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We be jammin'

Bands bring their 'A' game to inaugural music festival

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Zac Brown Band sure knows how to put on a rip-roarin', barn-burnin' party.

The Grammy-winning Atlanta-based band dropped by Investors Group Field Sunday night to headline the inaugural daylong MTS Prairie Jam Music Festival, as part of its Great American Roadtrip Tour. And who better to close out a country music festival than one of the genre's hottest voices?

Starting things off with the honky-tonk Whiskey's Gone, the band -- eight men strong -- went right into the riff-rocking Uncaged, the title track off its 2012 album, which bled into a shortened cover of Led Zeppelin's Kashmir. From there, ZBB launched into a breakneck rendition on The Devil Went Down to Georgia. It was a pleasure seeing such tremendously skilled musicians onstage, eschewing stadium gimmicks for workmanlike, meat-and-potatoes performances that had no shortage of scorching solos (of all types) and loose, languid jams.

Brown makes music for good times; the summery singalong Toes -- "I got my toes in the water, ass in the sand/Not a worry in the world/A cold beer in my hand" -- could serve as its mission statement. Jump Right In, which appeared later in the set, is another radio-friendly, feel-good number. Even the fluffiest country-pop tunes are given weight from Brown's rich timbre.

It was impossible not to be knocked out by the band's musicianship -- and its agility. ZBB draws inspiration from everywhere, from the Grand Ole Opry to the Top 40 charts, with blues, soul, rock, pop and even metal all informing its sound. It can handle a roots-rocking cover of John Mayer's Neon (which sampled the opening lines of Stevie Wonder's Isn't She Lovely) just as deftly as it can take on end-of-the-night slow-dance ballads such as Colder Weather. Zac Brown Band is a music fan's band.

At press time, it was performing Keep Me in Mind, from 2010's You Get What You Give.

Sunday's show also announced the arrival of a new annual event for the city. The one-shot, outdoor stadium festivals Winnipeg has seen in the past have traditionally been rock festivals; many 'Peggers of a certain age have memories of losing a Chuck Taylor (and perhaps the contents of their stomachs) in the pit at, say, Edgefest '98, Summersault 2000 or even MTS Rock on the Range -- that is, before it moved inside for its final year in 2011 -- at the old stadium.

MTS Prairie Jam reads like a countrified version of the ROTR property, taking advantage of the genre's recent spike in popularity -- and its increasingly younger fans. Kevin Donnelly, senior vice-president of venues and entertainment, told the Free Press Sunday Prairie Jam doesn't replace the organization's interest in mounting a daylong rock festival, but True North was keen to try an urban country festival format that has been working in other markets. One only needs to take a look at True North's 2014 concert bookings to see country music is having a major moment, so a daylong country music festival in our market makes sense. But then, so does booking Zac Brown Band for a headlining gig at the MTS Centre. It remains to be seen what Prairie Jam adds to an already cluttered festival season.

Donelley pegged afternoon attendance at around 7,000, swelling to around 10,000 by the time Zac Brown Band hit the stage. "The plan was always to start small," he said. "The real test will be the feedback we receive." Bands with bigger name recognition on the daytime stages would likely help put more fans in the stands earlier in the day, but the event itself ran smoothly with all acts starting on time.

Before Zac Brown Band took the stage, Juno-winning alt-folk act Walk Off the Earth -- famed for their artfully arranged covers, particularly Gotye's Somebody I Used to Know and the accompanying viral Five People, One Guitar music video that blew up social media back in 2012 -- turned in an electrifying set. The band set the tone with lively performances of Speechless and the relentlessly hooky title track, both from its 2013 major label debt R.E.V.O. (an acronym for the band's motto, Realize Every Victory Outright). The band's covers, as always, were strong; Bruno Mars' Natalie -- a song many Winnipeggers heard live from the man himself last weekend -- was imbued with WOTE's rich harmonies, while the requisite performance of Somebody I Used to Know saw them recreate the video, gathering around a single acoustic guitar. But while WOTE does beautiful work with other people's songs, their originals are destined to be well-covered themselves. Red Hands, for one example, was made for stadium-sized singalongs.

Those fans who rolled in for Walk Off the Earth and Zac Brown Band missed some stellar performances, particularly an early evening set from emerging star Kira Isabella. The 20-year-old Ottawa singer/songwriter has many more stadium dates in her bright future. She's a powerhouse performer; her honeyed voice was made for radio. And she's got guts, too; her latest single, Quarterback, is a plain-spoken commentary on date rape inspired by the infamous Steubenville case, disguised as a bubblegum country-pop song. (Sample lyric: "Everybody picked a side/ He had the school and the whole town too/And she had nothing but the truth inside.") If there's any justice in the world, this song will chart in America, where everyone loves a football player. "It's so cool to see you sing along to that one," Kira Isabella said from the stage. "I have goosebumps."

By the time Grammy-nominated Nashville duo Thompson Square -- husband-and-wife duo Keifer and Shawna Thompson -- took the stage just after 6 p.m., the stands were starting to fill out. This couple specializes in award-baiting rafter-reachers such as I Can't Out Run You and the massive If It Didn't Have You; they are all about the big, anthemic love songs that skew a little saccharine with their boy-girl vocals. The band seemed eager to prove it could rock, too, with the meaty country rock of One of Those Days. Each member of the band was then introduced with a recognizable riff -- Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit, Led Zeppelin's Black Dog, AC/DC's Back in Black, the opening from Journey's Don't Stop Believing, etc. It was a cute gimmick that showed off their chops, but it went on too long. (Also, never fake out Under Pressure with Ice Ice Baby. That's just mean.)

Earlier in the afternoon, Juno-nominated act Small Town Pistols -- anchored by brother-and-sister duo Amanda and Tyler Wilkinson, formerly of the Wilkinsons -- got things started on the mainstage, performing a tight set for the few hundred beer-drinkin' keeners who showed up early. Like CanCon's answer to Lady Antebellum, Small Town Pistols deals in big-C Country radio hits -- see set-closing singles Living on the Outside and the brand new I Only Smoke When I Drink -- but while their hooks are polished, the haven't quite hit ear-worm status just yet.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 11, 2014 D2

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