City Paper is not for tourists.
“This is a old number written back in the 1920s by a man named Mr. Jimmie Rodgers,” explains Ronnie Van Zant as he introduces “T for Texas” at the Knebworth Fair, an outdoor music festival in England. More than merely paying respect to the Blue Yodeler, Van Zant was giving a lesson in American music history to the crowd of Brits: It was August 1976, and unlike Lynyrd Skynyrd’s shows for the converted at Atlanta’s Fox Theater earlier that year (immortalized on One More From the Road), the band had something to prove to Knebworth’s massive audience, which had thronged to see the headlining Rolling Stones. Skynyrd’s ferocious reworking of Rodgers’ blues standard, featuring a triple-guitar attack led by newcomer Steve Gaines, climaxed a blistering 90-minute set that shamed the Stones; the performance’s highlights are now available for the first time on the soundtrack to Free Bird: The Movie. From the opening growl of “Workin’ for MCA,” the barefoot Van Zant reveals himself as the greatest hard-rock singer of his generation (listen to his wistful delivery in “Searching” and his smoldering anger on “Saturday Night Special”). Meanwhile, the band gives its signature electroshock treatment to the Southern vernacular style, without ever indulging in boogie or metal excess. The deaths of Van Zant and Gaines in an October 1977 plane crash—at the band’s peak—seem more tragic with each passing year: Two decades down the line, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s best work sounds as enduring as the old-time blues and country music that inspired it, sharing more with those scratchy 78 records than the ’70s-rock stations that still bludgeon “Free Bird” to death. The disc also has three non-Knebworth live tracks, including a restrained and thoroughly homesick rendition of “Dixie,” without a hint of the flag-waving that has unfortunately become the band’s best-known legacy.—Eddie Dean