Zac Brown’s hat act wears thin

Saturday’s sold-out Target Center gig was laden with cover songs and songs that sounded like covers.

Willie Nelson has his bandanas. Eric Church chooses ball caps. For Zac Brown, the only headwear choice left to differentiate himself from all the other cowboy-hat-wearing country singers out there is that gray knit stocking cap that he wears everywhere. Even on 60-degree November days in Minnesota.

As foreseeable as Cher donning makeup, the Zac Brown Band leader took the stage Saturday in front of 14,500 adoring fans at Target Center in his trademark hat. The wintery attire might explain a smidgen of the Georgia country star’s massive popularity up here in Minnesota (maybe we identify with him more?). The fact that there wasn’t a single cowboy hat on stage explained a lot more, though.

Much like Church, who also packed Target Center back in May, Brown’s hairy, jammy, seven-member group has toed the line between country and rock music since before their Best New Artist Grammy nomination in 2010, when folks started taking them seriously — as seriously as you can take an artist with a breakout hit titled “Chicken Fried,” anyway.

Saturday’s sold-out two-hour performance found Brown & Co. knee-deep in the rock pool. Except for the occasional fiddle break, new songs such as “The Wind” and “Uncaged” — the latter the title track to the ZBB album that debuted at Billboard’s No. 1 in July — wouldn’t have been too out of place at a Bon Jovi show. Later on, the band stretched out into Dave Matthews Band territory. And stretched. And stretched.

The Marshall Tucker Band itself has probably never played a version of its hit “Can’t You See” as long as the one played midway through ZBB’s set Saturday, complete with several lengthy guitar solos. There was also a looong drum solo — with congas — to open the encore, which finally ended with Mr. Brown rapping over the beats. For real, I don’t think Hank done it this way.

Actually, calling ZBB a country band or a rock band is not as accurate as simply labeling them a jukebox.

Brown’s team covered a sports-bar-ready array of other people’s tunes Saturday, also including: both Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion” and even Nirvana’s “All Apologies” in an acoustic segment; a fiery tear through “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” just before the encore, plus snippets of Joe Cocker’s “You Are So Beautiful” and Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic.”

Too bad the even more hairy opening band Blackberry Smoke had already played “Midnight Rider,” or an Allman Brothers tune undoubtedly would have been dropped into the mix, too.

The covers certainly weren’t the only songs that sounded pre-programmed to suit broad mid-America taste buds, though. Many of Brown’s own tunes fit that formula, from the Jason Mraz co-written “Jump Right In” at the start of the encore — which, duh, sounded like a Jason Mraz song — to one of the night’s biggest sing-alongs, “Toes,” which has “Margaritaville” spilled all over it.

While he’s actually a gifted and distinguishable singer with some excellent harmony partners in his band — mellower tunes such as “Goodbye in Her Eyes” and “Free” proved as much — Brown has all the persona of a dry rub . His between-song banter on Saturday was mostly spent thanking his tour sponsors. He’s especially a dud compared to fellow party-centric country singers such as Church and Kenny Chesney, the latter of whom ZBB will join at Target Field for next summer’s newly announced July 12 concert.  You can already hear the John Fogerty cover he’ll probably play there.

chrisr@startribune.com • 612-673-4658 • Twitter: @ChrisRstrib  

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