It was the perfect Lynyrd Skynyrd moment.
As a spotlight shone on a statue of a bird in flight, the first plaintive piano figures of Free Bird, the band's signature song, rang out across Fort Gordon's well-packed Barton Field Sunday night. As if responding to some subliminal message, a virtual sea of Confederate battle flags, illuminated only by the firefly flicker of a thousand lighters held aloft by Skynyrd acolytes, rose and began swaying in time to the music. Unconcerned that they were becoming part of a collective rock cliche, fans allowed themselves to be swept into the Lynyrd Skynyrd experience.
It was the culmination of an evening marked by pop parody and sonic surprises, an evening in which the purveyors of innocuous, radio-friendly fodder proved they could swing it like authentic rock stars and music legends tripped lightly into the treacherous territory of self-parody.
Warming up the quickly overheating crowds were local acts Patrick Blanchard and the Big Mighty, followed by Impulse Ride. Perhaps a bit jazzed over the size of the crowds, or the close proximity of authentic rock royalty, both acts turned in spirited sets. With a knowing nod to the large contingent of classic-rock fans in the audience, Impulse Ride wrapped up its set with a somewhat tongue-in-cheek cover of the Steppenwolf classic Magic Carpet Ride.
Pat Travers, who followed the local bands on stage, approached his performance as though constant movement might detract the audience from the rather lackluster musical output. He presented the sort of bar-band rock that has served as fluffy filler on AOR radio for 25 years. Mr. Travers is certainly a skilled and enthusiastic guitar player, but his brand of rock seemed stale - nothing the lightly broiled audience hadn't seen or heard before.
Tonic, on the other hand, turned out to be something of a wild card. The band's recorded output has always seemed slightly anemic, just like rock music, only without the backbone. However, it was a harder, edgier Tonic that took the stage Sunday.
The gentle pop hooks that powered albums such as Lemon Parade and Sugar and made them the darlings of the soundtrack circuit were replaced by attacking guitar, a percussive rhythm section and authentic attitude.
Taking the stage at dusk, Lynyrd Skynyrd's musical approach was to play hit after country-fried hit as a pitch-perfect reproduction of the album tracks that made the group famous. In a set devoid of surprises, the band went through the rock-star motions as though the sun had never set on 1975 and the band members who squeezed into spandex were still closer to puberty than retirement.
Each note seemed planned and each geographic reminder (Hello, Augusta! Let's hear you, Georgia!) seemed scripted, intentional devices to distract the audience from the fact that this was less rock show than stage show.
Most of the Skynyrd set seemed contrived, but there were moments when the band seemed to revert to its powerful rock roots. The famous three-guitar attack on Free Bird, for example, punctuated by the appearance of a giant mirror ball that transformed the assembled masses into patrons at the world's largest rock honky-tonk, was a magical musical moment, as was the band's blistering opener Workin' for MCA.
Perhaps this rock-by-rote approach was intentional. After all, people come to a Lynyrd Skynyrd show with some preconceptions, some prior knowledge as to what to expect. Those cries for Free Bird were not the first requests honored by the band, and the appearance of flags, banners and occasional bras emblazoned with the Confederate Stars and Bars was not a freakish coincidence. These are accepted and expected elements of the Lynyrd Skynyrd experience, and their absence would have been as much a disappointment to the fans as the band skipping over Sweet Home Alabama.
Lynyrd Skynyrd may not be breaking new ground, but its fans seem more than happy to take the familiar trip home with the band.
Reach Steven Uhles at (706) 823-3626 or firstname.lastname@example.org.