One of the most endlessly fascinating aspects of the pursuit of passion for music is observing the evolution of the artists. And that process becomes all the more thought-provoking when taking into account how the progression of popularity mirrors artistic evolution—or not. Witness Lynyrd Skynyrd, who effectively picked up the mantle for Southern rock from the Allman Brothers in the early-to-mid-seventies and has endured in various forms through to the present.
Forum de Montréal, Montreal, QC, Canada
December 2, 1973
No doubt the shared residency on MCA Records accounted for the incongruous billing of Lynyrd Skynyrd and The Who (on their inaugural tour in support of Quadrophenia). It’s likely the Dixie rockers had ever traveled so far north before at this point in their career and it’s questionable they ever played in front of such a disinterested audience either. But if the appearance proved somewhat painful for an audience more inclined to British pop and prog, it was probably no less so for the band. Nevertheless, Skynyrd soldiered bravely on, all the while indifferent to an inattentive audience in the cavernous venue, including semi-ballads like “Tuesday’s Gone” and “Simple Man”in the setlist to promote the debut LP, Pronounced ‘Lĕh-‘nérd ‘Skin-‘nérd , released earlier that same year. Setting a tone for years to come, the band brought their comparatively short opening set to a frenetic finish with– what else?!?– “Freebird.”
Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Saratoga Springs, NY
June 17, 1975
If two and a half years prior in Canada, it was as if Ronnie Van Zant and company were never really there before they turned the stage over to the Who, Lynyrd Skynyrd absolutely owned this open-air venue (the summer home of New York City Ballet and The Philadelphia Orchestra). The anticipation that hung so heavily in the air before the show made sense when the attendees took to their feet en masse and let loose a massive roar at the sight of the group assuming their position(s) beneath the giant Confederate flag unfurling behind them. Neither the noise and nor the motion let up much over the course of the performance either: Skynyrd radiated a deserved sense of confidence buoyed by the rabid devotion of the crowd based on the success the Southerners had earned with the release of the Second Helping album containing “Sweet Home Alabama;” the band’s big(gest) hit elicited one cacophonous audience singalong this balmy night in New York state, representing a definite catharsis for both the performers and their followers who densely populated both the lawn and the shed of the venerable site adjacent to the famous racetrack.
Springfield Civic Center, Springfield, MA
August 24, 1976
If the rapturous response to Lynyrd Skynyrd in upstate New York seemed at least something of a surprise, there was a definite sense of expectation on both artist and audience for the tour stop in the Commonwealth a little over twelve months later. Yet, even as guitarist/songwriter/vocalist Steve Gaines was now playing in the band instead of long-time member Ed King (who had left late the previous year), this extended single set suggested Skynyrd was still in the midst of a break-in period with its reconfigured lineup. Not to mention feeling the effects of transatlantic travel: just three days prior, as documented on the Live at Knebworth ’76 DVD, they had exhibited power to spare at the open-air English festival. But this evening in an antiseptic venue, the group had to work to maintain its energy level: more than one number like “Saturday Night Special” felt sluggish, while multiple cold stops were less emphatic than wobbly (as perhaps fits the less-than-stellar likes of material such as “Searchin’”). And in what might well have been a direct reflection of that erratic intensity–or the attendees’ own self-imposed state of ennui– the audience response was proportionately muted.
In post-show retrospect, however, Lynyrd Skynyrd was on the threshold of re-invigoration at that point, thanks to the presence of Gaines as well as their own innate perseverance in resolving internal issues that had plagued the group just prior to his enlistment. Unfortunately, the studio album to which he contributed, Street Survivors, was issued the very next year just prior to the airplane crash that killed the new recruit and his sister Cassie (a vocalist with the ensemble) as well as the band’s feisty lead singer and titular leader Van Zant. The cruelty of that tragedy, though, failed to forestall the surviving members’ loyalty to the legacy or that of a fervent following that would not allow subsequent farewell tours to end: the ‘Big Wheels Keep On Turnin” tour is underway as of this writing.