Friday, Oct. 17, 2003 | 10:26 a.m.
Who: Lynyrd Skynyrd with Franky Perez & the Highway Saints.
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday.
Where: Orleans Arena.
Admission: $35 and $45.
The story of Lynyrd Skynyrd may seem to be one of sadness, an anguished "Behind the Music" episode that seems to know no end.
But if you're expecting Skynyrd frontman Johnny Van Zant to go through life depressed, think again. The 44-year-old vocalist laughs easily these days, and is proud as ever to be associated with one of rock's most famously tragic outfits.
"I think it all falls back to the music," Van Zant said. "We have people all the time tell us that these songs inspired us to get through this or that in their own life. And I can honestly say I'm glad to be part of it."
Beginning with the 1977 plane crash that killed three members, the Southern rock band has been beset by a string of misfortunes that have become eerie in their frequency.
During the recording of the band's most recent album, "Vicious Cycle," founding bassist Leon Wilkeson died in his sleep. And in February, original guitarist Gary Rossington underwent open-heart surgery.
But Van Zant doesn't see Skynyrd's gloomy past as anything particularly unusual. He just thinks the band's tough times have been magnified under years of intense public scrutiny.
"Lynyrd Skynyrd is a big family, in the public eye, so all of our stuff that happens goes to print or on the news or whatever," Van Zant said in a recent phone interview from his home outside Jacksonville, Fla.
"Other families may not have to be in that public eye, so people wouldn't know about their troubles."
Still, Van Zant who took over lead vocals for the band when it resurfaced 10 years after brother Ronnie perished in the plane crash marvels at the band's resiliency.
"It's amazing that there is an incarnation of Lynyrd Skynyrd right now, to be honest," he said. "Over a 30-year span, Lynyrd Skynyrd has had its ups and downs." Saturday the retooled Skynyrd rolls into The Orleans Arena for a 7:30 p.m. concert. Local artist Franky Perez opens the show with his band, the Highway Saints.
This leg of Skynyrd's tour was rescheduled from earlier in the year because of concerns over Rossington's health. The 51-year-old guitarist is back with the band and feeling good, according to Van Zant.
"Gary's doing wonderful. I talked to him yesterday, and he was swimming and cutting his grass," Van Zant said. "That tells me a good Southern boy is ready to rock."
Rossington and keyboardist Billy Powell are the only current Skynyrd members who survived the Oct. 20, 1977, plane crash, which occurred outside Gillsburg, Miss.
Along with Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines and backup vocalist Cassie Gaines were killed, as was band manager Dean Kilpatrick.
In 1986 tragedy struck again, when guitarist Allen Collins was partially paralyzed in a car accident. He died four years later, the result of complications from his injuries.
Wilkeson held the distinction of being a charter member until July 2001, when Skynyrd's longtime bassist was discovered dead in his Florida hotel room. The 49-year-old had suffered from chronic lung and liver problems.
"The guys who were in the plane crash all had health problems," Van Zant said. "You don't go through a plane crash and come out being Superman. But Leon was doing great, so it really floored us all."
Van Zant's final memory of Wilkeson dates to a show they performed with Bad Company in Cadott, Wis., eight days before the bassist's death.
"We were getting ready to go out (onstage) and we were out back talking and we were laughing our asses off," Van Zant said. "We were going, 'God, look at us, we're drinking Evian (water). It used to be Jack Daniels and Jim Beam, and now we're all drinking Evian.'
"So we had a great night, and then we had a few days off. And Leon and Billy and myself came back to Jacksonville, and he passed away."
Wilkeson's bass work is present on two tracks on "Vicious Cycle:" "The Way" and "Lucky Man." Another song from the disc, "Mad Hatter," also stands as a tribute to the man famous for his outrageous fashion sense onstage.
Hailed by many critics as Lynyrd Skynyrd's best work since 1977's "Street Survivors," "Vicious Cycle" debuted at No. 30 on the Billboard 200 in May.
"It's the first time that we can go out and play songs from this album that actually stand up to old Skynyrd," Van Zant said. "And that's a pretty amazing feat, being as those songs are already written in history.
"It's only taken us 16 years to do it (laughs)."
The album's first single, "Red, White and Blue," became a popular patriotic anthem earlier this year, even referred to as "pro-war" by Rolling Stone magazine.
"We ain't saying we're gonna bomb your ass or kill you or whatever," Van Zant said. "It's just saying, this is a great country we live in and if you don't like what we do and you're not from here, go home."
That message is juxtaposed by the lyrics of the song that follows on the disc, "The Way."
An example: "Got our head stuck in something overseas / Standin' ass deep in hypocrisy."
"People have asked me, 'How can you have a pro-American song and then turn around and cut down the country like that?' " Van Zant said. "But I'm not cutting down the country. I just can't honestly sit here and say that I agree with everything that we've done.
"But I would never jump on the bandwagon of a Dixie Chick and say something bad about our president or our troops."
Of course, as strong as the new material might be, most Skynyrd fans show up to hear the classics, "Free Bird," "Sweet Home Alabama" and the like. And Van Zant and company always comply.
"If we didn't do those we'd probably get stoned or something," he said. "But we mix it up quite a bit. We'll pull out some old stuff that we haven't played for a while. But hell, we could play for four or five hours a night and never get everything in."
And when he performs those old favorites, Van Zant said he still thinks about the older brother who was cut down at age 27.
"It's a tough thing, but you can't dwell on it," Van Zant said. "I wish my brother was still around. People loved what he did and I loved what he did. But that wasn't the Ronnie that I knew. He wasn't a rock star to me. He was my brother."