Lynyrd Skynyrd hits with a straight, unironic shot of "Freebird" and more

There are lots of way to party in the Flathead Valley. You can hit the drag in Kalispell, ride the waterslide in Columbia Falls, cruise up to Eureka to chase Canadians, whatever. And when Lynyrd Skynyrd-or maybe Lynyrd GODDAMN Skynyrd-drags itself way up high in the mountains outside Whitefish, Mont., y'all can rock from the heart of a summer afternoon on through the night, swilling oceans of Bud from the dark, blood-crusted chalice of Southern Rock.

Damn hard to beat, though you're welcome to give it a shot. Or, hell, just have another shot.

Last Thursday, July 30, if you'd headed up the twisting road to the Big Mountain Ski Resort, a trip enlivened by hairpin turns, you'd have found 3,500 of your best drunk-all-day friends waving Confederate flags. In an hour and a half of solid play, the survivors of this band-nearly decimated in a plane crash in 1978-would have stamped their definition of American soul onto your forehead.

Confronted by thousands of riled up Montanans, the band which celebrates a quarter-century this year, cranked a honey-sweet, massively loud set. It was easy to see the reason that Lynyrd Skynyrd-named for a gym teacher, back from the brink of death-has so long been a staple of classic rock radio. Despite a lack of innovation, there was no complaint to be had with regards to the crowd-pleasing set.

"There's a lot of good lookin' women here tonight!" quipped Johnnie Van Zant, replacement and brother to the late Ronnie. Skynyrd's current frontman must have known what he was talking about, because good lookin' women were packed in right in front of him, shrieking for more of his middle-aged rock mojo from inside the beery womb of the crowd.

The rest of the crowd ranged from snow-haired biker granddads to dusty infants held aloft by howling twentysomethings, and, of course, women with skyscraper haircuts poured into less leather than goes into a baseball glove. There were also enough Confederate battle banners to deck out a Klan convention.

But in this crowd, displaying the Stars 'n' Bars seemed an innocent way to have some non-PC fun. Scores of Native Americans, and at least one black dude, pumped their fists and sang along with "Sweet Home Alabama."

The band urged everyone to have a peaceful good time even as they whooped it up not-so-properly. Skynyrd's present combination, a born-again-bad gang of guys, managed to radiate a dark Southern heat Montana doesn't really know anything about. And Van Zant, who wore his dead brother's face on the back of his shirt to remind the crowd who really sang for Skynyrd, gave it to 'em hard.

Or, at least, he jumped around and belted it out pretty good for a fella who looked like a time-travelling refugee from Sturgis '76. Almost every male over 40 in the crowd looked just like him. With their extended families in tow, these guys would have worn their allegiance to the '70s on their sleeves-except the sleeves of their Harley T's were long since gone.

Tattoos fading to purple, heavy beards fading to white, stumbling loaded on the canted ski hill, they rocked to the endless cascade of Mason-Dixon rock pouring out of the huge PA. "Saturday Night Special" gave way to "Little Girl," and of course, a 20-minute, note-perfect tear through "Freebird" closed the show.

"That Smell" and "Gimme Three Steps" rounded out the hits for the evening. For my money, though, "Sweet Home Alabama" was the highlight.

As the signature guitar lick rolled over the darkening mountains and crowd flat-out lost it, a huge 30x30-foot Southern flag rose behind the band. When Van Zant laid into the chorus, the whole crowd joined in a tidal roar they could probably hear in Canada, a stone's throw away across the hills. As the music echoed into the night, 25 years of Southern Rock rebounded in the Northern Rockies. Zach Dundas

Johnnie Van Zant goes wild in Whitefish. Photo by Dan Oko.

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