Sweet homecoming concert
Published: Thursday, November 1, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, October 31, 2007 at 7:50 p.m.
Go to any rock 'n' roll show on any night anywhere in the country and some jokester will inevitably yell it out: "Play Freebird!"
In a way, that played-out joke is the most sincere sign of respect for the band that wrote the epic guitar ballad more than 30 years ago, Lynyrd Skynyrd.
And for all those closeted "Freebird" yellers out there, Friday's Gator Growl will offer a rare opportunity - yelling it at the real band.
Coming to prominence in the early 1970s, Lynyrd Skynyrd all but invented the genre of Southern Rock. Although the group's main influences included British invasion music like The Beatles and Eric Clapton, the Jacksonville group became the quintessential Southern band in sound and persona.
"Skynyrd's fans are like us," says singer Johnny Van Zant. "None of us came from families that were wealthy. We're common people, man, and the fans can see that too."
The band is probably best known for their 1974 hit, "Sweet Home Alabama," a song almost as ubiquitous as "The Star Spangled Banner."
"I don't think it would be a complete Skynyrd show if you didn't play 'Sweet Home Alabama' or 'Freebird,' " Van Zant says. "Any band that's out there will tell you that they'd love to just have one of those songs. It's an awesome feeling."
Just over 30 years ago - Oct. 20, 1977 - tragedy struck in the form of a plane crash that killed several people associated with the band, including guitarist Steve Gaines and Johnny's brother, original lead singer and songwriter Ronnie Van Zant.
Some of the remaining band members eventually formed other groups, but reunited 10 years later with Johnny at the helm.
"The reason why this music's still going on is the fans," Van Zant says. "It drives us. Any time there's been any tragedy in Lynyrd Skynyrd, we've always fallen back on the music and the fans, and it brought us through."
Van Zant, who had a music career of his own before joining Lynyrd Skynyrd, says the process of taking his brother's place wasn't always easy.
"Skynyrd fans are great fans, but they'll let you know if you ain't doing a good job," he says. "It took a good three years before I really felt comfortable in the position - I didn't want to hurt the name of Lynyrd Skynyrd. Hell, I was a Lynyrd Skynyrd fan before I was even offered the gig to come sing."
But after 20 years, he has become as much a part of the band as his brother was. Last year, the group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
"I always looked at it like Ron was the quarterback and I'm the receiver, and I just received the ball and been runnin' with it ever since," Van Zant says.
And although tough breaks have tended to haunt the band - original guitarist Allen Collins was paralyzed in a car crash in 1986 and died in 1990, and later guitarist Hughie Thomasson (who had co-founded another Southern rock group, The Outlaws) died in September of a heart attack - Van Zant says they will keep playing as long as they can still move.
"We love playin', are you kiddin? That's what we do," he says. "Skynyrd's always been a live band, man.
"We'll be there, God willing and the creek don't rise."
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