The first time I saw Lynyrd Skynyrd live was back in 1970’s. With their triple guitar attack, wildman frontman and a kick-ass rhythm section, Skynyrd’s incendiary live show was full of power and grace, and simply everything great a Southern rock band could be.
The last time I saw Lynyrd Skynyrd was in 2003 during the “Vicious Cycle Tour.” 30 years later they’re still a live band no one can touch, and the new double-live set LYNYRD SKYNYRD LYVE (Sanctuary Records) proves that and then some.
The stage set is a mock whiskey still with wooden kegs strewn all about. They kick things off in a big way with the roar of ”That's How I Like It,” a strong new tune that packs a pounding, visceral wallop. The adoring crowd just goes nuts.
The veritable guitar army is still in fine form; founding member Gary Rossington, plus ace axemen Rickey Medlocke (formerly of Blackfoot) and Hughie Thomasson (formerly of the Outlaws), all look menacing in black, prowling and pacing around the stage pulling and bending strings. These days, you just don’t see this kind of guitar firepower onstage at the same time anywhere, period.
A rocking ``What's Your Name'' features a fiery solo by the maniacal Medlocke; his long hair flies as he spins around in circles. Thomasson smokes the intro to ``I Know A Little,’’ and soon Medlocke’s searing slide solo falls into Rossington’s wicked break--his warm, liquid tone is to die for and his phrasing and left-hand vibrato deadly. Rossington has created some of rock’s most memorable licks of all time (the intro of “Sweet Home Alabama” for one) and not surprisingly, has been honored with own signature model Gibson Les Paul.
The band’s secret weapon is long-time member, pianist Billy Powell, who plays perfect fills and aggressive solos as he pushes the tunes higher and higher.
The ringleader is Johnny Van Zant (younger brother of founding member the late Ronnie Van Zant), who sings with power and conviction and talks to the crowd like they were family friends over for a BBQ. He knows how to get them riled up too.
Fancy guitar licks fly on ``I Know A Little,’’; the playing, tone and tightness are simply staggering. The emotional ``Simple Man’’ hits hard, while new anthem ``Red White & Blue’’ is a moving moment, stocked with country, common man themes--the same as they’ve been singing since day one.
“Gimme Three Steps'' is a guitar party straight from Jacksonville, with rhythm section members Ean Evans (bass) and Michael Cartellone (drums) digging deep, wide grooves. The aching ballad “Tuesday’s Gone’’ is decorated with a full orchestra while other tunes use a horn section.
Classic tune ``Free Bird'' is pure drama. Powell and Rossington raise a million goosebumps in the sweet sentimental intro, Van Zant hits home during the powerful verse, and the entire band shows power in the majestic double time triple guitar outro. The sheer intensity and overall sense of abandon is breathtaking.
“Live shows are really what this band is about,” says guitar legend Rossington in a low drawl. “We love to play live, there’s nothing else like it. We don’t know anything else to do. We got it down now, people are enjoying it so were enjoying doing it for ‘em.”
Despite the high mileage, Skynyrd sounds fresh and renewed while still staying true to their roots. Not just going through the motions, they nail the material, and play with passion and conviction--all while looking like they were having the time of their lives.
“I think we capture the spirit of the old guys who aren’t with us anymore,” says Rossington. “They’re up on stage with us in heart and soul--I think the people feel that. We’ve tried through the years to keep original all the music, the spirit, the sense of the story.’’
Rossington’s playing has the depth and hard earned wisdom of a true survivor; at this point, there’s a lot of gratitude in his voice. “It’s a blessing, but it’s been hard,” he admits “ I’ve been through a lot a shit in my day; heart surgery, the plane crash, and this and that, but to come back to this (band)--that’s what it’s all about, what makes my life happen. I’m just real thankful for it all.”
He feels the new CD is “like a present to the people,” and a tribute to those who’ve passed on. “Now that it’s come around this long after the plane crash and losing the guys, we really wanna push the spirit of them, and keeping their memory alive. The music we all wrote back then is still hip today.”
For singer Johnny Van Zant, Skynyrd is a family tradition. In 1987 he was called to fill the shoes of his older brother, the late Ronnie Van Zant (well, Ronnie never wore shoes), a bigger-than-life figure in the legacy of Lynyrd Skynyrd. Johnny has grown into the daunting role with respect and humor. “To carry it on,” says Van Zant, “means everything to me.” And he’d better get it right. “I’m gonna die one day, and the last thing I want to do is go towards the light and see Ronnie there going ‘I’m pissed at you!’ I try to do everything we do with the most respect and pride, believe me.” Van Zant knows who butters his bread. ``I attribute the success of the band to the fans--my hat’s off to them.’’
Rossington humbly adds: “I never thought we would get this big. I thank God everyday that we’re still around and able to play and people still like us and come to the shows. As long as that’s happening, we’ll keep going on. It’s a gift from God, I think.”
The 19 tracks of LYNYRD SKYNYRD LYVE are a testament to free spirit, survival and timeless tunes that have now become a part of Americana. You’ll wish you had been there.