Four years ago, Navy aviation ordnance man Zach Bryan recorded himself on an iPhone outside his barracks singing and strumming “Heading South.” He'd written it out of frustration with an officer.
Glistening sweat on a hot Florida night, he channeled raw emotion and purpose via a plaintive and pleading rasp. The clip, with even less production polish than the most primitive TikTok video, went viral.
Since being honorably discharged by the Navy in 2021, Bryan has converted the solitary authenticity of his homemade barracks videos into mass communal affairs.
Just how massive? On Saturday night, he drew more than 17,000 fans to the Smoothie King Center, breaking the venue’s concert attendance record.
Promoted by AEG Presents, the local stop on his Burn Burn Burn Tour featured an in-the-round stage configuration, allowing seats to be sold around the arena’s entire circumference. The standing-room-only floor was also packed.
For two hours, those 17,000 souls functioned as an arena-sized choir eager to fill in Bryan’s words for him. He often let them.
Following an opening set by string band Trampled By Turtles, security helped Bryan and his seven musicians squeeze through the crowd to the stage. A compact man with close-cropped hair shaved white-wall short above his ears, a trim mustache and tattooed arms, he still looks more like a sailor than a country star.
His independent streak runs deep. He first found his audience without the aid of the music industry infrastructure and still mostly writes his songs himself, without Nashville's co-writing professionals. He has a storyteller’s gift for inhabiting lives other than his own.
In “Open the Gate,” the rapturously received anthemic opening of Saturday’s show, he channels a rodeo rider bent on besting his father, even at the price of not seeing his own unborn son grow up.
“We’re going to try not to mess this up for you,” Bryan announced. “We’re so glad you’re here.”
With the musicians blown up on big screens wrapped around the lighting truss above the stage, they went to work. “God Speed” eased in with just acoustic guitar and fiddle, the first of several showcases for the fiddle.
In jeans, a T-shirt and work boots, Bryan methodically made his way from microphone to microphone around the four sides of the stage between verses and sips from an aluminum bottle of Budweiser. He seemed eminently comfortable with his meteoric rise, and exceedingly grateful. He frequently thanked the audience for showing up and allowing him to do what he does.
Curt strums on his acoustic formed the foundation of his songs. Banjo and fiddle fit just fine within that framework; they traced the path of “Highway Boys.” The trumpet in “Quittin’ Time" earned a big cheer.
“Quittin’ Time” is, like many of Bryan’s songs, a working man’s anthem: “I've been roofing houses atop of homes I can't afford/But I'm saving all my pennies and I'm praying to the lord.” The protagonist of “Tishomingo” is adrift, heading down a long cold road; Bryan has created a community via such tales of desperation and loneliness.
That community at the Smoothie King Center belted the opening lines of “Dawns” right back at him, making the concert version of “Dawns” far more forceful than the studio version.
He recorded his 2019 debut, “DeAnn” — his late mother’s middle name — at an Airbnb in Jacksonville, Florida, where he was stationed at the time. He released it himself via online platforms.
“There are a few songs on there that changed my life forever,” he noted, prefacing “Condemned” and “Sweet DeAnn.” He celebrated/mourned the self-imposed life limitations of an “Oklahoma Smokeshow.”
All of which was a warm-up for “Something in the Orange,” the beloved signature song from his 2022 major-label debut on Warner Records, “American Heartbreak.” Rendered with an upright bass and mallet strikes on a floor tom, “Orange” was simultaneously stark and a surging singalong.
His shaggy band hung together through it all, from the uptempo “Heavy Eyes” — which boasted one of the set’s relatively rare electric guitar solos — to the galloping rhythm of “No Cure.”
He introduced “’68 Fastback” with, “I’m sorry to depress you on a Saturday night.” Mandolin and acoustic guitar ushered in the metaphor of a broken-down car standing in for a broken-down man.
The sadness didn’t last, not with “Heading South” up next.
Not satisfied with the opening of “Sun to Me,” Bryan restarted. He largely handled the regular set’s final “Burn, Burn, Burn” himself, as his musicians sat at the edges of the stage.
They exited through the crowd, only to return for a final, revved-up “Revival." "Revival" is about sinners finding redemption in each other’s company.
Any sinners seeking communal redemption on Saturday night in New Orleans could have found plenty courtesy of Zach Bryan.