From the Confederate flag hanging behind them to Ronnie Van Zant calling out Neil Young, Lynyrd Skynyrd have long been one of classic rock's most divisive acts. Yet they are also one of its most potent, soulful and complex. Our playlist opens with a pair of cuts, courtesy of Wolfgang's Vault, that capture their live prowess.
Recorded at the Oakland Coliseum in 1977, just over three months before a plane crash killed Van Zant and guitarist Steve Gaines, these extended renditions of "Sweet Home Alabama" and "Free Bird" testify to the band's gift of synthesis. The latter might now be a mere audience prank for some—"Play 'Free Bird,' dude!" But here, it's anything but. Building an epic groove that's equal parts country-rock ballad and creeping blues, the rhythm section is eventually overcome by a triple-guitar attack that lashes out like a swarm of killer bees.
As a songwriter, Van Zant was just as tough as the muscular twang churning about him. The guy unloaded great tunes: "Saturday Night Special," "What's Your Name," "That Smell." But underneath all the hooks lurked anger, desperation and a genuine dread. Those heavy emotions mixed with heavy sounds go a long way to explaining the band's enduring legacy. – Justin Farrar, Google Music