It’s been over 25 years since Ronnie Van Zant and two other members of Lynyrd Skynyrd died in a plane crash. In all that time, no one has stepped up to assume Skynyrd’s mantle as the preeminent Southern rock band. Only the Allman Brothers Band offer any real competition, and their lengthy jams seem like such an antithesis to Skynyrd’s tight, driving rock that the comparison doesn’t feel like it holds much water. Of the new bands, the Drive-by Truckers (even without the presence of Southern Rock Opera to link them to Skynyrd) hold the most promise of lending songwriting respectability to loud songs about bars, lost farms, guns, and toolin’ around looking for trouble. The Truckers, though, don’t come close to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s radio-friendly sound.
If you grew up in the South (or anywhere under the sway of classic rock radio), there’s a part of you that’s eternally tired of Skynyrd, a part of you that will die happy if it never hears “Freebird” again. But once a song like “Gimme Three Steps”, “Gimme Back My Bullets”, or “That Smell” starts, you have to admit a few things to yourself: Skynyrd had great production that made every guitar as clear as a bell, those guitars played some of the best riffs this side of Zeppelin, and Skynyrd knew how to make good use of backup singers. Skynyrd’s best songs were clear, focused, and full of serious groove. The fact that Ronnie Van Zant often railed against handguns, vented at his record company, pleaded for his life, or gave Neil Young the finger (it’s unfortunate that “Sweet Home Alabama” is probably responsible for Skynyrd concerts featuring more Confederate flag waving than a Civil War reenactment, but at least the song was sincere and about something) makes it all the better. Heck, even a straight-up party song like “Down South Jukin’” is a songwriting class all by itself.
It’s amazing to look at the dates and realize that Skynyrd’s prime covered a scant four years (with roughly seven years of hardship and dues-paying before getting signed), and it’s just as disheartening to realize that the current Skynyrd—a pale shadow of the band’s former glory, trudging on as original members continue to die—has been hitting the road and releasing records since 1988. The result is a mixed legacy, and there’s not much argument that most of the band’s spark died with Ronnie Van Zant.
Thyrty attempts to bring those two worlds together, and the results are typically mixed. The disc hamstrings itself out of the gate with an arbitrary strategy of including at least one song from each Skynyrd album (not counting numerous weird titles like Extended Versions: Encore Collection, Solo Flytes, or several of the numerous live albums which probably use the letter “y” in creative, spellchecker-taxing ways). So right away, you get some of the usual suspects—“I Ain’t the One”, “Tuesday’s Gone”, “Call Me the Breeze”, etc.—but you also lose a few classics like “On the Hunt” and “Don’t Ask Me No Questions”. A few others appear as live cuts (“Whiskey Rock-a-Roller” and “Simple Man” both come from the band’s 1976 show at Atlanta’s Fox Theatre which yielded the excellent One More from the Road, although “Gimme Back My Bullets” comes from 1997’s less than stellar Southern by the Grace of God).
To be fair, Thyrty does a pretty good job of distilling classic Skynyrd, even throwing in a couple of surprises. The seldom heard “Was I Right or Wrong?” (from Skynyrd’s First . . . and Last) is a strong cut in the “Simple Man” mold that features a formative section of “Gimme Three Steps”. “Need All My Friends” (from 2000’s Skynyrd Collectybles) is an intriguing curiosity because of its uncanny Rush guitar tones. The biggest task that Thyrty faces is spit-shining everything that’s been released since the reunion tour in 1988. That comes up to six latter-day studio cuts appearing on Thyrty. “Smokestack Lightning” is a passable stab at Skynyrd’s boogie woogie sound, but “The Last Rebel” is pretty hamfisted in its use of a marching snare drum and other blatant emotional cues. The acoustic version of “Things Goin’ On” is OK as a piece of front-porch blues, while “Talked Myself Right Into It” and “Workin’” are standard roadhouse rockers. The newest cut, from this year’s Vicious Cycle can’t decide whether to be a Southern rock barnburner or some kind of Dokken tribute. All in all, as a distillation of post-crash Skynyrd, the songs show the band to still be able-bodied, but without the spark necessary to raise their new material over the bar.
That aside, Thyrty‘s an OK collection—for what it is. If you’re looking for just the classic hits, you’re better off tracking down 1979’s lean, no-nonsense Gold & Platinum, or whatever greatest hits package has since replaced it (or heck, the original albums). Thyrty, however, has a specific purpose: to show the band from its humble beginnings to the present. While that presents some welcome surprises, it also creates an album with an odd flow, as full-bodied rockers sit next to low-fi demos, or they shift to a single ballad before ramping up the pace again. There’s no real momentum to Thyrty, apart from the slow slide in quality through disc two, through reunion-era live tracks and studio tracks that wouldn’t be above the skills of a top-notch bar band. Nothing here detracts from Skynyrd’s legacy, but if you listen to Thyrty from beginning to end, you’ll probably find your perception of the band’s original power slightly clouded.
// Notes from the Road
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