They may be inextricably linked with the Deep South of the USA, but Lynyrd Skynyrd seem to have a real bond with the UK. They are regular visitors to these shores and by my reckoning this was the fifth London show since 2009, putting many of their American contemporaries to shame. Johnny Van Zant was proudly wearing a Union Jack patch on his waistcoat and the love was reciprocated with an unexpectedly sold out Hammersmith crowd.
There is an elephant in the room which needs to be addressed, which is that this was an exclusively backward-looking show. Each of their five studio releases since the late nineties has been stronger than the last one, with the last two, ‘God And Guns’ and ‘Last Of A Dying Breed’ their finest albums since the original line up. Yet every single song in this set was from pre-plane crash days, indeed all but three from their opening pair of albums.
Not much can be done about the march of the Grim Reaper but Gary Rossington was the sole member on stage who played on any of these originals. Of course with ‘heritage’ bands the words ‘here’s a song from our new album’ usually provokes an exodus to bars and bathrooms, but it showed a lack of faith in some excellent music that they, rather than their predecessors, created. While nostalgia may rule back home in the USA, I spoke to several fans who were disappointed they didn’t play any newer material.
That gripe out of the way, it was still a fantastic gig that did justice to the legacy of one of America’s greatest bands, sadly cut short in their prime. A Skynyrd show is always immaculately choreographed with intelligent lighting and lots of on stage movement and interplay between the musicians. A particular joy is the twists and turns weaved by the way the three guitarists combine.
Gary lays down some simple but trademark riffs and solos, Ricky Medlocke is very much the visual focal point of the triple guitar attack and gives the sound a sharper, more metallic edge while the walking hairspray commercial Mark ‘Sparky’ Matejka has a melodic tone to his playing that is easy on the ear.
‘Workin For MCA’, with Ricky and Gary trading the first solo before Mark came in with a clean solo of his own, and ‘I Ain’t The One’ with some aggressive lead work from Ricky set the tone, but then there was a rare change to the script with ‘Call Me The Breeze’, complete with synchronised stage moves moved from its usual point later in the set.
It merely kept a great atmosphere boiling and added to the sense we were witnessing a definitive greatest hits set as they moved into ‘What’s Your Name’,’ That Smell’ with the girl backing singers making their first appearance and some intricate guitar interplay, ‘Saturday Night Special’ with some classic riffing from Gary, and Ricky giving ‘Needle And The Spoon’ some added fire.
Nevertheless the rather stale set list was unexpectedly refreshed with the addition of three songs I did not expect to hear – ‘I Need You’ apparently never played in the UK before is another of their slow burning epics, while both the lightly funky grooves of ‘Swamp Music’ and the almost bluegrass ‘Mississippi Kid’, Ricky playing mandolin and Mark acoustic guitar, both showed an underrated side to the original Skynyrd, plugging into the broader musical traditions of the south that were so well captured in Reginald D Hunter’s recent documentary series.
They were sandwiched by ‘Simple Man’, dedicated to British and UK troops and getting a reception third only to the two songs they are famous for, while ‘Tuesday’s Gone’ was another epic, the crowd swaying arms to the chorus and keyboard player Peter Keys getting a rare moment in the spotlight (not that I could see him sandwiched in a corner of the stage from my vantage point!)
The inevitable climax to every Skynyrd gig began with ‘Gimme Three Steps’ and more synchronised stage moves before Johnny stressed their friendship with Bad Company and invited Mick Ralphs on stage for ‘Sweet Home Alabama’. This threatened to be a bit cabaret and I wasn’t initially sure whether he would do any more than strum along, but he was trading solos with the others in what was a southern boogie lovers wet dream of a quadruple lead guitar attack.
Photo: Andy Nathan
For an encore, in the words of the highlander, there can be only one. Yet ‘Freebird’ was given a minor makeover with a keyboard intro I don’t remember hearing before and Mark adding acoustic guitar to complement Gary’s melancholic slide guitar part.
I never tire though of the way Ricky then lets rip during the fast section before he and Mark traded solos ever faster against the imaginative backdrop of a mirror ball overhanging the stage which then briefly went dark before the lights came on again to reveal the guitarists still jamming away.
I always fear this may be the last time I see Skynyrd but this was a vibrant show and indeed a vintage one even by their standards. All the sadder then that the song ‘Still Unbroken’, which surely should now be their signature tune, was one of the new numbers that went unplayed.
Review by Andy Nathan
Photos by Steve Goudie
Gallery photos by Steve Goudie and Andy Nathan
Album review (Live, 1996, 1974)
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