Gary James' Interview With
Lynyrd Skynyrd tribute
If you're looking to have a total Lynyrd Skynyrd experience then you just have to see Freebird. Freebird plays the songs the way they were meant to be played. Calling Long Island, New York home, we spoke to Freebird bassist, Jim.
Q - Jim, you've been playing in bands for twenty-five years and then you decided to put Freebird together. Is that correct?
A - No. The band was actually put together by two guitarists. They're brothers, Tom and Tim. Tom was actually the original guy to come up with the idea. It was Tom, Tim and another brother Chris who was the original bass player in the band for the first two years. The three of them. They liked the fact that Skynyrd was mostly about family and keeping everything tight, so they tried to go that route. They come from a very talented family of musicians, Tom and Tim. Unfortunately, after two years, Chris had another route to go and that's where I came in.
Q - Do you guys take the show on the road?
A - We do travel. We play Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania. We actually have a show we've been asked to play down in West Virginia which we're working on as we speak.
Q - You're from Long Island. Skynyrd is a Southern group.
A - That's right.
Q - How do you relate to and understand a band that's steeped in Southern tradition?
A - Well, for the most part growing up, most of us are in our 40s and early 50s and we grew up in that era when Southern Rock was thriving back in the mid to late '70s with bands like Skynyrd and Charlie Daniels, Marshall Tucker and The Allman Brothers. They would come to Long Island and they would sell the Coliseum out, they'd sell the Garden (Madison Square Garden) out. As far as I'm concerned, I never looked at it as Southern Rock. To me it was Rock. It was Rock 'n' Roll. It was great music. I like it. I went out and bought the albums. When I started to play, back in the day, some of the first songs I learned were Lynyrd Skynyrd songs.
Q - Did you see Skynyrd in concert?
A - No, unfortunately I never got to see the original line-up prior to the plane crash. I would've loved to have seen that. That would've been great. That unfortunate chain of events took two key members from the band.
Q - And it is unfortunate. The great mystery is Ronnie Van Zandt was so meticulous about the music, yet he would travel aboard an old, rickety plane at 30,000 feet. I just don't understand.
A - Right. And supposedly they had been warned about the plane and he said, "Let's just go. When it's your turn to go, it's your turn to go." I guess at that point in his life he was feeling invincible.
Q - He probably would never have believed that in the year 2014 there are tribute bands to his music.
A - Oh, yeah. There's plenty of 'em. The great thing about it for us is, it started out when Tom put it together with his brothers, I don't think they were expecting it to get as big as it did. Eventually, after the first three or four years, more and more word started to spread out about the band and people started coming. Then next thing you know we were drawing three hundred to four hundred people to our shows. It just goes to show you that the music itself is still out there. It still thrives and there are still people that want to come out and hear it.
Q - And the band was put together in what year?
A - I believe Tom started around 2002. 2003 and 2004 they had started playing some shows and around the middle of 2005 is when Chris, the original bass player, made his departure. Around the end of 2005 is when I auditioned and was picked up. Basically 2006 is when we got the ball back rollin' again.
Q - As you see it, how is the marketplace for tribute groups? Is it growing, declining or leveling off?
A - Definitely not on the decline on Long Island. It seems like every other few weeks you see on Facebook a great community of musicians that a lot of us are connected to and all you have to do is meet one person who knows this other person and the next thing you know everybody is friending each other. Everybody knows what everybody is doing. Guys and girls are hooking up like crazy, putting these tribute acts together. And they're nothing to sneeze at either. There's a lot of talented musicians here on Long Island. If you really want to see some of these great tribute acts, there's so many of them out there.
Q - Are you the only Skynyrd tribute act on Long Island?
A - There's another tribute act that's called Long Island Street Survivors. They were actually thriving for quite awhile and now they've kind of slowed down a little bit. They do pop up from time to time. We've actually friended a few guys from that band as well. Nice bunch of guys.
Q - How often do you work and what type of venues are you performing in?
A - The thing with being in a tribute band and in a Skynyrd tribute band, your catalog is limited to so many songs. We try not to play out every weekend. We usually try to set it up every five or six weeks just to keep the interest. There's some larger clubs that have been popping up on the Island. There's a club called 89 North in Patchogue (New York). A few blocks from there is a club called The Emporium. They're both very generous to the bands that come through there, tribute and original bands as well. We also play a club called Katy's in Smithtown. There's another venue down the block from there called Napper Tandy's in Smithtown. They have a Napper Tandy's in Miller Place as well. We also play a smaller club called O'Reilly's, which is down in a town called Oakdale. All of these venues are very good to the musicians that play there. We have a great working relationship with a lot of the owners. We do well with them and they do well with us.
Q - Are you guys trying to look like the original members in Skynyrd or is it more about the music?
A - With us we're not looking to actually portray any of the members themselves. Our thing is we want to reproduce the music to as close to the original as possible, to give that to people who come to see us. If they're standing there and they close their eyes, which is a compliment we've had on many occasions where people have said, "Man, if I close my eyes I would swear that it's Skynyrd up on stage." It's always a great compliment and nice to hear. We get people come to see us in their twenties to people who are in their seventies. We get a lot of people that say they saw Skynyrd back in the day, numerous, numerous times and that the energy we put out when we play is very similar to the original band. That's a great compliment! We put a lot of work into it, to try and sound as best as we can, right down to using the amplification for the guitars and the type of guitars we use for every song that Skynyrd recorded. So, there was a lot of studying that went on when we put this thing together.
Q - Have you ever met any of the surviving members of Skynyrd? Do they know about you?
A - I haven't met them, but I'm not sure if they know of us. I'm pretty sure that they're probably aware there are tribute bands out there. Our band in particular, I couldn't tell you whether any of them are aware of us. It would be pretty cool one night if we were playing and one of 'em just happened to show up.
Q - What would you do?
A - I would hope that they'd want to come up and play with us or sing with us depending on who showed up. I would gladly give up my instrument. I'm sure anybody in the band would give up their space and jam with these guys. That's not an experience you get to live every day.