Review: Skynyrd Still Soars Courtesy of a New Live CD/DVD

Lynyrd Skynyrd/Live at Knebworth/Eagle Rock/Universal
Four and a Half out of Five Stars 

Captured at the peak of their prowess, Lynyrd Skynyrd Live at Knebworth serves as a reminder of why this band proved to be such an actual institution. As much as any other outfit—the Allman Brothers and Molly Hatchet included—Skynyrd defined the southern rock sensibility, creating a sound that still survives today in the music of the Black Crowes, Kentucky Headhunters, the Marcus King Band, Blackberry Smoke, the Drive-By Truckers and innumerable other outfits that have made that trademark grit, growl and everyman persona a basic part of their continuing MO. And while it’s doubtful anyone would complain that “Free Bird” is never played enough on rock radio, hearing their hits performed with the passion and presence that served them so well with their loyal legions still makes for a moving experience. 

Granted, part of the reason for that reaction lies in the tragedy that took the lives of several of the members—singer and frontman Ronnie Van Zandt, guitarist Steve Gaines and back-up vocalist Cassie Gaines. Witnessing Van Zandt’s determinedly defiant stance onstage in front of an adoring English audience numbering between 150,000 and 200,00 people not only bears witness to their transcendent stance, but also to the indelible impression that they imparted to their faithful followers and those for whom they represented a symbol of indomitable southern spirit and eternal insurgence. While the CD portion of the package serves as a veritable greatest hits, its while watching the DVD that evidence of their irrepressible intensity fully comes into focus. Tough, tenacious and rich with resolve, Van Zandt cuts an imposing figure, his give ‘em hell attitude fully etched in every note and nuance shared on that stage.

Of course, it’s inevitable that certain songs would stand out. The homage to Southern solidarity, “Sweet Home Alabama,” the tireless denunciation of the glorification of guns whipped up in “Saturday Night” Special” and the ode to freedom in full flight “Call Me the Breeze” are as indelible now as they were when this concert took place, some 45 years ago. The accompanying documentary about the band, If I Leave Here Tomorrow, named for the lyric that would become their unintended epitaph, further details the band’s rise to fame while underscoring their lingering legacy, and yet, knowing the way their saga would suddenly end makes the concert we’ve witnessed all the more bittersweet. A band in their prime, edgy and emphatic, they had so much to offer until fate ultimately interfered just over a year later. 

The band would ultimately regroup, but much of the fire and frenzy was diluted when that plane went down in that dark Mississippi forest. This document/documentary again gives cause to mourn… and moan… their loss. However, it also serves as a reminder of the greatness that once was, and a spirit that can’t be silenced thanks to the memories that still remain.

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