When I first became aware of Lynyrd Skynyrd sometime in the eighties, they were one legendary band who I was never going to see. Fortunately, a decade after the untimely 1977 plane crash, they reformed with Johnny Van Zant filling the shoes of brother Ronnie. The reunion was a success to the extent that despite the death of further members along the way, they have toured ever since and I have been lucky enough to catch many of their shows both at home and in the USA.
All good things must come to an end and they announced this ‘Last Of The Street Survivors’ tour would be a final farewell, not least as guitarist Gary Rossington- the one man who fits that description perfectly – has had health troubles for a number of years.
So this was a final chance to see them – though the blowhard who dreamed up the tour advertising strapline ‘Skynyrd playing your favourite venue one last time’ had obviously never set foot inside Wembley Arena before. Normally Skynyrd play slightly smaller venues in London but the place was almost sold out.
Just as the last time they played here in 2003 (when consensus was they stole the show from nominal headliners Deep Purple), there were three bands on the bill, starting with Massive Wagons who really are making a serious name for themselves and were witnessed by an encouraging number of people. Livewire singer Baz Mills came on stage on this boiling hot day in a loudly checked red suit, only adding to the vocal comparisons with Noddy Holder.
I admire the hard working Lancastrians as rather than jump on the crowded retro blues rock bandwagon or recycle old riffs by numbers, they are crafting a musical and lyrical style of their own – however with the exception of ‘Billy Balloon Head’, the songs do not quite do it for me at the moment, being rather disjointed and not hanging together.
They have plenty of confidence, Baz in particular, but the set only really hit the heights with their last and most cohesive song ‘Back To The Stack’, an affectionate tribute to Rick Parfitt.
Talking of which, Skynyrd’s special guests were none other than Status Quo. I don’t recall them having to support anyone since Queen at their stadium shows in 1986, but perhaps this is now their status in life, in the wake of carry on after Rick’s sad death , and the ‘will they won’t they still plug in’ saga.
That seems to have been answered in favour of the electric for now as new rhythm guitarist Richie Malone turned round after an intro tape to crank out the famous riff to traditional opener ‘Caroline’ which instantly got a mixed crowd of Quo and Skynyrd fans to their feet.
‘Something Bout You Baby I Like’ was very enjoyable with Francis Rossi and Rhino Edwards trading vocal lines though, with the band now divvying up songs associated with Rick, the latter’s efforts on ‘Rain’ were a bit too pub rock for my taste.
Even a full length Quo set now cuts corners and a six song medley covering a wide span of their career was very skilfully done. ‘What You’re Proposing’, ‘Down The Dustpipe’, with Andy Bown playing harmonica, most of ‘Wild Side Of Life’ and one of my favourites in ‘Railroad’ I can remember from previous medleys, but more fun was to hear ‘Again And Again’ and in a first for me, Richie adding his slightly higher pitched vocals to sing ‘Mystery Song’.
After ‘The Oriental’ with lyrics that a modern day Lord Chamberlain might censor on political correctness grounds came a big surprise in not just one number but two that were unfamiliar to me- ‘Cut Me Some Slack’ and ‘Liberty Lane’, melodic but with more than enough of the Quo trademark, at least of the latter-day incarnations of the band.
Francis confirmed, with his usual biting wit that they were from an upcoming album ‘Backbone’, but that he hadn’t announced them as then fans would have rushed off for a toilet break.
From then on in this truncated set it was hits all the way (thankfully without ‘Burning Bridges)’ – the guilty pleasure ‘In The Army Now’, and the trademark boogie of ‘Roll Over Lay Down’, with typically crisp solos from Francis on his green telecaster, and ‘Down Down’.
Andy then stepped forward to kick off ‘Whatever You Want’ though I am sure he sang in the wrong place, before returning to more familiar duty to give the keyboard flourishes that now seem more present in the Quo live sound. An inevitable closer of ‘Rockin All Over The World’ generated the usual party atmosphere- though I was surprised it seemed to be Richie not Francis playing the closing solo.
It was a highly enjoyable set, especially on a night like this when they were a bonus for many fans, myself included, that might have been too sceptical to buy tickets just for them. Purists may say it isn’t Quo, but they are not ready to hang up their tennis shoes just yet.
A rush from the concourses was necessary with Lynyrd Skynyrd on stage earlier than billed, to an intro tape of ‘Thunderstruck’ followed by classic songs crackling out of an old VHF radio dial culminating in Bob Seger’s ‘Old Time Rock n Roll’. A montage of all their album covers formed the backdrop to traditional set opener ‘Workin For MCA’ and as ever the work from a three guitar army was superb, with the main solo from Mark ‘Sparky’ Matejka and Ricky Medlocke and Gary Rossington coming together for a closing twin solo.
Surprisingly second song in was not the more usual ‘I Ain’t The One’, but the self-referential ‘Skynyrd Nation’, the lyrics on the screen helping the atmosphere along. They have recorded several strong post-reunion albums which they all but ignore live, but there are far better songs than this that would have better marked this era.
It was back to tried and tested territory with a ‘Street Survivors’ trio in ‘What’s Your Name’, ‘That Smell’ – again with superb guitar work culminating in Ricky and Sparky playing the closing solo together – and the looser jamming feel of ‘I Know A Little’, before ‘Gimme Back My Bullets’ with the album flashed onto the screen.
It was a slightly longer set than others I have seen recently so there was time to fit in the likes of ‘Saturday Night Special’ and perhaps the surprise pick of the night, if not the most convincing in ‘Don’t Ask Me No Questions’.
While it may come over as hokey to more cynical English audiences, Skynyrd are also masters of a high energy stage show, full of movement with Johnny the genial ringmaster with his regular reference to ‘diehard Skynyrd fans’.
The other thing that made the gig special was the sheer quality of the three guitarists, individually and collectively. They all brought their own complementary styles too- Ricky the harder edged element that made Blackfoot such a force to be reckoned with in their heyday, showcased to best effect on ‘Needle And The Spoon’, and Sparky with a fluent, melodic style that also reflected his origins in country- which made him perfectly placed to take the lead on ‘The Ballad of Curtis Loew’.
And then the legend himself, Gary Rossington, face buried under his hat and resplendent in a electric blue shirt, with a very considered style influenced by the original blues masters and Eric Clapton. His soloing on the epic ‘Tuesday’s Gone’ – where a roadie who played the harmonica intro and piano player Peter Keys should also be mentioned in dispatches – was a prime example of how to play slow and give these songs added mournfulness.
‘Simple Man’, dedicated to the wisdom of mothers everywhere, was an equally moving ballad, with more great guitar work in the twin solo from Gary and Rickey.
From then on in it was the usual close to a Skynyrd show as the synchronised stage movements became greater and the songs had more of a loose boogie feel in ‘Gimme Three Steps’ and ‘Call Me The Breeze’, then ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ – with a nice screen tribute to the recently deceased Ed King who had still been in the band when I saw them in 1992 – took the audience participation to new heights.
There was of course only one way to finish – this being the only gig where a shout of ‘Freebird’ is guaranteed to be complied with. For the final time, the band threw everything at the song with vintage video footage including of Ronnie Van Zant, the Eagle perched on top of Peter’s piano, a backdrop of candles with the names of all departed band members, and Johnny placing a Ronnie-like Stetson on his mike stand during the instrumental part.
With Gary again playing the long intro with taste and a sad feeling, then Rickey going into overdrive on the solo, latterly sharing twin leads with Sparky as the song extended to 12 minutes, the band certainly did justice to a song that will form part of rock’s legacy, not only theirs.
Johnny did tease from the stage midway through ‘its not goodbye, just so long to the next time’. I took that with a pinch of salt, but this second incarnation of Skynyrd are calling it quits at the very top of their game after a show which it was hard to fault and was a fitting legacy.
Review and photos by Andy Nathan
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