Under the Influence: A Jam Band Tribute to Lynyrd Skynyrd

Regardless of their object of adoration, tribute albums generally need at least one of two things to work: great songs and a roster of contributing artists with enough artistic tact to find a balance between their own voices and those of the songs they choose. With eleven of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s best, the first criteria is taken care of, and for the most part, Under the Influence – A Jam Band Tribute To Lynyrd Skynyrd does pretty well with the second as well.
The term "jamband" has been so overapplied and overused that any rift between the hippiefied idea of jam-ism and the southern whiskey myth that is Lynyrd Skynyrd is bridged by the wide range of aesthetics represented by this particular collection of "jambands." Particle's instrumental electro-groove on "Workin' for MCA" loses none of the original's big rock swagger amidst the quartet's own bleeps and blips, and the last seven-plus minutes turn out to be ideal headphone fodder and a near-perfect closing track. Big Head Todd (Park Mohr) and the Monsters turn "Sweet Home Alabama" from a beer-soaked rabble-rouser to a tear-stained acoustic elegy for Ronnie Van Zandt's adopted homeland.

Whether through reverence, fear, or lack of creativity, most of the other contributors remain faithful to Skynyrd's original interpretations. Galactic adds a touch of New Orleans funk to "Saturday Night Special," while Les Claypool and saxophonist Skerik skew the big band rock of "The Breeze" just a few degrees to the left. Yonder Mountain String Band turns rock and roll regret into bluegrass gospel on "Four Walls of Raiford." The North Mississippi All-Stars and Drive-By Truckers each take a turn, but come up surprisingly short as neither Cody Dickinson nor Mike Cooley can match Van Zandt's bravado, and Blues Traveler somehow transforms "Free Bird" from anthemic classic rock greatness to pop radio fluff without really changing the formula.

On a disc full of gems of varying luster, however, two tracks stand out as the crowning jewels: Gov't Mule jumps in the rose bush on "Simple Man" and comes out smelling like pure Skynyrd, as Warren Haynes' gritty guitar and vocals lead the way through a loyal rendition of the Skynyrd classic that is as much a tribute to Mule's late bassist Allen Woody as to Van Zandt and Steve and Cassie Gaines. Straight from jamland's heart of quirky self-indulgence, moe. combine a respectful (and surprising) restraint with the southern authenticity of John Hiatt's vocals on the clear, simple "Ballad of Curtis Loew." Skynyrd was smart enough to let the song speak for itself, and moe. is smart enough not to argue.

In fact, as tribute albums go, Under the Influence isn't particularly adventurous. Though the Disco Biscuit's reinterpretation of "Gimme Three Steps" is just plain weird, the rest of the disc, even those from bands with the chutzpah to reinvent classic rock scripture almost nightly, is straight-forward blues rock with occasional personal touches from the contributing artists. With starting material like this, though, it's easy to be complacent. Under the Influence, presents just a small sample of the Skynyrd catalog recreated, if not reworked, by new voices. Most of those voices have the good sense to stand on the shoulders of giants, willing to let history decide whether or not future generations will later stand on their own.

by Brian Gearing