Lynyrd Skynyrd fans are not hard to spot at Riverbend.
There's a certain unabashed blue-collar sensibility, a free-wheeling attitude they possess that would have made them easily identifiable Thursday night, even if they hadn't walked through the Riverbend gates bearing their idol's name on their shirts, hats, belt buckles and, in some cases, skin.
David Lee and his son Chad Lee arrived at the festival grounds wearing matching Lynyrd Skynyrd hats and tour T-shirts from two different decades. They paid for premium Star Seating for the concert, their 10th time to see the Jacksonville, Fla.-based Southern rock legends.
"I love that their music ... is about having a good time and Southern life," Chad said. "My dad was the old-school rocker and passed it on down."
Legions of like-minded fans joined the Lees last night to see Skynyrd return to the Coca-Cola stage for a rare second headlining performance about a decade after making their Riverbend debut in 2002. Despite strong storms that soaked the grounds just as gates opened Thursday, festival talent and production coordinator Joe "Dixie" Fuller was confident the band would draw crowds that met or exceeded the high-water mark set by opening night headliner Jake Owen.
"Skynyrd fans will stand in the rain to watch Skynyrd," he said. "Southern rock fans are diehard fans; they'll come one way or another."
Many of those who turned out said they loved material from Skynyrd's early catalog in the '70s, when it burst out of Florida with a swampy, guitar-driven sound that helped define the southern rock genre.
The band's current lineup is almost entirely comprised of members who joined after a 1977 plane crash that claimed the lives of three of its founders, including lead singer Ronnie Van Zant. Even though the new group -- long led by Van Zant's brother, Johnny -- didn't write iconic songs like "Tuesday's Gone," "Gimme Three Steps" and "Sweet Home Alabama," fans were at a fever pitch to see them take the stage at 10:15 p.m. after a brief opening set by country singer/songwriter Drake White.
"It ain't the original members, but these guys have been in just as long; they're going to handle it," said Fort Payne, Ala., resident Decker Jones, who was walking the riverfront in an olive T-shirt emblazoned with "Freebird."
Although Skynyrd concert veterans said the band always takes care to touch on the classics that fans demand, they also mix in plenty of newer material. The band arrived at the festival early Thursday to kick off a summer tour in support of its 12th studio album, "Last of a Dyin' Breed," which released August.
Even though he has seen Skynyrd perform half a dozen times, Minneapolis native Todd Wicklander said the prospect of seeing them again was enough to get him in the gates of his first Riverbend with his wife Laura. Both were wearing T-shirts purchased during one of four trips they've taken on the band's annual Simple Man party cruises and had claimed premium seating just to the right of the band's merchandise tent on Riverfront Parkway.
Skynyrd fans are reputed to be a rough-and-tumble set, but the Wicklanders agreed with many of their fellow zealots -- and festival officials -- that that reputation was mostly unwarranted.
There undoubtedly would be beers raised during the choruses of staple anthems like "Freebird," Wicklander said, but most fans would be too excited by the energy on stage to consider throwing a fist, unless it was into the air.
"It's 99 percent having a good time, not out of control," he said. "I doubt any of us will be sitting for this show."
Contact staff writer Casey Phillips at cphillips@times freepress.com or 423-757-6205.
Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, consumer technology, animals and news of the weird. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German from Middle Tennessee State University, where he worked as the features editor for the student newspaper, Sidelines. Casey's writing has earned numerous accolades, including first and second place ...