The Lynyrd Skynyrd franchise is alive and well, but only business-wise. A band using the great and departed southern rockers' name played a well-received, if soulless, set at a sold-out Wolf Trap on Wednesday.
The Skynyrd bio is one of the harder-luck tales in rock history. For all but financial intents, the group died in October 1977, when a charter plane carrying the band to a show crashed in the Mississippi swamps.
Ronnie Van Zant, the group's founder, lyricist and boundless font of attitude, was among the six passengers killed. The crash came just three days after the release of "Street Survivors," a record that would have topped the charts even without the tragedy.
Death can be good for posterity in rock. Had Skynyrd stayed dead after the crash, there's little doubt the group would now be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But a group using the Skynyrd name reformed in 1987, and has been watering down the band's trademark ever since. Only two members of the classic Skynyrd lineup -- guitarist Gary Rossington and keyboardist Billy Powell -- are still with the band.
Ronnie's little brother Johnny Van Zant now sings for Skynyrd. He looks and sounds a little like Ronnie but lacks the gravitas. And the old songs don't seem to mean as much to him or others as they do the audience. With arm sweeps and hand gestures, Johnny Van Zant spent too much time miming lyrics -- flashing three fingers for "Gimme Three Steps" and putting his thumb and forefinger together for "I Know a Little," for example -- and letting the crowd do the singing. Shortened versions of "Gimme Back My Bullets" and the gem "Tuesday's Gone" were rendered in medley form. But "Red, White and Blue," an anthem for Confederate flag-waving bozos released last year -- got a full-blown delivery.
On the recorded version of Skynyrd's biggest hit, "Sweet Home Alabama," after Ronnie sang the line "In Birmingham they love the governor" -- meaning George Wallace, the face of racism for most of America when the song was released in 1974 -- the backup singers retort by saying "Boo! Boo! Boo!" On this night, it sounded more like "Whoo whoo whoo!" And, yes, the show ended with "Freebird."
-- Dave McKenna
From Autumn to Ashes
For the latest crop of heavy-rock bands, two vocalists are as fundamental as guitar, bass and drums. Headlining a four-act show Wednesday at the 9:30 club, From Autumn to Ashes emphasized its two-larynx lineup more than most of its peers. At one point, frontman Benjamin Perri switched places with the band's other singer, drummer Francis Mark, for a song that provided three minutes of amnesty from Perri's raw throatiness. More typical, however, were such numbers as "Lilacs & Lolita," in which Perri's growling baritone drove the verses and Mark's soaring tenor levitated the chorus.
The Long Island quintet's music is essentially a dialogue. On its latest album, "The Fiction We Live," Perri's lyrics are printed in regular type and Mark's in small caps. When the former barks such lines as, "As days go by, shed a tear / I hate your face more than life," Mark tunefully responds, "Waiting for the right time / To strike a chord and change your life."
The band played such material energetically, with much rushing about the stage. Still, the 45-minute set was more a standard rock show than a catharsis. Long gaps between songs and Perri's conventional exhortations and appreciations repeatedly broke the mood. At its most passionate, the band's music seemed momentous, but much of the time it sounded merely formulaic.
-- Mark Jenkins