Sunday, April 28, 2013 | 1:31 p.m.
By Jack Houston
With the opening notes of “Enter Sandman” ringing out, the singer stepped to the mic. Only it wasn’t Metallica’s James Hetfield. Nor was it Zac Brown, the leader of the Zac Brown Band and singer of 21 of the band’s 23 songs on Saturday night at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas.
It was John Driskell Hopkins, the bass player and, up until this point, an inconspicuous presence onstage, where his Civil War-era facial hair commanded more attention than his low end or backup vocals.
But Hopkins owned it. Digging deep into a guttural growl, he delivered a performance worthy of the metal icon’s most recognizable song.
Over two hours at The Cosmopolitan’s Chelsea Ballroom, the Zac Brown Band proved that it has the cojones to tackle any genre and song. When it came time to deviate from its roster of original hits, the band went big. Really big.
“We’re going to take you back a bit,” Brown said early on in the set. Expecting a selection from their 2008 major label debut to follow, or perhaps something from a pair of self-released albums they dropped in the mid-2000s, ZBB instead lit into a faithful cover of Dave Matthews Band’s “Ants Marching.”
As he did throughout the night, violinist Jimmy De Martini took the lead, replicating fellow jam band violinist Boyd Tinsley to a T and bringing the crowd alive for not the first time in the night.
The seven-piece of Brown, Hopkins, De Martini, guitarist Clay Cook, organist Coy Bowles and percussionists Daniel de los Reyes and Chris Fryar simply refuses to be pigeonholed as a straightaway country act. A song you might have heard on CMT on a Sunday morning will evolve into a freewheeling jam. A speed-demon bluegrass number will follow a tender ballad. Out of nowhere, Edgar Winter Group’s instrumental “Frankenstein” will appear.
If you tended to not be familiar with the band’s material, these surprises were just the kind of thing to warm you to the Atlanta-based outfit.
And if you happened to catch the band at Mandalay Bay Events Center in January 2012, the 4,000-capacity Chelsea was, simply put, a revelation. An intimacy missing from that show was felt in full force as the beanie-capped Brown seemed to be in tears after a stirring performance of “Colder Weather.” (ZBB also rocked The Joint in The Hard Rock Hotel Las Vegas in March 2010.)
“Let’s all get lost together tonight, OK?” Brown requested during “Knee Deep,” and the crowd did its best to oblige. It certainly got lost in a spiraling guitar solo from Cook, who transformed “Who Knows” into a show highlight, climaxing in some Allman Brothers-style guitar interplay with Brown.
The band was so hot, one can only imagine the saturation status of Brown’s beanie by the time the band returned for an encore, which kicked into overdrive with an oh-no-they-didn’t cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir,” then segued with we-do-this-every-night swagger into “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.”
A new song, “One Day,” foreshadowed what’s to come with Zac Brown Band’s next full-length. Rooted in country but riding a ’70s soft rock groove, it threw another monkey wrench into a set that never telegraphed where it was going.
Exit light, enter night -- and a pair of jeans that fit just right.
Saturday’s set list: “Jump Right In,” “As She’s Walking Away,” “Knee Deep,” “Free”/“Into the Mystic,” “Natural Disaster,” “Ants Marching,” “The Wind,” “Colder Weather,” “One Day,” “Where the Boat Leaves From”/“One Love,” “Who Knows,” “Day That I Die,” “Keep Me in Mind,” “Enter Sandman,” “Whiskey’s Gone,” “Highway 20 Ride,” “Quiet Your Mind,” “Toes,” “Goodbye in Her Eyes” and “Chicken Fried.” Encore: “Uncaged”/“Kashmir”/“The Devil Went Down to Georgia.”
Jack Houston is editor of Las Vegas Magazine, Las Vegas Life and Vegas2Go, publications of Greenspun Media Group, which also owns the Las Vegas Sun, Vegas DeLuxe and Las Vegas Weekly. Houston is not related to Brown, despite the similar facial hair.