What does a country band with scores of stylistic resources at its disposal choose as a warm-up act when it hits the road? Well, if you’re the Zac Brown Band, you opt for a band that is even less genre specific.
Enter the lap steel sounds of the A.J. Ghent Band, the funk, groove and spiritual soul ensemble (for lack of a better label) that is so new it doesn’t even have a full length album out yet. But its source material is rooted in sacred steel music, the huge slide-driven sound played on the lap steel and pedal steel guitars born in Pentecostal church services. Ghent is a third generation sacred steel player. But he chose to take the music “out of the box.” In this instance, that means out of the church.
“In the church that I grew up in, that wasn’t really a good thing to do, to take it outside of Pentecostal tradition,” Ghent said. “But I decided to do that. I pretty much decided I wanted to add a little different flavor. Plus, I didn’t want to talk religion all the time. I didn’t want to write religious songs all the time. I wanted to write about life’s inspirations and things that I’ve been through, things that my family has been through and about others around me. So that kind of took me way out of the box and let me do something more.”
First up for Ghent was a stint with jam band veteran Col. Bruce Hampton. Now as one of several decidedly non-country opening for the country stars of the Zac Brown Band this fall (his predecessor was Trombone Shorty), Ghent is delivering a feverish soul-funk sound to arena-sized audiences that have not only never heard of him, they have likely never heard anything remotely like him.
“It’s not too big of a challenge,” Ghent said. “If anything, it’s more a matter of introducing what we do, and we do that for any audience willing to listen. It’s all about going out there and having fun.
“As an opening act, we have to go out and mix so much together in the time that’s given, so it doesn’t always give people a great opportunity to hear the variety of things we’re capable of doing. But we definitely mix a lot of flavors into our music, much like what the Zak Brown Band does. We’re kind of cut from the same cloth. Along with our funk and the soulful sides, we may throw a little rock in there and give you a little Jimi Hendrix to add to it. So it’s definitely a mixture of things that doesn’t put us to where we’re categorized into one sound.”
Utilizing a lap steel guitar of his own design (using a conventional guitar body that allows Ghent to stand as he plays; most lap steels are played sitting down), Ghent enjoys the musical freedom that comes from an instrument with a still largely undiscovered presence in popular music.
“The main thing is there are no rules to it. You don’t have many teachers to instruct you, which provides an opportunity to express who you are on it. For me, honestly, it’s about being free. I play it like I want. I make different sounds with it and it talks to you. Having that freedom… that’s what matters most to me.”
Zac Brown Band, A.J. Ghent Band and Dugas perform at 8 pm Dec. 14 at Rupp Arena.