Any chance that Southern-style rock & roll had of becoming the dominant sound of the last decade disappeared when its two best bands were all but destroyed. The Allman Brothers played out their string through deaths in the family, drug busts and sellouts. Lynyrd Skynyrd went quicker and harder, in a plane crash that took, among others, guitarist Steve Gaines and singer/presiding genius Ronnie Van Zant. Skynyrd's music was the only purely American rock sound born in the Seventies (remember that disco first had Latin, then European roots). These days, Southern boogie is mostly just another shuck: either the jingoistic junk of Charlie Daniels or the commercial bathos of the current Allmans incarnation.
There's good news, however. Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere, the first album to emerge from Lynyrd Skynyrd's surviving members, is a surprising and welcome affirmation of Southern rock & roll's continuing strength and validity. Even though the Rossington Collins Band preserve Skynyrd's celebrated three-guitar lineup, they don't try to resurrect their style. The sound here, while hard-rocking enough, is understated and melodic, the emphasis more on group interplay than on extended solo pyrotechnics. This isn't a great record — it's too controlled for that — but it's very fine: a work of feeling, assurance and craftsmanship that delivers on all its promises simply by not making any rash ones.
The biggest change, obviously, was the choice of Dale Krantz as lead vocalist — so far as I know, the first time a woman has fronted a Southern hard-rock band (as well as cowritten a majority of the songs). What counts, though, is that she's good at it. Krantz is sometimes tentative in the softer tunes (e.g., her uneasy reversion to cabaret-type phrasing in parts of "Winners and Losers"), but she's got a terrific screeching-and-shouting style that fits right in on the rockers and hard blues that make up most of the LP. Singer and group build off each other and expand on each other's ideas. Separately, they'd both be somewhat conventional, but together they preserve the music's spirit while getting rid of the boys'-band clichés that have often marred Southern rock in the past.
In "Don't Misunderstand Me," for instance, a "sorry baby but that road is callin' me" song is metamorphosed into a love duet between Krantz and guitarist Barry Harwood: when these two hit the road, they hit it to find each other. Conversely, the straight torch numbers, "Three Times as Bad" and "Misery Loves Company," are made more potent by the group's musical muscle. In "Misery Loves Company" especially, you can hear the multiple rhythm guitars egging Krantz on as her pain turns to anger and, later, to total defiance of pain itself.
It's best not to make too much of this, though, because the Rossington Collins Band certainly don't. A lot of their album is just good, solid rock & roll, played with flair and the kind of chops that imply emotional authority, not mere technical command. Nobody grandstands. Instead, everything is placed in service to the songs, from the terse, bittersweet slide guitar that Gary Rossington throws in behind the chorus of "Winners and Losers" to Billy Powell's hard-edged keyboard work throughout the record. Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere never stops reminding you of the first lesson of Southern rock: that good times get more valuable because of the risks you have to take for them. Or, as "Sometimes You Can Put It Out" states: "Ain't it good to walk out on a limb and find out that it holds?"
This spirit is something that the Allman Brothers Band desperately need, though their new LP, Reach for the Sky. isn't as flagrantly enervated as 1979's Enlightened Rogues. The current sound (largely due, I'd guess, to coproducers Mike Lawler and Johnny Cobb) is thicker and heavier, close to funk in spots. Rather than sounding just plain stoned and out of it (the way he did last year), Gregg Allman at least has the aggrieved tone of the town drunk wrangling with a cop. But, if possible, everything is even less convincing. Practically all the cuts trade shamelessly on an image the Allmans stopped living out years ago. Any group that kicks off an album with a bullheaded "autobiography" called "Hell & High Water," and follows it with a tune about a woman who "can look so good and be so doggone mean" ("Angeline"), and then tags on a boast like "I Got a Right to Be Wrong" is working overtime at propping up its credibility.
Once again, the only Allman in the Allman Brothers Band is pretty near irrelevant. Dickey Betts is the dominant personality here, and he has the charisma and poetry of a parking meter. The irony of a technician like Betts taking over is that the whole group seems to have gotten slovenly as craftsmen: in "Mystery Woman" (one of the two compositions cowritten by Gregg), the instrumental breaks are patched together with so little continuity that the song sounds like someone spinning the dial on a radio. The players try a bit of everything to keep the music moving — e.g., a synthesizer in "So Long" and in "Angeline" — yet they can't make up for Reach for the Sky's emotional hollowness. Butch Trucks and Jaimoe Johnny Lee Johnson are, as always, a joy to hear, but it's extremely depressing to realize that the record's best moment is their double drum solo in "From the Madness of the West," the latest version of the standard Dickey Betts instrumental (a.k.a. "The Search for the Kitchen Sink").
The key to the power and value of Southern rock & roll, beyond its musical fire and the occasional blunt insight of its lyrics, is in being true to a point of view. The members of the Rossington Collins Band know this in their bones. Right now, all that the Allman Brothers Band can do is give people the lingering suspicion that they stole their name.