Don't Know How It Feels" in full.
A third way, with cover songs, is to re-imagine a classic and make it your own. This is a rarity. But the Labor Day crowd got a master class in this approach with Gary Clark Jr.'s apocalyptic spin on The Beatles "Come Together," which closed his phenomenal evening set on Sunday. With shrieks of feedback and sneering dirty blues, Clark makes you rethink the song (his recorded version of it was on the “Justice League” soundtrack last year). Clark re-frames “Come Together” as a more pessimistic, darker and more urgent call for unity that's pitch-perfect for 2018.