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Lynyrd Skynyrd hopes to break 'Vicious Cycle'

With the possible exception of the Allman Brothers Band, no group has survived as much tragedy and heartache as Lynyrd Skynyrd.

The band, of course, was torn apart in October 1977 when a plane crash claimed the lives of Ronnie Van Zant — the group's singer and a gifted songwriter — guitarist Steve Gaines and his sister, backing vocalist Cassie Gaines. At the time, the Jacksonville, Fla., band was on the cusp of a major commercial breakthrough. After years of non-stop touring, the group had built a strong following and had just released its best album, "Street Survivors."

The surviving band members — guitarists Gary Rossington and Allen Collins, keyboardist Billy Powell, bassist Leon Wilkeson and drummer Artimus Pyle — all suffered significant injuries, not to mention considerable emotional damage in the plane crash. And while a new version of Skynyrd emerged in 1987 with Johnny Van Zant — Ronnie's younger brother — on vocals and original guitarist Ed King returning to the lineup, troubled times did not elude the group. Collins suffered paralysis in the years after the plane crash and died in 1990 as a result of injuries suffered in an auto accident.

Throw in several acrimonious splits with band members — the departures of Pyle and King especially were contentious — and one has more than enough drama and turmoil to add to the story. Then in July 2001, during the making of the band's new CD, "Vicious Cycle," bassist Wilkeson died.

"You have people ask us how you get through all the stuff that Skynyrd's been through," singer Johnny Van Zant said. "And I think it's the music, it really is. I've never met a person who doesn't like music, and we may vary in what styles we like, but everybody likes some form of music. And we have fans that go this song helped us through this and that. The music helps us through it, too. It's a great healer."

Wilkeson did play bass on two songs on "Vicious Cycle" — "Lucky Man" and "The Way" — but Van Zant said his death shook the band. It also prompted the band to write a sweet tribute to Wilkeson called "Mad Hatter," a reference to the bassist's colorful array of hats he wore during concerts.

Though Wilkeson toured with the band right up to his death, Van Zant said the band knew he wasn't in the best of shape.

"You know, even from the airplane crash his health wasn't that good," Van Zant said. "He was always a little timid and he just didn't take care of himself, you know, but as far as a person goes, he was one of the best people you'd ever meet. But hey, Leon lived a great life and did what he wanted to with his life and got to play his bass guitar. That was his big thing, the bass guitar. That's what he loved.''

It took the band another year of recording and writing — done during breaks in the group's heavy touring schedule — but Lynyrd Skynyrd succeeded in finishing "Vicious Cycle." And the band — which today includes Van Zant, Rossington, Powell, former Outlaws guitarist Hughie Thomasson, former Blackfoot guitarist Rickey Medlocke, drummer Michael Cartellone and new bassist Eon Evans — delivered a record that Van Zant believes captures both new and old styles of Skynyrd.

"I think some of the stuff is probably a little harder at times than what maybe, with Ronnie and Allen and them in the (original) band (did)," Van Zant said. "I think songs like 'That's How I Like It,' it's got that riff, bow, just a straight-ahead kind of thing. And then you have songs like 'The Way,' that's really different. Then you have songs like 'All Funked Up' that's different and you have songs like 'Crawl,' that's a really different kind of song. I don't know if the (original) band would have done something like that.

"But we have songs like 'Sweet Mama,' and I think 'Red White and Blue' — man I could have heard Ronnie singing that," Van Zant said. "'Pick 'Em Up,' that's kind of the same thing as a 'You Got That Right' kind of thing. So we keep to what we do."

The aforementioned "Red White and Blue" got "Vicious Cycle" off to a strong start, briefly cracking the top 15 on the mainstream rock chart. The band, though, has had to deal with the health problems of Rossington. The guitarist, who underwent open-heart surgery in February after a routine physical revealed blockage in his arteries, recovered quickly enough for the band to tour Europe in February and do some shows in the spring and early summer in the United States.

The group had to cancel most of a co-billed tour in late summer with Sammy Hagar when doctors ordered Rossington to rest for several weeks. But now the band is back touring with Rossington in the fold.

Lynyrd Skynyrd plays Monday, Dec. 8, at the Family Arena in St. Charles. Tickets for the 7:30 p.m. show, which also features 38 Special, cost $30 and $25 for reserved seats and $17.50 for general admission.

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