Aaron Huntington wore his worries on his face. It was just a few weeks before he was to stand in for singer Ronnie Van Zant in a Lynyrd Skynyrd tribute show and it seemed as if the whole thing was destined to crash and burn.
Gathered on a Wednesday evening in the basement of Jimbo Zill’s guitar shop in La Crosse, Huntington and his musical mates were struggling. New drummer Eric Gerke was sitting in for the first time, one of the guitarists didn’t show up for the rehearsal and the other two guitarists occasionally couldn’t remember who was supposed to play which part.
Huntington was tabbed to sing for the Skynyrd show because of his well-known love of the band and because of his proven skills as a frontman as singer, guitarist and “alpha hog” for Sowbelly Bitchhog. He describes his band thusly: “If Skynyrd and (Black) Sabbath had a baby, it’d be us.”
A 1997 graduate of La Crosse Logan High School who now lives in Onalaska, Huntington wasn’t even born when a plane crash on Oct. 20, 1977, claimed the lives of Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines, backup singer Cassie Gaines and three others. But if he had been alive, he’d have mourned the loss deeply, and he takes the upcoming tribute to one of his favorite bands very seriously.
“It’s going to be about rockin’ these songs out and doing them justice,” Huntington said.
“One More From the Road” — named for the band’s September 1976 double live album — is the sixth musical salute put together by Gregg “Cheech” Hall, a string of shows that started with a re-creation of The Band’s farewell concert movie, “The Last Waltz,” featuring 17 musicians.
If Huntington had been involved in any of the previous tribute shows, he would have known he didn’t need to worry. Hall is very selective about the people he recruits and they have always done whatever it took to get the band tightened up in time.
“Everybody comes together in a pinch,” said Hall, one of three guitarists involved in the project and a big fan of Skynyrd himself. “It’s going to be fun. We’re not going to suck.”
Bassist Tim Powers, who has performed in most of Hall’s tribute shows, echoed Hall’s confidence. “It’s always this way,” he said. “A week or two before the show, things begin to coalesce.”
Befitting a show dedicated to the music of Skynyrd, the band includes guitarists of the highest caliber. In addition to Hall and Zill, the band includes Paul Matushek of Moon Boot Posse.
Gerke, who plays with Zill and Mike Von Muchow in Actual Size and Skeleton Crew (Irene Keenan’s recently formed backing band), is filling in on drums for Ryan Torgerson, also of Moon Boot Posse. Torgerson discovered he had advanced in a prestigious drumming competition that is scheduled for the same weekend as the Skynyrd show (Sept. 20-21).
Rounding out the Skynyrd band on keyboards will be Nancy Stoll, a teacher at Onalaska’s Irving Pertzsch Elementary who had Hall as a student when she first started her teaching career.
Putting together a band and getting an evening’s worth of music put together normally is a process that takes months, but Hall is so plugged into the local music scene that he has a knack for picking people motivated enough and skilled enough to shorten that process to a matter of weeks.
Part of the reason Hall can do that is the musicians he picks love the artists they’re saluting and they love the idea of doing a show at The Muse Theatre where they will have the audience’s full attention.
“It’s not like a bar, where people are getting drunk and stupid. They’re there to listen to the music,” Hall said. “That’s part of the reason every person I’ve ever asked (to play a tribute show) has said ‘yes.’”
The band will do most if not all of the songs on “One More From the Road,” and might throw in some other favorites, such as “The Ballad of Curtis Loew.” And the show will offer one of the extremely rare cases in which shouting “Free Bird” at a band will be appropriate and will get a response that involves playing the song.