Down South Jukin'
Three decades after exploding from humble southern confines with a unique blend of rock, blues, and redneck sensibilities, the Lynyrd Skynyrd machine rolls onward. Although the current line-up hosts but two original members, guitarist Gary Rossington and keyboardist Billy Powell, the band continues to record and tour with regularity. Despite the group’s activity in the studio and on the road over the past decade and a half, the question must be asked as to whether Skynyrd 2004 is still a viable commodity, or simply a tired shell cannibalizing its past work.
With the release of its twin-disc Lyve album, the band chronicles a Summer 2003 show played in support of its most recent release, Vicious Cycle. Taking the stage before an enthusiastic Tennessee crowd, Skynyrd weds the past to the present with a collection of standards coupled with five newer offerings. Anchored by the trademark three-guitar attack of Rossington, Rickey Medlocke (ex-Blackfoot) and Hughie Thomasson (ex-Outlaws), the band glides through the set with ease, even pulling out a pair of lesser-heard oldies in “The Ballad of Curtis Loew” and “Mississippi Kid”. Vocalist Johnny Van Zant exudes a genuine “Aw shucks” charm, and the expanded horn and string sections complement Powell’s distinctive keyboard work, giving the traditional material a fresh, albeit unspectacular, interpretation. As polished as the band sounds, however, it is far removed from the glory days it continues to derive sustenance from.
Listening closely to the present day Skynyrd, one is immediately struck by a sense that something is missing. That something is not immediately identifiable, but gradually surfaces as classic tunes are served up with conveyer belt precision. While the set list is played with passion, the songs lack the grittiness with which they were first performed so many years ago. “That Smell” and “Gimme Back My Bullets” were originally ringed with anger and frustration, emotions driven home by Ronnie Van Zant’s brooding stage presence. Younger brother Johnny lacks his elder sibling’s growl or menacing countenance, evoking more “I’m just glad to be here” than “Let’s brawl in the alley,” thus the songs resemble revival meeting celebration rather than pointed social commentary. The same holds true for tear jerker “Tuesday’s Gone” and radio anthem “Free Bird”, exquisite tributes to friendship and love in their vintage form, but now merely one dimensional exercises in keyboard and guitar jousting.
The song with the most potential should have been the new composition “Red White and Blue”, although the ambitious (and unofficial) label of “Free Bird II” dooms it before it even takes flight. A chronicle of the band’s blue collar roots and ideals, the song is decidedly pedestrian; perhaps the bar was set too high, or perhaps the shadow of Skynyrd’s legacy is too great to escape. Whatever the case, the song evidences the wide creative chasm between the band’s previous and present day incarnations.
To a certain extent, comparing what was and what is is patently unfair as the two band personas are considerably different from each other. Although the original Skynyrd dynamic was lost years ago, comparisons are inevitable as long as Rossington and Company soldier forth flying the Skynyrd banner. That is not necessarily a bad thing, as the group continues to be a lucrative enterprise while keeping the past alive for legions of loyal fans. Yet Lyve balances precariously on the fine line between tribute and cheap imitation, with the band inching closer to the latter through attrition, age, and the passage of time.
Perhaps the best way to appreciate the present day offering is to remember that Lynyrd Skynyrd was, and always will be, Ronnie, Gary, Allen, Leon, Billy, and Artimus. What we have before us may look and sound like the original, maybe even channel a good deal of energy from days gone by, but in actuality is merely a talented Skynyrd cover band.
That said, if Skynyrd 2004 maintains the spiritual energy that made its predecessor great, so be it. Get out your lighter and enjoy what the band has to offer.