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ZBB changes it up at MerleFest close

Wilkesboro Community College, Wilkesboro, N.C., April 30, 2017

Reviewed by Kevin Oliver

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By the time Sunday afternoon rolls around at MerleFest, the music has been going for nearly four whole days. In its 30th year, MerleFest continues to meld the mainstream and the roots music communities together with solid bookings at both ends of the spectrum. Sunday's headliner this year was a prime example with Zac Brown being a previous participant both as a performer and in his younger days, as a member of the audience, something he referred to on stage several times during the band's set.

Noted songwriter Darrell Scott, a MerleFest veteran, is a current touring member of the Zac Brown Band; Brown recalled between songs of a time when he witnessed a Scott set at MerleFest with fellow musician Tim O'Brien and how it affected and influenced his own musical path.

For this special MerleFest set, the Zac Brown Band was without drums or percussion. Instead, they were seated on stage, the row of stools occupied by strummers of various acoustic instruments in a nod to the traditional bluegrass, folk and Americana the festival has cultivated for many years.

Fans of Brown's electrified hits need not have worried that he would also change up the set drastically, however; even in the stripped down acoustic format songs such as "Homegrown" and "Keep Me In Mind" rang out with the easygoing harmonies and pop melodies that made them huge country hits, and a cover of the Eagles' "Seven Bridges Road" benefited from the setup as well.

Brown knew the crowd he was in front of was a different one than usual, however, and he played to that frequently, opening with John Prine's "All The Best" and telling stories about collaborators from the folk and bluegrass scene.

A tender version of "Martin," the tribute to his Martin guitar that appears on 2010's "You Get What You Give," was prefaced by Brown recalling how legendary guitarist Tony Rice played on the album version, and asking the audience to keep Rice, currently experiencing health problems, in their thoughts and prayers.

The fans were there to hear the hits too, and Brown delivered all through the performance, pulling out "Knee Deep," "My Old Man" and a crowd singalong on "Toes" before wrapping up the set, and the 30th year of MerleFest, with perhaps his best-loved tune, "Chicken Fried."