When I was growing up here in Saratoga Springs, it was a rite of passage to go see the Dave Matthews Band perform at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC). Maybe you’d take an illicit sip from a liquor-cabinet combo beforehand—maybe a puff of a special cigarette. But the real magic came when you joined your brothers and sisters in the audience and did a full-on, throat-be-damned sing-off of “Satellite” or “Ants Marching.”
Dave Matthews Band’s happy marriage to Saratoga isn’t going away anytime soon—but they’ve got some formidable competition for the annual hearts and minds of the city in the Zac Brown Band (ZBB). The Grammy-winning country-rock octet has now been coming to SPAC for seven years and will be making their now-normal, late-summer drop-in at the venue this Friday, August 30, with Willie Nelson’s son (and another SPAC veteran) Lukas Nelson and his band, Promise of the Real, in tow (tickets to the show are still available here).
Whereas last year’s Down the Rabbit Hole tour saw ZBB supporting 2017’s Welcome Home—an album the band had been touring pretty long and hard on—this year’s SPAC performance will be under slightly different circumstances. On September 20, ZBB will be releasing their highly anticipated sixth studio album, The Owl, which means the band won’t be supporting a polished, finished product at SPAC, but rather giving it a good, old-fashioned test drive. Not to mention the fact that all of this will be happening the night before ZBB heads off to play a double-header at Boston’s sacred Fenway Park, the first night of which is sold out.
Now, if you’ve been privy to the rise of ZBB, you’ll know that their live sets are like snowflakes; no two are ever truly alike. And they’re also very much torn from the playbook of The Boss, in the sense that the eight-piece will likely roll through an enormous range of work during a single night’s performance. That might include new singles and choice cuts from their deep catalog of albums—subdivided into two or more sets—with a smattering of somewhat-surprising (and inventively arranged) cover songs spread throughout. Recent examples include Rage Against the Machine’s “Bulls on Parade,” and “Use Somebody,” by ZBB contemporary Kings of Leon. At their show in Bristow, VA, on August 25, for instance, ZBB plowed through 27 songs, 10 of which were partial or full covers. That covers-first aesthetic shows the band’s tremendous range (and the range of influences on ZBB’s members), and might make the first-time ZBB-er scratch his or her head as to what to actually call their music. Is it pop? Is it country? Is it rock? Are they a jam band? Why do I love this so much, and why’s that dude in front of me turning into a rattlesnake? (The latter might actually be something else.)
One of the band’s multi-instrumentalists, Thomaston, GA-native Coy Bowles, who’s been a card-carrying ZBB member since ’07, gives me a little insight into “ZBB as the world’s greatest cover band,” when we talk about his influences growing up. When Bowles picked up the guitar for the first time at age 11 and formed his first band two years later, he wanted nothing more than to emulate the sound of—wait for it—Pearl Jam and Nirvana. One of the songs that got him hooked on grunge? Nirvana’s “Drain You,” about as non-twangy a song as you can fathom. “[‘Drain You’ is] what inspired me to understand improvisation for the first time,” says Bowles, who often shows off his insane improv chops onstage to the glee of the ZBB faithful. “It had a middle part where they just made noise. I remember asking my mom what they were doing, and she said, ‘They’re just improvising. It just means you do whatever you want to and be creative.'” Suddenly, for Bowles and his young band, it was all Nirvana—and “going bananas” in the middle of the song—all the time. And to some extent, even though each member of ZBB plays a defined role in the greater unit, with Zac Brown clearly the leader of the band, the ability to think outside of the box and be impromptu-improvisational, is the key to what makes the band one of America’s best.
But back to Bowles. Fast-forward several years, and he’s found himself at West Georgia College, where he’s studying the most un-rock-and-roll thing ever—biology—and was dabbling in the local music scene, playing in the same musical circles as fellow student Brown. By graduation, he’d formed a working band called Coy Bowles and The Fellowship, which he “spent every dollar and amount of energy that he could to turn that into something.” But it was tough being a band leader, trying to support himself and the band at the same time. Then Coy Bowles and The Fellowship started opening for ZBB, and eventually, Brown asked Bowles to join his band on keys. He was playing double-duty for awhile, but whereas ZBB was a band full of guys that had been bandleaders, all of whom wanted to travel the world making life-changing music, the guys in Bowles’ band were more interested in launching their own solo careers. So he put his band on hiatus in 2006, joined ZBB full time the following year and never looked back. Talk about great timing: ZBB’s major label debut, The Foundation, dropped in 2008, and they went on to win a Best New Artist Grammy in 2010 (they’ve added two more golden Gramophones since then).
Although Bowles didn’t play on that first record, it wouldn’t be long before he began making his presence felt in the band, co-writing ZBB’s No.1 single, “Knee Deep,” from their Foundation follow-up, 2010’s You Get What You Give (the single would feature the unmistakable voice of first Margaritaville settler Jimmy Buffett). “I’ve always been somebody that listens to a [song’s] melody more than I do the words,” says Bowles. He chalks his melody-first songwriting process up to the Seattle grunge bands he grew up listening to. “Half the time, you didn’t know what they were saying but you could understand the emotion and the energy that’s coming behind them in the melody,” says Bowles. As far as how “Knee Deep” came to pass, it couldn’t have happened in a more organic way. Brown’s longtime songwriting collaborator, Wyatt Durrette (basically, his Tim Reynolds), was a wordsmith, first and foremost. “I remember sitting on the beach with Wyatt,” says Bowles. Durrette was humming melody lines to himself and working on lyrics, and the song had already taken on a beach-y, escapism vibe, because, well, they were on the beach. Bowles suggested to Durrette that it would be a cool idea to have the song’s narrator say he was writing a note and he’d be back in a minute—you know, like escaping life for a little while. And it made it into the finished product: The third verse of the song begins: “Wrote a note, said ‘Be back in a minute’/Bought a boat and I sailed off in it.” Bowles has gone on to co-write a handful of other ZBB tunes, including “Uncaged,” “Roots,” and a pair of other No.1’s, “Colder Weather” and “Sweet Annie” (the official video for the latter features actual scenes from Bowles’ wedding).
For fans looking for a sneak-peek of the new album, they’ll be getting it on this tour, for sure. But the finished product might throw some diehards for a loop, with co-writes by pop songwriter Shawn Mendes (single “Someone I Used to Know” was released last year); and another tune, “Need This,” co-produced by Ryan Tedder, who’s worked with popsters such as Adele, Beyoncé, Ed Sheeran and Taylor Swift. Another credit you probably never would’ve assumed you’d see in the liner notes of a ZBB album? Swedish producer Max Martin, known for practically inventing the modern-day ear-worm, with products such as “…Baby, One More Time” (Britney Spears), “Blank Space” (by the aforementioned Tay-Tay) and “I Can’t Feel My Face” (The Weeknd). But it’ll be impossible not to want to curl up with The Owl on a chilly fall day, when you know that there’s at least one track, “Finish What We Started,” featuring a duet with recent Grammy power-pipes vocalist Brandi Carlile. “I’m very proud of the album,” says Bowles. “The recording process was something that we’d never done before.” Whereas for their previous album, Welcome Home, the band ripped through the entire album-recording process in seven days time, this one was—to paraphrase one-time ZBB collaborator Kacey Musgraves—a much slower burn. They’d go in and record a few tunes, leave, then come back and cut a few more. Some of the songs they recorded didn’t even end up on the finished album. “On this album, Zac really wanted to go out and write and be around a lot of the bigger producers that had written bigger pop songs, and he wanted to see what it was like to work with them,” says Bowles. Brown would bring back rough cuts that he’d worked on in sessions with the Martins and Tedders of the world, and the rest of the band would then fill in the blanks. “The coolest part of the whole album is that the more we got into it, the more stuff blossomed,” says Bowles. So some songs that made the final cut were mere germs just days before they were completed.
Now, if you’re hoping to hear a Saratoga story like the one ZBB’s bassist Matt Mangano told me last summer—about running an injured hand under one of the Saratoga Spa State Park’s mineral-spring faucets, and it miraculously being healed in time for the band’s show that night at SPAC—Bowles’ memories of Saratoga are a bit more tame. When asked if he was going to try to hit the races before the gig, Bowles says he isn’t a gambling man and that, he’s content sticking around the park. “This is one of my favorite places to come, because there’s so much to see next to the venue,” says Bowles. “I’m an outdoorsy kind of dude, so I love walking around in the woods.” If I didn’t have so much on my desk at the moment, I’d play hooky on Friday and go on a ZBB-hunting…I mean, “hiking expedition” in the Spa State Park. Hey, the water’s free, right?