five: Lynyrd Skynyrds Van Zant at the Pepsi. Photo:
South Will Rise Again
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.
in the Groove
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”
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