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High seas musical

Email|Print| Text size + By Tom Haines
Globe staff / January 21, 2007

MIAMI -- Before getting too far out to sea, a look back:

The Southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd, though torn apart by a plane crash that killed three of its members in 1977, reunited a decade later, with Johnny Van Zant taking the place of his deceased brother, Ronnie , as lead singer. The band, named for Leonard Skinner , a gym teacher at Robert E. Lee High School in Jacksonville, who purportedly did not like long hair, has had a total of 22 members , but its basic formula remains the same. Long-haired musicians play hard-driving electric guitar and sing about what they consider daily dramas of the Southern, white working class; lyrics include oak trees, whiskey bottles , and brand new cars, young peachy girls and heart-breaking women, visits to Alabama with guns, and long-gone days in a poor neighborhood. With a resounding rebel yell, Lynyrd Skynyrd has continued to play "Freebird," "Sweet Home Alabama ," and other classics alongside new songs at mid size arenas, county fairs, casinos , and music festivals in places such as Atlanta, Scranton, Pa., Great Falls, Mont., and Pikeville, Ky.

So when Lynyrd Skynyrd's manager called the production company Sixthman , which brings bands and their fans together aboard Caribbean cruise ships, the "Gimme Three Days" concept, with Skynyrd headlining more than a dozen younger Southern bands, quickly came together.

Musical cruises have become big business ; Irish fiddlers perform off the Hawaiian Islands, chamber quartets in the Baltic Sea, and blues bands off the coast of California. But classic Southern rock, departing Miami for the Bahamas?

On day three aboard the Fascination , a 10-deck Carnival ship that, from a distance, resembles a bathtub toy, several hundred passengers waited an hour or more for a mid afternoon Q&A with the band. A raspy-voiced man in a tank top and a rebel flag bandanna approached a young couple in line and asked the man, who was broad-shouldered and square-chinned, if he would mind receiving a compliment about his fiancée. Why no, the younger man said.

"Well, I play around a lot, and she looks a lot like one of my girlfriends," the older man said. "She is beautiful. Shorter , though."

The older man left. The fiancée, who had Paulina Porizkova's cheek bones and a librarian's calm, blushed.

"That was kind of nice," her husband-to-be told her.

The older man spun up alongside me as the doors opened for the Q&A.

"There are four kinds of people in the world," he said. "People who like Skynyrd, Skynyrd fans, Skynyrd freaks, and hard-core Skynyrd freaks."

Inside, bartenders from Hungary and Ukraine delivered iced buckets of Miller Genuine Draft and Bud Light to audience tables as band members took seats on the stage.

"I think," Johnny Van Zant boomed into a microphone, "we should call it a red neck cruise!"

A young boy who offered Van Zant a painting of his brother Ronnie asked what kind of bait they use. Rickey Medlocke , a guitarist who also briefly played drums with the band in 1971, recommended worms and spinners for bass fishing.

When asked what lives they would lead if not in the band, Van Zant said, "We'd all be doing celebrity lawn service."

Billy Powell, an original member and still the band's keyboardist, said he once ran a lawn care business, with the slogan "If we can't mow it, we'll sure as hell smoke it."

Lynyrd Skynyrd played a sun-lit acoustic set on the Lido Deck shortly after the Q&A, but the band's main appearances were two late-evening concerts in the Palace Lounge.

38 Special, whose lead singer, Donnie Van Zant , is a brother of Johnny and Ronnie, opened both shows. (One passenger wore a T-shirt with portraits of the trio's parents, Lacy and Marion Van Zant . "They gave us three great musicians," he said.) Donnie Van Zant had to cancel his appearance because of a death in the family. Guitarist Don Barnes quickly took the crowd back to 1984, when teens played Atari and cranked "Hold on Loosely," "Caught Up in You," and "Back Where You Belong" from boom boxes.

Lynyrd Skynyrd took the stage (Gary Rossington , Skynyrd's lead guitarist and the only other original band member, also canceled because of pneumonia and a concussion suffered in a fall) and went back a decade earlier, to 1974 and "Sweet Home Alabama." Before the song's famous opening three chords, Johnny Van Zant tied a rebel flag around the microphone.

"It's time," he yelled, "for the South to rise again!"

The most committed fans styled their hair long and frizzy like the band and wore the design of the Confederate flag on baseball caps, tank tops, swimming trunks, and in tattoos. The blue cross on a red background also was a common choice for the cruise's door-decorating competition. One cabin door, designed by a mid-40s father and his three mid-teen sons, also employed cigarettes, empty blue aluminum Budweiser bottles, and an imitation joint. More than one passing passenger joked about smoking it. (Cruise sponsors included Blue Whale , a tobacco dip alternative, and Nicogel , a nicotine cream which, when rubbed on the hands, is supposed to deliver the sensation of having smoked a cigarette.)

Lynyrd Skynyrd also waved the American flag, this during "Red, White & Blue," a song from the 2003 Vicious Cycle album, and one of the more popular the band has released since the 1970s. Before playing it, Van Zant talked about Iraq, but said he did not want to be political. His suggestion: "Be done with it and come home!"

Then the band harmonized the "Red, White & Blue" chorus:

My hair's turning white, my neck's always been red, my collar's still blue . . .

Skynyrd did rock its classics, ending with Medlocke taking Rossington's lead guitar role to dominate an extended encore of "Freebird."

"That's the best show I've seen and I've seen a lot. I saw Ronnie twice," said one departing fan, weaving from the Palace toward the crowded black jack tables in Casino Royale .

The Fascination is big and surprisingly soundproof, so at times it felt as though Lynyrd Skynyrd had left the ship. Routines tended either toward run-of-the-mill cruisedom -- mid level food, over priced drinks, under sized swimming pools -- or, particularly by late-afternoon when support bands took to stages large and small, free-wheeling music festival.

The ship's narrow hallways, similar elevator bays, and low-ceilinged stages created a pleasant "Groundhog Day" effect:

Look, there is Heather Luttrell behind the mike again on the stage near Stars Bar, soulful blues pouring from her mouth, and whiskey from her glass.

The three Nashville emergency room nurses have changed outfits, from Friday's sun dresses to that evening's formal gowns, this time settling on denim.

Isn't that the hallway to the late-night pizza bar?

Up on the Lido Deck catching the Sister Hazel show, it's the hard-partying couple from the black jack table.

The accidental atmosphere allowed a crowd of younger musicians and passersby to find a fresh rhythm on the cruise's last night, an hour after Lynyrd Skynyrd concluded its final show. On the small stage beside Stars, Zac Brown , a rising singer-songwriter from Atlanta, joined his friend Sonia Leigh in a band of seven. Leigh sang a roaring cover of Sheryl Crow's "Leaving Las Vegas," then they detoured through an Eagles song to an Axl Rose -style version of Bob Dylan's "Knockin' on Heaven's Door, " and a Brown original.

Joe Williams , a fresh-faced guitarist from Brown's band, played electric lead from the dance floor and somewhere along the way Jess Franklin from the band Tishamingo tilted up the lid of the grand piano without spilling one of the dozen or more beers resting on it. A soundman with dreadlocks fixed a mike near the piano strings and in no time a sober-faced guy who played a lively fiddle passed the solo to Franklin.

There was only 30 feet or so between the bar counter and the narrow stage. Most passing passengers appeared to be heading to bed, but they crowded in to dance and drink a few feet from the stage as the guitarists jumped into "Are You Gonna Be My Girl" by the Australian band Jet. During an original Leigh song, a goateed guy in a pork-pie hat worked the congo drums, and then Keni Thomas weaved through the crowd to sing the opening lyrics of Joe Cocker's version of "Feelin' Alright." Midway through, Leigh took the lead vocal spot, but turned the song to the Rolling Stones' "You Can't Always Get What You Want." The musicians followed.

The crowd, swaying beneath ship signs leading to "Diamonds Are Forever," "Beverly Hills Bar," and "Puttin' on the Ritz," delivered "thank you" shots of Jagermeister to the stage.

Cameron Williams , lead singer of Tishamingo, moved from the dance floor to harmonize at the mike with Leigh and Luttrell.

"This," Williams told the crowd before barreling into another melody, "is the future of music on this ship."

It was 3 a.m.

Contact Tom Haines at thaines@globe.com.

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