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Sunday, December 07, 2008

DVD Review: Lynard Skynard - Sweet Home Alabama

Lynard Skynard - Sweet Home Alabama
2008 Eagle Vision
Ray Van Horn, Jr.

A number of things come to my mind when coming to Lynard Skynard. First, the obvious, which you have to shake your head in wonderment at what might've been if fate hadn't sent yet another plane into the ground, robbing the music world of some of its brighter musicians. Sad enough Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper and Richie Valens were tragically cut down in the fifties. Losing John Denver in a plane crash was equally unbearable for his songwriting prowess alone, much less his gentle candor and willingness to step up for metalheads and rockers in Washington, DC during the infamous PMRC hearings. But to have an entire chunk of your lineup taken from you as Lynard Skynard suffered when Ronnie Van Zandt, Steve Gaines and backing vocalist Cassie Gaines (not to mention band manager Dean Kilpatrick) fell into the Mississippi delta... It's amazing Skynard found it within themselves to pick up the pieces later down the road and have a go once again with brother Johnny Van Zandt leading the way.

I also think about Skynard's formidable triple guitar attack, originally with Gary Rossington, Ed King and Allen Collins, and what a precedent they set for rock music. Even today the triple threat in rock and heavy metal is still a somewhat rare occurence, though Iron Maiden are twice the band since adding Janick Gers to the six string front line. Lynard Skynard's music may not always bear the aura of all three guitars in simplistic melodies on familiar cuts like "Gimme Three Steps," "Simple Man" and of course one of their biggest calling card tunes, "Sweet Home Alabama," but once you disseminate their harrowed "Free Bird," it's fun to hear each guitar chime in like echoes from a Louisiana bayou during the swaying verses, much less the traded solo bonanza during the uptempo second half.

Talking about "Sweet Home Alabama," I'm not sure this hasn't become our true national anthem since you can't go a single day without hearing it, whether you're relegated to FM classic rock stations or you're watching t.v. and KFC snips a piece from the tune to sell its Southern-based fried chicken. Unity and all that jazz...or country rock, if you will. Of course, the local Pizza Hut I waited tables at throughout college had "Alabama" pre-programemd in the jukebox along with a handful of Bad Company tunes and Billy Ray Cyrus' "Achy Breaky Heart," oi... Dark times they be...

I also have to note that people today, whether they're a bunch drunken old farts or young teens still in the nurturing phase of their live concert experiences, somehow feel the need to holler out "Free Bird!" between songs of any band. It's as much a cliche as "Play the song!" though the latter has seen fit to make a deserved exodus from live venues. Tactless it may be to yell "Free Bird!" considering nobody laughs anymore and bands performing just roll their eyes up or tune their instruments silently before launching into the next song, we can nonetheless say that Lynard Skynard are still beloved by many. Hell, the most poetic use of "Free Bird" in contemporary media has to be the finale of Rob Zombie's The Devil's Rejects. Weirdly poignant.

Let me be honest and say it took me a long time to warm up to Lynard Skynard. When I moved to the country in late 1982, I'd become so urbanized in my transition towards headbanger status that to see my co-students in middle school who were largely farmers and rednecks-in-training, the resistance they showed people like myself left a sour taste in my mouth. I can now understand their sense of intrusion and violation, but honestly I've lived in this rural county for over three-quarters of my life, even as a child. Still, the hick kids didn't tolerate punk rockers (whom I sympathized and sometimes hung out with), much less anyone they even suspected were gay. Headbangers were given passage to a certain extent because Led Zeppelin, Van Halen and Rush were considered front runners to heavy metal, along with the hallowed Black Sabbath. Still, for myself, I couldn't get into Zeppelin, Rush, The Allman Brothers and Lynard Skynard simply because I regarded them collectively as redneck rock.

As I got older and began to really dive into various non-metal forms of music during that dead zone for rock in the mid-nineties, I discovered Rush was one of the greatest bands ever conceived and Zeppelin are the legends they are for a reason. You might say I felt like an absolute fool upon this realization. Later on I began to realize that Lynard Skynard has contributed far more to rock 'n roll than piss 'n swill confederate twang.

I kept all of these things in mind while watching Sweet Home Alabama, a rare performance from 1996 as the remnants of Skynard, Johnny Van Zant, Gary Rossington, bassist Leon Wilkeson (and his motley array of towering head gear) and keyboardist Billy Powell deliver a staunch through-the-years hit list of their best-known work to a devout German crowd in the Loreley Festival.

Rockpalast is a German-produced rock series apparently on a long stint as Sweet Home Alabama gives us this 12-year-old concert in addition to lost archive footage of the vintage Skynard lineup circa 1974 at an early show played in Hamburg.

One of the striking oddities about the Loreley Festival gig is the fact the barrier between the audience and Lynard Skynard is sadly massive. Perched atop a stage with concrete steps leading to a wide berth apparently reserved for the television cameras and then the still photo press behind them, there's a slight bit of coldness between band and fans as a result. It doesn't stop the German faithful from bouncing around joyfully to "Workin' For MCA," "I Ain't the One," "Call Me the Breeze," "Double Trouble" and of course, "Sweet Home Alabama." The audience looks every bit ready to declare themselves distant honorary Southerners as Johnny Van Zant skulks along the front of the stage and issues Skynard's catalog with professional diligence. Occasionally he calls up the memory of his brother to the crowd, which acknowledges the reverence politely.

Undoubtedly Lynard Skynard were up to the task in this 1996 performance as guitarists Rossington, Rickey Medlocke and Hughie Thomasson peel off every lick and jerk as their fans remember them, freestyling only in certain spots, and like the past, taking turns letting one another show off their chops. Though Rossington remains the last original guitarist of Lynard Skynard, his cohorts shamble admirably through "Down South Jukin'" "Swamp Music" and naturally, "Free Bird." In what is one of rock's top-five solo jam sessions, "Free Bird" still sounds rousing in this show, even if Skynard in 1974 reveals a lot more passion and willingness to float without restraint, just by way of comparison of the two versions shown on the DVD.

Which is what it all boils down to at the end of the day after you've watched all of Sweet Home Alabama. Drink a shot or two to the departed and take one more as you snicker even today at the slick snidery of "That Smell." Lynard Skynard still had plenty to offer the world in 1996, but the specters of their past continue to hang about the stage, playing in silent shadow while the current regime does its best to honor them.

Rating: ****


Service Care said...

Talk about far-reaching impact for a song... check out the video of the Red Russian Army Choir and some strange presumably Russian rock band playing "Sweet Home Alabama" to an audience of Russians.

I'm not kidding, seriously. Google "sweet home alabama" russian. It's mind blowing.

Ray Van Horn, Jr. said...

Excellent! That sounds awesome, just like the Red Army remnants throwing up sneaky peace signs in the Paul McCartney in Red Square concert. Mind blowing that is too. Thanks for sharing, SC!

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