"Is this a Southern city?" guitarist Ed King of Lynyrd Skynyrd asked the crowd at Merriweather Post Pavilion midway through last night's show.
Perhaps during the Civil War a place like Columbia might have been considered Yankee country, but you never would have known it from the looks of the overflow throng of more than 14,000 gathered last night in an almost religious Southern rock experience.
Touring to support its first album in 14 years, "Lynyrd Skynyrd 1991," the band picked up where tragedy struck in October 1977, when three members of the band were killed in a plane crash in Gillsburg, Miss.
Singer and inspirational leader Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines and backup singer Cassie Gaines are gone (as is guitarist Allen Collins, who died last year), but the four band members who survived the crash -- guitarist Gary Rossington, keyboardist Billy Powell, bassist Leon Wilkeson and drummer Artimus Pyle -- have taken the "Tribute Tour" idea of 1987 a bit further and made a full-fledged operation of the band.
Now led by singer Johnny Van Zant (Ronnie's brother), along with guitarists King and Randall Hall, and drummer Custer, Skynyrd is out to pump new life into the Southern rock sound of the '70s.
And, according to the flock of devoted fans, who said Southern rock isn't alive and kicking in the '90s?
Relying mainly on the classic fare like "That Smell" and "Saturday Night Special," the band was consistent with the musicianship of the former unit and the new Van Zant even sounds eeriely like the old Van Zant. Just close your eyes and it was 1976 all over again.
Not to be pigeonholed, the new material is just as credible with songs like "Southern Women" and "Smokestack Lightning," the show's noisy opener, serving the legacy well.
Still living off the wealth of a three-lead-guitar orchestra, Rossington, Hall and King served up the three-chord boogie blues with scientific precision. During the heavy triple leads in the endings of "What's Your Name" and "Gimme Three Steps," the trio, prodded by Van Zant, moved to the foot of the stage and whipped the crowd into a frenzy with a friendly guitar duel.
Of course, the show wouldn't have been complete without an encore of "Freebird," an FM radio staple and truly the band's significant contribution to rock music.
When the band's first incarnations began after the crash -- with the Rossington Collins Band and the Artimus Pyle Band leading the way -- the crowd was asked to sing the song as a tribute to the deceased Van Zant.
But now, with his trusty fifth of Jack Daniel's held firmly in his right hand, the younger Van Zant toasts the crowd, asks the familiar "What song is that you want to hear?" and happily takes the vocals all by himself.
And, just like in 1976, the butane lighters ignite throughout the crowd.