Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Lynyrd Skynyrd – Last of a Dyin’ Breed


reviewed by Tim Bustin
If the name Lynyrd Skynyrd doesn’t ring any bells, then you may have the misfortune of never having listened to Southern Rock’s greatest band. Born in Jacksonville, Florida, named after a cruel P.E. teacher who didn’t like kids to have long hair and creator of such famous songs as “Sweet Home Alabama” and the epic “Freebird”, the band, in its heyday, was successful far beyond the normal reaches of Deep South musicians; with 3 double platinum albums, one single platinum and one gold, Skynyrd were opening for the likes of rock greats The Who after the release of their debut in 1973. That first album,” Pronounced 'Lĕh-'nérd 'Skin-'nérd”is currently listed as no. 403 in Rolling Stone's list of 500 greatest albums of all time; the above singles are no. 193 and no. 398 respectively on Rolling Stone’s list of Greatest Songs of all time. This extraordinary septet, made from a mix of Ronnie Van Zant’s powerful vocals, Billy Powell’s classical pianist skills, Leon Wilkinson’s cool bass, Artimus Pyle’s funky drumming and topped off with the group’s signature lead guitar trio (Allen Collins, Gary Rossington and Ed King/Steve Gaines), popularised Southern Rock, showing it was plausible that not all Southern people were just tone-deaf rednecks. The group seemed determined to emphasise this in their lyrics, with songs for anti-racism, for love and for love of family and God. Tuneful ballads, such as “Tuesday’s Gone”, succeeded in showing off Ronnie’s soulful whine, along with the Rossington-Collins combination of saddening guitar solos and the perfect blends of all three lead guitars. Other hits, like the raw “Saturday Night Special”, were designed for their home crowd, whilst get-up-and-dance-along song “Whisky Rock-A-Roller” helped prove that these were serious musicians, with “God-given” talent, who could write any kind of song, without the loss of spirit or sound. These were seven men who, whilst still having fun doing it, were intending to go to all the way to the top.
So, if Lynyrd Skynyrd were so successful, you may still be wondering why you might not have heard of them. Well, three days after the release of the band’s sixth album, “Street Survivors”, in 1977, all seven members (along with the three back-up singers”) boarded a Convair CV-300 aircraft to take them to yet another show on what at the time was their most successful tour yet. The plane ran out of fuel just eight miles before reaching its destination. It crashed in a wooded area of Amite County near Gillsburg. Ronnie Van Zant, Steve Gaines and his sister, back-up singer Cassie, were killed, whilst the others barely survived with their lives and limbs. Hence, in just a single night, ended the greatest band ever to play hard rock from the South – destroyed, just months before they could have finally earned full international fame. The survivors went their separate ways, forming spin-offs, like the Rossington-Collins band and the Artimus Pyle band, though these only had limited success. Alas, fans and critics agreed that perhaps the peak of the Southern rock genre had passed. Although Skynyrd had bred new, inspired bands, which came along, like Molly Hatchet and ZZ Top, who also had many achievements, no-one and no song could challenge the legacy of Lynyrd Skynyrd.

However, the shock of the crash wouldn’t last forever. In 1987, five of the surviving members, along with Ronnie Van Zant’s brother, Johnny, re-joined to pay tribute to those who had perished in the crash (Allen Collins died of pneumonia in 1990). This eventually led to an album, entitled Lynyrd Skynyrd – 1991. From there, the band stuck together; existing for old fans to watch live and occasionally release new material. In 2009, with Gary Rossington as the only surviving member of the pre-crash line-up, Skynyrd released “God and Guns” - a moving and incredible album, which reached no. 18 in the charts. And this made the band realise something important – that although only one original member (and two of the back-up singers) remained in the group, who had survived its darkest hour, there were still countless fans who were lining up to listen to this classic band. 
To a Southerner, playing in Lynyrd Skynyrd is like playing in The Rolling Stones: it’s a privilege and you of course respect the legacy you’re breathing life to. But with playing in Skynyrd it is more than to simply claim the respect of someone else’s work: it is to become a member of a close family, who respects one another, along with those who’ve gone “up above”. So now, still going thirty-nine years later, these old rockers have concocted a brand new tribute to the fallen; one that they don’t intend to be their last –“Last Of A Dyin’ Breed”.

As you’d expect, the album enters with the title track. The deep guitar riffs, made by a gritty slide guitar, pave the way for Johnny Van Zant’s howls: his stubborn attempt to make Skynyrd survive forever; “Got a pocket full of memories and a song/Gotta keep on movin’ and rollin’ on”. He also pays respects to his brother - “A barefoot brother who gave me hell/ Learned from the best who taught me well”. The song may sound more modern than its equivalent 70’s Skynyrd, “Gimme Three Steps”, but it is full-on hard rock, with high pitched solos, simple but extraordinarily powerful quarter note grove drumming, littered with short tom breaks, all mixed up with endless piano parts to give the song an overall full and exciting sound. Johnny may not be his brother but he sure does shout, howl and whine with just the same confidence. His lyrics may be excruciatingly simplistic at times, but the sound he makes combines with the three piece guitar grouping and makes it so you can’t even notice.

The album continues after the scene being set, with more power, guttural vocals and “sweet guitar”. Yet the mood changes are frequent. Songs about a man listening to his mother preparing herself for the inevitable event of death but simply saying she is “Ready To Fly” are tear-welling without the loss of any instruments. The raunchy “Good Teacher” perhaps shows off the more testosterone-filled side of the band, but lines such as “Good whiskey and smoke/ And how to tell a dirty joke” can’t just be pinned on the South and are meant to be for all people. The start of the song is actually reminiscent of Jimi Hendrix’s style of playing - “I’m kind of doing a Hendrix walkin’ wah-wah thing”, as guitarist Ricky Medlocke so eloquently puts it. “Mississippi Blood” is a return to what can only be described as proper Southern Rock sound – fast, quiet acoustic guitar, with put-on vocals in a duet form and sung like on an old Deep South record. The band then continues with the tradition of Skynyrd rock ballads (which first started in 1973 with the simplistic beauty of “Simple Man”) with “Something to Live For” – “It’s about finding something to live for in this life, if you live for music or you live for your family, whatever it is, you need something to live for to keep going” – Gary Rossington. “Life’s Twisted” is a true oxymoron - a cool sounding reminder of the ’77 plane crash – “You make plans and then Boom! Life hits you and you have to make other plans” – Rossington.

Across the eleven songs, the band effortlessly shows that they can approach any mood and type of song, with a host of techniques and talent whilst constantly proving that this is not just a first-rate Lynyrd Skynyrd tribute band. Throughout, the album shows a full sound, with guitar squeals, piano riffs, and power drumming forming in harmony. It is fair to say that the album represents a more modern Skynyrd; the lack of recently deceased Billy Powell’s honky-tonk piano and the emphasis on loud drumming and guitar work (with many over the top and high pitch solos), actually means the album moves away from the Southern genre in too many ways (not good for die-hard fans). Often on the album, the song format is repeated, with intro-verse-chorus-verse-chorus-solo-short verse-chorus-end. The chorus format is also repetitive but despite these minor flaws the album is decent in every respect and has obviously been produced to the nth degree (making the album sound somewhat fake, but managing to bring out the best of the band). To sum up this collection can be done by saying "funky, cool, awesome, powerful, soulful and moralistic", in terms of its lyrics and message. Whilst the days of five-minute-long guitar solos (half of “Freebird”) may have died gradually over the years, belief in the family and God and condemnation of drugs, corrupt politicians and racism have been kept alive by individuals of extraordinary talent who have become part of a greater whole. A band that is often only remembered for “Sweet Home Alabama” – an only-halfdecent song in comparison to Skynyrd’s other work – they should be remembered for so much more. But, then again, how can they be mourned when they’re still alive – last of a dyin’ breed.

Listen to the album on Spotify: http://open.spotify.com/album/4rRCrcBlh0Io9edrPT0oxd

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