After years of life on the road and with their role models, the Allman Brothers Band, struggling to survive the deaths of two of its most distinctively talented members, today Lynyrd Skynyrd has become the quintessential Southern Rock band. Under the leadership of frontman and primary songwriter Ronnie Van Zant, the group’s melodic lyric driven ballads and power driven hard rockers would catapult the group into one of the most popular touring bands in the world. The group’s distinctive guitar attack, combined with an overtly defiant and rebellious attitude, gave them a cultural identity that would help make songs like “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Free Bird” into anthems of American rock music and staples of FM radio right up to the present day.
Headlining a bill that also featured the Outlaws, this Winterland recording captures Lynyrd Skynyrd following the release of their fourth album, Gimme Back My Bullets. This was during a transitional phase for the band, following the departure of guitarist Ed King, but prior to his replacement, Steve Gaines, coming on board. The band was carrying on as a six-piece unit, augmented by the Honkettes on backing vocals.
This is an interesting time to hear the band live, as their trademark three-guitar attack was reduced by one guitar, leaving more room for keyboardist Billy Powell. On the ballads, like “Tuesdays Gone” and the pre-jam verses of “Freebird,” Powell displays great creativity and expands the keyboard’s role in these songs.
Otherwise, the band rocks as hard as ever, with a good selection of their most popular songs, sampling a bit from all four of their studio albums. The group’s defiant Southern swagger, combined with an infectious guitar and piano driven groove, creates an irresistible combination that resonated far beyond the Southern states. Two of the standouts on this show are both well chosen covers, which the band redefines as their own; J.J. Cale’s “Call Me The Breeze” and Jimmy Rogers’ “T For Texas.” Both of these are rearranged in classic Skynyrd style, with the latter closing the set and clearly displaying the root sound of the band at its best.
The audience demands an encore and the band obliges with a monumental “Free Bird.” It begins as a plaintive slow ballad, with Van Zant’s distinctively sad vocals over the melodic keyboard playing of Powell and delicate slide guitar ornamentation from Rossington. However, it is the second section, which becomes an up-tempo guitar boogie, that really hits home. Here the guitarists cut loose to create one of the most distinctive solos of all time. Rossington and Collins turn this section into a soaring jam that also features impressive melodic bass playing from Wilkeson and furious keyboards from Powell. Following a brief reprise of the song, they turn on a dime back into the groove of the jam before bringing it to a climactic close.
“Free Bird,” more often than not, sarcastically, would become the most requested song of all time. For musicians, this inevitable request has become so tiresome, that the act of requesting it has become universally known as “the mantra of the moron.” Still, this only goes to prove just how deeply this song has permeated American culture and is a testament to its enduring popularity, making it one of the true landmark rock songs of twentieth century music.