The Zac Brown Band played the Forest Hills Stadium Saturday night, attracting hundreds of country fans from the New York area—a place not particularly known for its passion for country music - and kickstarting the stadium’s 2014 summer concert series.
The show was heightened with a sense of history—at least for locals—as it cemented one more step toward transforming the historic stadium from a crumbling, abandoned tennis structure, to a summer concert venue attracting some of the brightest bulbs in the music industry.
“I’m here every day when people aren’t here, so seeing it [the stadium] packed is just awesome,” said Shelby, a resident of Forest Hills Gardens. “It looks much bigger with people in it. It’s going to be great.”
Crowds of country fans began filling the streets and bars in the neighborhood hours before the 6 p.m. show, injecting Forest Hills with an unusually energetic vibe and bustle.
The atmosphere in the outdoor stadium was fun and easy-going, with streams of fans—from white-haired men to little kids—chatting and milling through the food stalls.
Looking around, you could be forgiven for forgetting that you were in Queens, an extremely diverse and international borough, as the fans overwhelmingly sported cowboy hats and American flags—a typical country music crowd.
But the Zac Brown Band was not just a country act.
Grounded by the hearty, stalwart voice of Brown, the band showed their versatile and wide-ranging dynamism and talent, swinging easily from sentimental croons to gritty rock to intricate fiddle gems within moments.
The band rang home crowd favorites such as the sentimental “Colder Weather” to the Spanish-flavored “Toes” to their triumphant, soulful “Free.” They also seemed to specialize in carefree, light-hearted songs that evoked the bliss of vacations; songs that soothed and soared over the crowd and befitted the idyllic summer evening.
The attraction of these cozy, honey-tinted songs was clear. Simon, a 24-year-old Kansas native who now lives in New York, had been a fan of the band for several years, but only after he moved to New York because “it was a link back to Kansas.”
The band members did not just stand around and sing pretty, however.
They were unafraid to make unexpected twists, such as turning on strobe lights and amping up the electric guitar for covers of Metallica and The Foo Fighters.
At one point, the band left the stage and a screen descended, ane when the screen finally rolled up, the musicians were jarringly dressed from head to toe in skeleton costumes.
They commenced to play “Day for the Dead,” a unique-sounding song describing a Cinco de Maya-like celebration of souls rising out of graves and dancing—an atypical choice for a country song.
The band changed up the rhythm and showcased its versatility by playing covers of songs from different genres. For a portion of the show, they sat on barstools in a semi-circle trying to evoke the intimacy of a small club while playing an acoustic interlude. They then played the famous melancholic, reedy notes of the recorder from the “Piano Man,” making the crowd go wild and getting them their biggest cheer yet.
Four songs later, the band went traditional country with a hair-raising rendition of “Devil Went Down to Georgia,” with the spotlight on fiddler Jimmy De Martini, who burned through a rapid, scintillating tune that riled up the crowd.
But De Martini was not the only member who grabbed the spotlight.
The band was unusually large—there were eight members onstage including two drummers and four guitarists—meaning that the band had ample resources to create a complex, rich, and varied sound.
Despite the band’s name, it generously showcased the strengths of each member in an unusually long musical interlude in which all the instrumentalists jammed for over 10 minutes. The electric guitarist delivered a Jimi Hendrix-style solo as the drums and fiddle rollicked forward. The crowd, unused to such a long period of no vocals in a concert, was initially weak in its cheering, but rose in volume as the music built to an exciting climax and finish.
The band’s performance particularly stood out because of its generous crowd interaction, which was surprising and even thrilling at times.
Brown and the other musicians often wandered out onto a stage peninsula jutting out to the crowd, touching their hands and play-acting according to the moods of their songs. In a break in between songs, the band randomly selected a fan to come up to the stage and gave him a free guitar, leading to a raucous roar of approval from the crowd.
For one song, “Keep Me In Mind,” Brown disappeared and reappeared amidst the crowd to the glee of lucky fans who were nearby. He sang the whole song while walking through the crowd, casually high-fiving eager fans. After Brown returned to the stage, he and the rest of his band began to throw tennis balls out to the crowd in homage to the tennis heritage of the venue.
Shelby, an 18-year-old fan of the band, noted how the audience participation bolstered the live song performances. She referenced how the audience collectively sang out the signature chorus line of “Toes.”
“The song they just sang–the way the audience reacted - made it so much better,” Shelby said. “They [the audience] definitely react to him. They feed off him, and he feeds off of them. It works out very well.”
The concert may have seemed confined to patriotic country music fans in the beginning, but by the end, the music was for everybody. And after the concert, fans streamed out of the stadium in post-concert excitement and exhaustion, ready to go home. But for the Forest Hills Stadium, it was only the beginning.