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High five: Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Van Zant at the Pepsi. Photo: Martin Benjamin

The South Will Rise Again
By Erik Hage

Lynyrd Skynyrd
Pepsi Arena, Nov. 20

This year, Southern rock has occupied that hip, critically acclaimed niche in which alt-country found itself in the ’90s. A few (what I’ll call) “alternative Southern rockers” (My Morning Jacket, Drive-By Truckers, Kings of Leon) have been gracing the savvier glossies and certainly will crop up on many a top-10 list in the coming weeks. So one might think that a few zeitgeist chasers would be out to catch the grandaddy of all Southern rockers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, whom the Drive-By Truckers have even immortalized in rock opera. Nope.

There were no designer eyeglass frames, chic thrift-store trucker caps or quizzical postgraduate glances at the Pepsi Arena last Thursday night; it was just the same damn Skynyrd crowd, God bless ’em. They drank, they swore, they roared loudly (and I’m just talking about in the beer-and-pretzel line). They smoked up a billowing cloud of cigarette smoke outdoors between bands. Some men stripped to the waist; others were ushered out the front steps—long before “Freebird”—into the expectant arms of Albany’s finest. Many wore the Confederate flag as a bandanna on their head; some actually donned the flag as a cape, evoking the volatile symbol with about as much sensitivity as Howard Dean.

But mostly they just came to worship Skynyrd, to be in the one place in the universe that night in which shouting a request for “Freebird” wasn’t ironic. Skynyrd is one of the great American rock archetypes: primeval, battle-scarred and shrouded in myth. And even at this late point in time, 26 years after a fatal plane crash—and with only a couple of original members hanging on for dear life (guitarist Gary Rossington and wonderful roadhouse pianist Billy Powell)—they can stir up quite a powerful squall of Southern rock boogie and slow-burn balladry.

They hit hard early, with arguably the group’s best song, “Simple Man,” a searing ballad that heralded the night’s first raising of the lighters. The song featured a montage of home movies from the mid-’70s, with lead singer Johnny Van Zant (brother to late lead singer and quintessential songwriter Ronnie) pointing skyward a few times and stating that a few of the folks depicted were in “rock & roll heaven.” (It came off a lot less clichéd than it sounds.)

They then swept aside any maudlin traces with the ominous Southern choogle of “That Smell.” Rocked-out readings of “The Breeze” and “Sweet Home Alabama” came later, highlighting the screw-tightened three-guitar attack. That triad would figure even more prominently in the coda of “Freebird,” during that legendary, pace-quickening, three-guitar-lead finale. And on that note, the Skynyrd crowd got what they were looking for this night, soon hitting the cold air and firing up their smoke plumes, all wrung out and no longer looking for trouble.

Deep in the Groove

Cassandra Wilson
The Egg, Nov. 22

Cassandra Wilson is, arguably, the most interesting jazz singer around. The catch is in the term “jazz singer.” Since her breakthrough 1992 album Blue Light ’Til Dawn, Wilson has moved outside the standard jazz repertory to incorporate rock, folk and blues in a way that has connected with a major audience. As she proved at the Egg on Saturday, however, she remains true to the jazz ethos: improvisation, blues feeling and a joyous sense of rhythm and swing.

Wilson opened with a song off Blue Light, “Children of the Night,” and her five-piece band proved they didn’t need time to warm up. The rhythm section, which featured percussionist Jeff Haynes and longtime Wilson collaborators Lonnie Plaxico (electric stand-up bass) and Teri Lynn Carrington (drums), cooked. Bandleader- guitarist Brandon Ross led off Muddy Waters’ “Honey Bee” with a stark banjo solo that took the song back down the Mississippi from Chicago to the Delta, where, not incidentally, Wilson was born; Wilson and her band connected with the source of the blues in a way beyond the imagination of most bands, blues or jazz.

Not having seen her in concert since her the early ’90s, I remembered Wilson as serious, even somber, but undeniably superb musically. She’s still serious about the music, but the somber mood was gone. Wilson had a wonderful time, in every way possible: singing with her band, interacting with the audience, and just being onstage. By the third song, “Last Train to Clarksville,” Wilson kicked off her shoes and danced. (You just knew that oriental rug was onstage for a reason.) Even more than in the recorded version (on New Moon Daughter), Wilson proved that even a Monkees hit can swing.

Memorably, Wilson sang a slow and sultry version of the soul standard “If Loving You Is Wrong (I Don’t Want to Do Right),” which she prefaced with a droll comment about how much her mother loved the song. (“She played it over and over. . . . It made me start to wonder.”) “Soft Winds,” originally recorded in the 1950s by Dinah Washington, was the show’s “pure jazz” highlight.

Wilson also performed a few more why-would-she-sing-those oddities in the vein of the Monkees cover. Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay” was ripped apart and reconstructed. Wilson sped articulately through the hokey verse like Anita O’Day on crank, drew out the chorus and disregarded the melody. Willie Nelson’s “Crazy,” however, was treated with reverence as Wilson barely bent a note of the famous tune.

She and her band explored Latin, Brazilian and folk-jazz textures, too, with an infectious confidence that, unsurprisingly, earned a couple of standing ovations from the nearly sold-out Egg crowd. (She even made one of Sting’s solo songs sound good.) Wilson left the impression that she could do anything she wanted.

—Shawn Stone

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