…it may come as a surprise to some just how vital the best of this material is. God & Guns is essential, but Last Of A Dying Breed and The Last Rebel aren’t too far behind.
It’s interesting that so many people still seem to think that Lynyrd Skynyrd ceased to be after the tragic plane crash in 1977 – when in fact, since reuniting a decade later in 1987, the band have been active for over three decades, as opposed to the five years between the debut album and the fateful crash. Of course, there are also many fans who still claim that any post-crash line-up is less than genuine, given the absence of figurehead Ronnie Van Zant and also – crucially – the promise at the time that the band would never reconvene. This is an entirely valid viewpoint, though it must be said, one which does obscure some fine music made in the past thirty years. Also, of course, the family connection is very much in place, with the band having been fronted by Ronnie’s younger brother Johnny Van Zant ever since that first reunion – as well as still including the ever-present Gary Rossington.
This set is an interesting gathering of four late-period Skynyrd albums, beginning with the first studio release from the post-crash band, Lynyrd Skynyrd 1991, dating from – unsurprisingly – 1991. Given that the band at this time still included guitarists Rossington and Ed King, bassist Leon Wilkeson, keyboard man Billy Powell and drummer Artimus Pyle, one might imagine it to be the best and most authentic-sounding of the four albums here. Surprisingly, that is far from the case, and in fact to these ears it is the weakest offering of the four. Not that it’s a bad album – indeed, there are some fine songs on here, and the band play as well as you would expect. The issue is that for much of the time it simply sounds like the work of any decent rock band of the time, with a lack of the real ‘Skynyrd Stamp’ on its identity.
Two years later the band returned for the follow-up, 1993’s The Last Rebel, with Artimus Pyle now departed but the rest of the old guard still present. Happily, this is a much stronger effort, sounding as if the making of the previous album had eased the burden of the band’s history a little and allowed them to become a little more relaxed. Most of the songs here are strong, but there are two real highlights of the kind which the 1991 album lacked. Firstly, the title track is a beautifully put-together wistful rocker, seeming to weave together the images of a Confederate soldier whose comrades and friends have been killed together with that of an aging rocker who is the last of his old gang, holding fast to the old traditions. It’s by turns moving and powerful, and something of a minor Skynyrd classic. Matching that is the seven and a half minute closer Born To Run (no, not that one!), which with its stirring instrumental piano and guitar driven closing section is the closest you will get to a latter-day Free Bird – something which the band have always been at pains not to attempt to recreate. It isn’t Free Bird, of course, but it’s a damned impressive track all the same, and closes a highly praiseworthy return to form.
At this point we bypass a significant chunk of the band’s career, and fast-forward sixteen years to 2009 and the album God & Guns. By this time, only Rossington and Billy Powell remained from the old days, and indeed Powell himself died from a heart attack in January 2009, before the recording was complete. Once again expectations are turned on their heads, however, as what might well be expected to be a record moving further still from the band’s roots actually turns out to be a superb collection, sounding vibrant and powerful with the Skynyrd magic present in a way that was lacking to different degrees on the first two discs in this set. Indeed, to these ears God & Guns (inexplicably referred to as ‘Gods & Guns’ throughout the credits here) could well be argued to be the best Skynyrd album since 1973’s Second Helping. The opener, Still Unbroken, is as defiant a statement of intent as you will hear, and sounds like a rallying cry of sorts by a band still on the road after so much tragedy and death – and indeed it was written some years earlier following the passing of Leon Wilkeson. There are so many highlights on this album, from the ‘classic’ Skynyrd of Southern Ways to the politically charged That Ain’t My America and the anthem-in-waiting Skynyrd Nation. The best is reserved for the tail of the album however, with the title track a magnificent statement of intent – lyrically contentious, for sure, but stirring and passionately delivered nonetheless – and the closing Gifted Hands a sublime tribute to Billy Powell. Not only lyrically honest and heartfelt, referring to the hard-drinking, hard-playing early days and also the darker times following the plane crash, but musically beautifully judged, with subtle nods to Free Bird in the piano and guitar solos being the perfect icing on the cake. It’s a quite superb album, and essential Skynyrd.
As a bonus here, on a separate disc, we get the EP which came as an extra with the Special Edition of God & Guns, and it’s no slouch itself. Three good quality studio tracks (particularly the excellent Raining In My Heartland, which could easily have gone on the album proper) are followed by great live performances of Red White & Blue, Call Me The Breeze and a stirring Sweet Home Alabama. Finally, with disc five, we have 2012’s Last Of A Dyin’ Breed. By this time only Rossington remains from the ‘old days’, but even so it is another cracking album, very nearly matching God & Guns. Whatever side of Skynyrd you like, you will be satisfied here. You like the southern balladry of songs like Tuesday’s Gone? Then try Ready To Fly for size. Swampy bluesy rock more your thing? Mississippi Blood or Honey Hole will scratch your itch. For anthemic air-punching anthems, the lively title track will do just fine. The only slight criticism is that one or two tracks, such as Good Teacher for example, are a bit too generic and almost metal in their approach, and lose the feel of the old band just a little, but the majority here is still true to the legacy. Once again there are six bonus tracks here. Of the four new studio tracks, Sad Songs is a real highlight and would have made the original album even stronger had it found its way on. Live performances of Skynyrd Nation and Gimme Three Steps finish it up.
Overall, this is a fantastic round-up of some of the latter-day Skynyrd highlights, and it may come as a surprise to some just how vital the best of this material is. God & Guns is essential, but Last Of A Dying Breed and The Last Rebel aren’t too far behind. If you love a bit of the old Skynyrd but never got on board with this period, you know what to do. Grab this, crank it up and raise a glass to all of those in the Skynyrd Nation who have left us. A Southern institution, of that there can be no doubt.