Lynyrd Skynyrd has never been quite as innovative or important as the jazz-influenced Allman Brothers, its most obvious competitor for the title of King of Southern Rock. That said, the Jacksonville, Florida–based group has played a pivotal role in popularizing the genre and has had more than its share of triumphs, both before and after the 1977 airplane crash that took the lives of prime mover Ronnie Van Zant and several others.
A new four-CD box set contains 50 tracks that celebrate 50 years of the band’s blues-, country-, and soul-inspired music and – echoing the title of a 2003 set called Thyrty – is appropriately named Fyfty. (These guys seem to love the letter Y almost as much as Elon Musk loves X.) This is far from the first anthology of the group’s music – there are dozens, actually, including ones whose titles include words like “essential” and “definitive.” Nevertheless, the new collection may be the best of the bunch, as it embraces all their hits, numerous standout cuts from the group’s 14 studio albums, and eight potent live performances.
The set opens with the original version of the band’s “Comin’ Home,” recorded in 1971, and several tracks from its Al Kooper–produced 1973 debut LP, including the majestic, seven-and-a-half-minute “Tuesday’s Gone.” Also here are “Sweet Home Alabama,” the group’s biting response to Neil Young’s “Southern Man”; “Saturday Night Special,” a stinging commentary to the easy availability of handguns; and “Workin’ for MCA,” where the band eyes its album label with skepticism but considerably less venom than Graham Parker aimed at his record company in “Mercury Poisoning.”
Among the live tracks are two from a 1987 tribute tour that led to the band’s reunion, “Call Me the Breeze,” with fiddle by guest Charlie Daniels, and the anti-drug song “That Smell.” Also featured are a high-octane nine-minute jam based around Jimmie Rogers’s “T for Texas (Blue Yodel No. 1)” and a previously unreleased November 2022 recording of “Gimme Three Steps” from the band’s last show with guitarist and co-founder Gary Rossington, who died four months later. There’s one other previously unavailable live track, a soaring, nearly 14-minute-long 1976 concert version of “Free Bird,” the electric guitar showcase that became the band’s best-known song. (Unfortunately, though, the box does not feature the original studio version of this number.)
A 40-page, LP-sized booklet delivers an essay by rock journalist and film director Cameron Crowe about his early encounters with the group as well as liner notes and track-by-track analysis from Detroit-based music journalist Gary Graff. A dedication at the back of the booklet lists the deceased Lynyrd Skynyrd players “who look down on us as the stage lights shine brightly.” It names 14 people, including every one of the group’s original members.
Leon Rosselson, Chronicling the Times. Singer/songwriter Leon Rosselson isn’t well known in the U.S., but he played a significant role in the U.K.’s folk music revival in the 1960s when TV’s popular That Was the Week That Was featured some of his satirical and political songs. Now 89 years old, he has assembled 17 of his favorite tracks, including a few live ones, for this career retrospective.
Originally released between the 1960s and 2016, they include “The World Turned Upside Down,” which activist and singer/songwriter Billy Bragg has recorded; “Stand Firm,” which makes fun of government advice for dealing with a nuclear attack; “Talking Democracy Blues” (“War after war, that isn’t what I voted for,” goes one line); and “General Lockjaw Briefs the Troops,” a critique of the Iraq war. Though Bragg shows up on the album, as does influential guitarist and folk singer Martin Carthy, many of the tracks feature only Rosselson, whose voice sounds a bit like Al Stewart’s, and his guitar. On the lion’s share of the record, his witty, incisive lyrics, rather than the music, constitute the main attraction.
Half Stack, Sitting Pretty. Half Stack’s principal songwriter Peter Kegler, who also plays guitar and sings, is the son of a bluegrass musician who cites country music influences. The hook-laden latest album from this California group seems to draw more on rock and psychedelia, however, and to evoke outfits ranging from Thunderclap Newman and the Byrds to Wilco and Galaxie 500. The lyrics are often abstruse and the vocals, which aren’t prominently mixed, serve mostly as just a sonic element, but the guitar work is bright and engaging and the melodic music is loaded with ear candy.
Robert Finley, Black Bayou. Louisiana native Robert Finley evokes the ambiance and musical history of his home state on this impressive and consistently likable collection, his fourth collaboration with the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, who produced and plays on the record. Ably assisted by a backup crew that also includes the Black Keys’ Patrick Carney as well as Finley’s daughters, the singer belts out 11 excellent tracks, all of which he co-authored with Auerbach and other bandmates. According to Finley’s website, everything was conceived in the studio and created in a single take.
The well-paced album music shows Finley to be equally at home with sweet ballads and gritty blues rockers whose topics range from lust to the true story of how Finley’s grandfather used him as bait to catch an alligator. At times, his vocals are redolent of Otis Redding or Ray Charles; more often, though, you may think of Wilson Pickett or early James Brown. Music doesn’t get any more soulful than what you’ll find on scorching standouts like “You Got It (And I Need It),” “Nobody Wants to Be Lonely,” and “Miss Kitty.”
Chest Fever, Music from Big Pink. San Diego-based Chest Fever, aka Mrs. Henry, has a serious affinity for the music of the Band. In 2019, the five-member group released a two-CD live recording that featured nearly all the songs from The Last Waltz, the Band’s famed farewell concert. Then, earlier this year, Chest Fever served up a version of the Band’s Rock of Ages live album. Now comes this CD, which shares the title and the song list of the earlier group’s debut recording.
Garth Hudson excepted, the Band’s members are now all deceased, so it’s easy to see why its fans would want to check out a concert by Chest Fever. This record, which was recorded in a single day, is just a little harder to recommend, though, given that you can still buy the Band’s original recordings and that Chest Fever’s versions don’t exactly constitute reinventions. That said, there are a few significant departures from the source material, such as on a 15-minute version of “Chest Fever,” and none of these tracks represent note-for-note covers. Moreover, the vocalizing and musicianship is consistently first-rate on this album.