Southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd, famously founded in Jacksonville, rose to popularity by playing small, standing-room-only venues locally.
So it only seems appropriate that, for nearly two decades, the wife and daughter of the band’s lead singer operated Freebird Live, a venue that would over the years morph into exactly the kind of place at which Lynyrd Skynyrd would have played.
Judy and Melody Van Zant launched what was then known as Freebird Café in the late ‘90s. The two-story venue, located at 100 N. 1st Street, opened in September 1999 with a concert by The Charlie Daniels Band.
Named for the famous Skynyrd song “Free Bird,” the venue started as a bona-fide bar and restaurant, adorned with Skynyrd memorabilia and playing the band’s greatest hits – that is, when there wasn’t a live music act performing. Some of the memorabilia would occasionally be auctioned off for charity.
Over the years, live music started to become the venue’s top priority, and the Skynyrd theme was gradually toned down. A remodel in 2008 saw most of the seating removed in order to increase the venue’s capacity for shows.
It’s easy to see why live music became a priority for Freebird Live. The venue routinely drew top local, regional, and national acts with the help of talent booker Tim Hall, owner of Jack Rabbits in San Marco. Famous local acts like the Greg Allman Band, Red Jumpsuit Apparatus, Shinedown, and Yellowcard stopped by for shows at Freebird, which became one of the area’s hottest live music venues of its size.
Unfortunately, in late 2015, news came out that the building was being put up for sale – meaning Freebird Live would soon shut down. Sure enough, New Orleans jam band Galactic played the venue’s final show on January 20, 2016.
The building was purchased and renovated by Surfer the Bar, returning the property to its previous use as a restaurant and bar.
And while Surfer the Bar also routinely welcomes live music acts, it’s just not the same as Freebird.