Judge Victor Valdivia's single "Sweet Home Arizona" was a terrible flop, because nothing rhymes with "Tohono O'odham."
"'Cause I'm as free as a bird now,
If you've ever wondered what happens to rebels when they get old and need to pay the bills, look no further than this DVD. Lynyrd Skynyrd: Sweet Home Alabama isn't the worst music DVD ever made, and as far as professional yet boring performances by once-great bands turned into commercial nostalgia acts, it's at least got some semblance of spark. It's not as agonizingly dull as the Funk Brothers' Live in Orlando, for instance. Still, for a band that once prided itself on storming the battlements of the music industry with unapologetically aggressive music and lyrics, it's shockingly tedious. The original '70s incarnation of Lynyrd Skynyrd sounded like a gang of rowdy hooligans bashing out swaggering hard rock with unrelenting energy. The version of the band captured here comes off like a bunch of faceless session musicians listlessly cranking out covers of songs they're only vaguely familiar with. This DVD includes a brief taste of the original lineup as a bonus alongside a more recent concert, and while the earlier footage looks and sounds tinnier and grainier, there's no contest as to which version of the band actually rocks harder.
Lynyrd Skynyrd: Sweet Home Alabama was filmed June 23, 1996, at Germany's Loreley Festival. Original members Gary Rossington (guitar), Leon Wilkeson (bass) and Billy Powell (keyboards) are joined by singer Johnny Van Zant (brother of original singer Ronnie), guitarists Rickey Medlocke and Hughie Thomasson, drummer Owen Hale, and singers Dale Krantz-Rossington and Carol Chase. Here are the songs they perform:
• "Workin' For MCA"
All of the songs are taken from the band's '70s heyday, when original singer Ronnie Van Zant led the band until his tragic death in a plane crash in 1977. Ronnie, however, was more than just the singer and lyricist. In many ways, he was the real visionary, the one who turned Skynyrd from just a Southern hard rock band into a cultural linchpin. He was a much smarter and subtler lyricist and songwriter than he was given credit for, and he led the band in directions that artfully mixed belligerence and cleverness. He defined an original persona that one critic described as "enlightened redneck," one that would influence artists as diverse as Axl Rose and Steve Earle.
Unfortunately, with his absence, all that's left is just the bluster, without any nuance. These songs are still exciting. It would take a truly incompetent band to ruin them, and this incarnation of Lynyrd Skynyrd is not incompetent. However, though Rossington's decision to resurrect the band in 1987 with Johnny Van Zant was always questionable, at least back then the majority of the surviving band members rejoined him, lending some sense of continuity. By this point, conversely, fewer than half of the musicians onstage were actually involved in writing or recording those classic songs, so they don't seem to understand them on anything but a superficial level. Indeed, the only way to describe this performance is "going through the motions." Johnny Van Zant does his part, with his endless profanities and obscene gestures, all calculated to convey just what a bad boy he is. The other band members fall back on volume and endless soloing, none of which is particularly distinguished. Everybody is competent enough, but these performances add little or nothing to the original recordings, making them redundant. This version of the group can best be described as an above-average Lynyrd Skynyrd cover band and, in purely financial terms, that's enough to put food on the table. Still, this performance is so ordinary it makes it easy to forget just what made Skynyrd so noteworthy in the first place.
The technical aspects of this disc are mixed. The 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer is reasonably sharp, making the show look clear without much grain or murkiness. The two surround mixes, on the other hand, are surprisingly second-rate. They're loud enough, but they're also unbalanced and laden with heavy echo. At times, the vocals and keyboards are drowned out by the guitars and drums, resulting in moments where Powell is clearly playing a solo that is almost inaudible.
The disc's sole extra highlights just how mediocre this performance is. The Loreley concert was filmed as part of a long-running German television series called Rockpalast. Back in December 5, 1974, Rockpalast filmed an earlier performance by Skynyrd when they were just making their German debut (opening, curiously enough, for Queen). This three-song performance, consisting of "Workin' For MCA," "Sweet Home Alabama," and "Free Bird," isn't as pristine visually as the newer concert, and the sound is decent but unspectacular. Through sheer energy, however, it blows the more recent concert away. This is an excellent chance for fans to see a performance featuring Ronnie, who commands a room without having to stoop to his brother's cheap antics. Plus, original guitarist Ed King is in peak form and the show also shows off the talents of Skynyrd's most underrated member, the brilliant but self-destructive guitarist Allen Collins (who died in 1990). It's only three songs long, but these pack a far harder wallop than the main concert in its entirety.
Ultimately, Lynyrd Skynyrd: Sweet Home Alabama is hard to recommend. Old-school fans will want the '74 songs, which are unavailable elsewhere, and they might find a bit or two of the more recent concert mildly entertaining, although it's hard to imagine watching it more than once. Anyone else who is really curious about just how Skynyrd became so legendary would do better to track down the Free Bird: The Movie DVD, which contains various superlative performances from the band's '70s prime. They may not have the sophisticated digital sound and video of this show, but for sheer ferocity, they're hard to beat. Lynyrd Skynyrd: Sweet Home Alabama is guilty of not doing justice to a deserving band.
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