Also Known As: Freebird
Music/Lyrics: Collins, Van Zant
Original Artist: Lynyrd Skynyrd
Original Album: Pronounced Lęh’-nerd’ Skin’-nerd (1973)
Albums: Live Phish 16
Historian: Martin Acaster (Doctor_Smarty)
With the release of their self-titled first album in 1973 (including phonetic pronunciation for the linguistically challenged), Lynyrd Skynyrd added another wrinkle to the skin of the ripening Georgia peach known as “Southern Rock.” “Free Bird,” the closing track to the album, quickly became a concert favorite. Not unlike the all too frequent calls for “Harpua” during THE SHOW at Big Cypress, the rampant bellow of “Free Bird” was a mantra to the typical bourbon sippin’ Skynyrd fan.
The first Phish performance of “Free Bird” was at Goddard College (3/6/87 Plainfield, VT), featuring Ninja Mike Billington on vocals, and by all accounts was a rather tongue-in-cheek performance of the classic rock favorite. The song then flew the coop for over six years and about 700 shows. The triumphant return of “Free Bird” (7/15/93 Weedsport, NY) raised the bar on the Phish comedy meter quite a few notches. Stepping to the microphones after a rocking “Chalk Dust Torture” encore to an already steamy summer tour opener, Trey put a question to the audience in the best Ronnie Van Zant drawl he could muster. “Wayull... wut song is it y’all wanna heeyah?” An ecstatic young song historian (for whom the sought after response was a common chant at every concert he had ever attended) pogoing on the front rail at his third Phish show gleefully exclaimed “Free Bird!” and was rewarded with his request. What set this version apart from the debut performance was that nary an instrument was played. “Free Bird,” a cappella, yet complete with guitar solo and the big arena rock finish. This band was just too much.
“Free Bird” made many flights (typically as an encore) throughout the rest of 1993. Among the best were the 7/24/93 Great Woods, 8/20/93 Red Rocks and 12/30/93 Portland, ME performances. “Free Bird” was much more difficult to catch in 1994 as it appeared at only five shows in the first half of the year. For the next three and a half years (with the exception of a “Free Bird” outro jam here and there; see 7/20/98 “Poor Heart”) there were just too many places that bird had to see before it finally came home to roost on 10/17/98 at a Bridge School Benefit show at Shoreline. An electrifying (yet still a cappella) performance the first night of the Vegas Halloween run (10/30/98) left fans more than ready for a long night of gaming. This version was subsequently released as filler to the Loaded Halloween show on Live Phish 16. “Free Bird” flew several more times that year but once again went into hiding throughout 1999.
Phish, "Free Bird" – 6/22/00, Antioch, TN
The most spectacular version to date of “Free Bird,” played as the closer to the second set of the 6/22/00 summer tour opener, was complete with instruments, a guest appearance by the Del McCoury Band (including Ricky Skaggs and Sam Bush), and the vocal stylings of the free-as-a-bird (her divorce was finalized that day) Wynonna Judd. I’m certain there’s never been a “Free Bird” that flew any higher (with due respect to Skynyrd of course). During a Trey Anastasio show in Utica, NY (10/25/02) calls for “Free Bird” from the crowd inspired a couple of anecdotes from Trey. In one he described hearing the song on a boom box when he encountered a gang of punks while on vacation in Greece; the second revealed that Phish had offered their unique version of “Free Bird” for inclusion in a Lynyrd Skynyrd tribute album, an offer that was inexplicably refused. The a cappella version of the song was reborn as the opener of a three song encore at the Cumberland County Civic Center in Portland, ME (11/29/09).
Phish, "Free Bird" – 11/29/09, Portland, ME