Summer stadium tours are the stomping grounds of rock and pop star giants — an increasingly rare breed who can fill these huge outdoor sportsplexes with tens of thousands of fans in dozens of cities. The Zac Brown Band now walks among those platinum-selling, Grammy-winning mammoths of summertime.
Only a handful of acts can pull off a stadium tour these days — this summer, the other major ones in the U.S. were Jay-Z and Beyonce, Ed Sheeran and Taylor Swift.
Playing mostly baseball stadiums over the past three months, the Zac Brown Band has spent the summer on one of the season’s biggest and most popular tours. Their “Down the Rabbit Hole” run has the band headlining Safeco Field — home of the Seattle Mariners — on Friday before coming to headline the Jazz Aspen Snowmass Labor Day Experience in Snowmass Village on Sunday night.
The Labor Day music festival, with a sell-out crowd of about 10,000 expected Sunday, is actually a smaller gig for the band these days when it mostly plays to crowds two and three times as big.
“I love playing baseball fields,” fiddle player Jimmy De Martini said in a phone interview from Atlanta during a recent tour break. “The atmosphere is amazing and our crowds really get into it when we play outside.”
They’ve set out to smash the perception of stadium shows as impersonal, cookie-cutter affairs. These big stages, De Martini believes, have had a positive effect on the band’s performances, inspiring them to make each night a unique and major event with a freshly crafted set list, surprise covers and new interpretations of their country rock catalog.
“Sometimes when you play amphitheaters, things look the same and feel the same when you go up there night after night,” he said. “But when you’re playing a baseball stadium there’s such a unique culture to each city that they put into the construction and the culture of baseball that you can feel you’re in a different spot every time you get onstage.”
The band last headlined Labor Day here in 2011 — a sellout that capped a major rebound event for Jazz Aspen, doubling the attendance from 2010 and launching its continuing partnership with concert promoter AEG. (The 2018 lineup actually includes all three main stage acts from 2011’s closing Sunday: Zac Brown Band; Fitz and the Tantrums, who play Saturday evening; and Michael Franti, who opens the festival today.) The dramatic mountainscapes surrounding the Jazz Aspen festival grounds in Snowmass Town Park — and the oxygen tanks backstage — made for a memorable experience for De Martini and his bandmates, he said.
“It’s an amazing landscape and great inspiration all around,” he said. “Everybody seems to be in good spirits and happy to be there.”
As musical tastes have splintered in the streaming era, Zac Brown Band is one of the dwindling number of pop acts pulling off a big-tent approach — making a bid to be the country band that non-country fans like, with a reputation for astonishing live show’s that anybody will love.
Ten years on from the band’s 2008 breakout hit, “Chicken Fried,” the Zac Brown Band’s sound is a country music that’s broadly defined and probably would have been called “rock” a generation ago. The Georgia-based, eight-man band ignores the traditional confines of the country label and is unafraid to experiment with the genre, digging into Allman Brothers-styled Southern rock jams and more far-flung territory. The band’s most recent album, “Welcome Home,” released last year, is a largely acoustic and straightforward rootsy record that followed 2015’s “Jekyll and Hyde,” which saw the band experimenting with the sounds of dance, pop and jazz.
De Martini, an Atlanta native, met Brown in 2004 when each of them were making the rounds on the local live music scene. After one gig, the bartender — Wyatt Durette, who has become one of Brown’s songwriting partners, including penning lyrics for “Colder Weather” — put De Martini in touch with Brown. De Martini sat in with Brown at a sports bar the following night, and after this unassuming gig Brown asked De Martini to join what would become Zac Brown Band.
“I knew there was something special the first time I played with Zac,” De Martini recalled.
Bar bands in Atlanta — like most everywhere — rely on cover songs to keep crowds engaged. Brown, for the most part, did not. That signaled to De Martini that Brown was on to something with his sound, his songwriting and his burly, bearded stage charm.
“With your originals, people don’t usually care too much,” he recalled. “The opposite was true of Zac. … I knew it was special. I don’t think I knew it would get quite to this level, because this is a dream come true.”
Ironically, now that the band is at the pinnacle of American pop music, cover songs are a staple of its vaunted live show.
On this summer tour, the band’s eclectic and unexpected choices of covers have drawn fans’ notice and sparked social media buzz. Sets have included inspired arrangements of selections far from Zac Brown Band’s country rock wheelhouse, like the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” and Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” and Living Color’s “Cult of Personality.”
A handful of the stadium shows have also included their spin on the Dave Matthews Band’s “Ants Marching,” with which De Martini has a long personal history. He first made a living in music as the fiddler for the popular early 2000s Georgia-based outfit Dave Matthews Cover Band, playing the Boyd Tinsley parts.
“It’s cool, it’s a full-circle thing,” De Martini said.
When Zac Brown Band first played stadiums years later, it was opening for Dave Matthews. As they’ve returned to those venues this summer for the first time, they’ve honored those old days with “Ants Marching.”
“We were talking about it, like, ‘Remember the last time we played here we played with Dave Matthews Band? Let’s play ‘Ants Marching!'” recalled De Martini.
That spontaneity has been a cornerstone of the cover-heavy summer tour. The band spends an hour or so warming up in the tour bus before they take the stage and working on some surprises for each show.
“Sometimes we’ll have never played a song before and we’ll just run through it two times on the bus and then go play it in front of 20,000 people,” De Martini said. “It’s cool that we can do that.”
You can’t do that with some songs, though, he noted. Perfecting the mini rock opera movements and harmonies of their barn-burning take on Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” for instance, required dedicated rehearsal time before the tour kicked off.
Meeting that challenge has impressed fellow musicians on tour. Nahko, the front man for Nahko and Medicine for the People, who opened for Zac Brown Band on three nights of the summer tour, recalled the first time he Brown and band attempt “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
“He started playing Queen — anytime somebody starts playing Queen, you’re crossing your fingers that they don’t f— it up,” Nahko recalled this summer with a laugh. “And he slayed it. … That’s when you know a band can really play: when they can do a Queen cover really well.”
Sometimes nearly half the Zac Brown Band’s show is made up of covers, alongside older hits like “Knee Deep” and “Keep Me in Mind,” mixed in with a handful of songs from “Welcome Home” each night like the nostalgic trip to the band’s early days “Roots” and the father-son tearjerker “My Old Man.” They’ve been using the stadium spectacle to ratchet up the poignancy of “My Old Man,” shooting live video of fathers and sons in the crowd and playing it on the jumbo screens at stadiums along with old photos of the band members and their dads.
“It’s pretty emotional,” De Martini said.
The band has tour dates booked through October. After that, De Martini said, they plan to dig into their next album. They’ve already made progress on some songs — grabbing studio time between shows this summer. He is hopeful they’ll get a new record out in 2019.
“We’re definitely in that creative process now,” he said.