During the United States’ bicentennial summer of 1976 few bands would’ve been finer ambassadors of the great American art form of rock and roll than Lynyrd Skynyrd. The septet was equal parts hippie holdovers and Florida street gang led by Ronnie Van Zant, a barefooted singer and songwriter in a black T-shirt and black hat wrapped in rattlesnake. Van Zant didn’t move very much onstage; a snarling poet with a penetrating voice preferring to stand his post, offering a Cheshire grin here and there.
The eye inside a three-guitar hurricane, around Van Zant was a band just beginning to recognize and explore its renewed potential after a personnel shakeup. Original guitarist and songwriter Ed King left Skynyrd the year prior- not long after founding drummer Bob Burns had departed- reeling from ’75’s notably grueling ‘Torture Tour.’ The first LP after the King’s exodus, Gimme Back My Bullets, though bolstered by the fluid percussive attack of ex-Marine and resident vegetarian, drummer Artimus Pyle, lacked the commercial and critical resonance of its three predecessors. Van Zant, himself, was conscious of a slip; the title refers not to ammunition but record chart positions.
In ’76, Skynyrd re-loaded. They added Okie firebrand Steve Gaines on guitar- at the recommendation of Honkette backup singer and sister, Cassie Gaines. And they plotted to record their Atlanta shows that July for a forthcoming live album. The resulting double-disc, One More From The Road, was and remains an absolute beast of an achievement.
A month after they scorched the Fox in hot ‘Lanta, here was the group at Knebworth, the biggest festival in England, warming up over 150,000 for the headlining Rolling Stones. The set, beautifully restored to its entirety on this DVD/CD package, is exceptionally performed if familiar. The eleven tracks hug closely to the same running order as on One More, as do the arrangements. (Van Zant had a rep for drilling the group into repeatable perfection.) The ensemble is energized, aggressive, and ebullient, contrasting the genteel, longhaired audience mostly sitting down- other than a few gyrating guys and gals- soaking in the afternoon rays.
Still, it’s Van Zant’s near hypnotic presence, countering the restless, stomping sway of guitarist Allen Collins, that draws the camera’s attention most while doing the least. Probably because he’s just that great as a singer. If anything distracts from the music, it’s the sometimes shrill and intrusive crowd noise on this polished up recording.
“Free Bird” closes the appearance with majestic force. Van Zant and the guitarists strut out onto the tongue of the gargantuan stage as far as their cords allow. Collins blisters through his trademark extended guitar opus. The crowd goes wild. Finally, Van Zant leads the seven out for an endearingly clumsy bow. America’s best rockers and their moment in the English sun of ‘76.