Lynyrd Skynyrd: Then And Now
Our latest Then And Now takes a look at gigs past and present from southern rock legends Lynyrd Skynyrd. Your time-travellin’ guide: the Bourbon Baron himself, Xavier Russell.
I came across Skynyrd (pronounced Skin-erd) via Pete Rudge, who was managing The Who at the time. He kept on at me about seeing his new band Lynyrd Skynyrd. ”Check ‘em out,” he said, ”you wont be disappointed.” I did – and I wasn’t!
I first saw Skynyrd when they supported Golden Earring on December 1, 1974 at the Bournemouth Winter Gardens. I’d never seen a band totally blow the headliner away before. But Skynyrd did just that. Simply, they were awesome. Vocalist Ronnie Van Zant even had the Golden Earring diehards hanging on to his every word. Hearing the classic Freebird for the first time just sent goose-pimples all over my body. I hadn’t been this moved since Led Zep’s Stairway To Heaven. It was the best £1 I’d ever spent. That night I became a Skynyrd fan.
Lynyrd Skynyrd returned to the UK in 1975 for their first headline tour and I caught them at the Hammy Odeon on Guy Fawkes night!
Venue: Hammersmith Odeon, London
Date: November 5, 1975
The layout of the old-look Odeon was much nicer than it is today. Everything worked, including the toilets! But it was the Circle Bar that brings back fond memories, especially so on this night. Atop the bar was a giant Gold Scorpion (a rescued prop from the Vincent Price horror movie Dr. Phibes Rises Again ). Now normally you wouldn’t give it a second glance, but tonight someone was up there, drinking while sitting on it!
That someone was Lynyrd Skynyrd drummer Artimus Pyle, knocking back a bottle of JD with his drum roadies! It really was a moment to treasure, especially so when an announcement came over the house PA: ”Will Artimus Pyle please make his way to the stage now!” Having knocked back the Jack, down he jumped, walked through the stalls and clambered up on stage and got behind hid kit waiting for the rest of Skynyrd to appear.
This, of course, was the classic line-up: Ronnie Van Zant (vocals), Gary Rossington (guitar), Allen Collins (guitar), Ed King (guitar), Leon Wilkeson (bass) and Billy Powell (keyboards). Lynyrd Skynyrd live is an event, Ronnie Van Zant fronted his band like a football coach; you wouldn’t hear a bum note all night from this Confederate bunch!
I was standing at the back of the stalls, the only thing blocking my vision was a large Confederate flag waving back and forth as the band launched into Double Trouble, I Ain’t The One, Needle And The Spoon, before moving up a gear for Saturday Night Special – this really was southern rock at its best.
The guitars of Messrs King, Rossington and Collins literally smouldered, the interchange during solos, the chicken-scratch effect… it was all there. And on top of that, there’s Ronnie growling: ‘It’s a Saturday Night Special/Got a barrel that’s blue and cold/Ain’t good for nothin’/But put a man six feet in the hole.’ Then he took a lug on his beloved Jack Daniel’s.
Bassist Leon Wilkeson (complete with British bobby hat!) kept up a steady rhythm with Pyle, and the pair were especially potent on Call Me The Breeze (a cover of the JJ Cale classic) and the show closer Sweet Home Alabama. Encore? Well, it could only be Freebird, Skynyrd’s anthem, a slow-burner that just built and built, and then really kicked into life when Rossington and Collins literally had a solo guitar fight. It was during this duel that rockets were let off into the circle… hell, it was bonfire night after all! Our friends from the Greater London Council were not amused! But everyone else was. A flawless set from a truly great band.
Venue: HMV Hammersmith Apollo, London
Date: March 6, 2010
The last time I crossed paths with Skynyrd was a few years back at London’s Royal Albert Hall, where I seem to recall nearly falling out of a box during Sweet Home Alabama, but it was nice to be back at The HMV Hammersmith Apollo, as it’s now stupidly called.
The art-deco interior was pretty much the same, but sadly the giant Gold Scorpion has long since gone and been replaced by corporate nonsense such as Ben & Jerry’s, hot dog stands and Skynyrd T-shirts at £20 a pop! The toilets were a disgrace; the queue for the gents went right back down to the stalls, it was worse than Wembley and that’s saying something!
I missed the opening due to the call of nature, but as I took my seat in the circle the band were in the middle of What’s Your Name, which took me back in time. In fact, looking at the audience around me, most of the folk were 40+ and sporting Skynyrd shirts going back to the 70s! It felt kinda weird, but right.
As for Skynyrd? Well, there’s only one original member left – Gary Rossington! And he always looks the same, hidden beneath his 10 gallon hat churning out powerchords from his trusted Les Paul. And yes, Skynyrd historians will tell you that Rickey Medlocke was the first drummer, but he left early doors to pursue a career with Red Indian rockers Blackfoot!
The last Van Zant brother I saw play the Odeon (whoops, I mean Apollo) was Donnie Van Zant with .38 Special, so it was nice to see Johnny on stage doing a fine Ronnie impression. Yes, he looks and sounds a lot like his long-departed bro, but also brings his own personality with him as he snarled: ”How many diehard Skynyrd fans have we here tonight?” Er, about 5,000, guv! Naturally, Don’t Ask Me No Questions followed.
Rickey Medlocke, looking a lot like David Carradine (when he was alive) these days, took centre stage and played some very tasty guitar during That Smell, before Johnny dedicated Simple Man to ”our troops and yours, serving overseas” – very American!
A Skynyrd medley followed, pick of the bunch being Whiskey Rock A Roller and Needle And The Spoon, but during Tuesday’s Gone it looked like Gary Rossington had gone! He just wandered about the stage like he was on another planet or indeed even in another band, but he still bent those strings impeccably!
Finally a new song, the title track from the band’s most recent studio album God & Guns, with guitarist Mark Matejka duelling with Rickey Medlocke on acoustic guitars. Call Me The Breeze sounded almost note for note as it did in 1975, as did the set closer Sweet Home Alabama. By now the whole venue was on its feet stomping and clapping along to this fine southern classic.
Not surprisingly, Freebird rounded off the evening and it was great to see Rossington and Medlocke slug it out as the lead solos got faster, higher and louder. I’m sure Allen Collins was looking on approvingly! A special mention goes out for the delightful backing singers Dale Krantz-Rossington and Carol Chase, who were a excellent throughout.
Of the two shows 1975 stood out, as this was Skynyrd at the peak of their powers. Also the set back then was a lot longer. The recent Hammersmith gig was a tad on the short side, but it was still great to see Rossington and Medlocke lock horns guitarwise. Medlocke, in particular, really does look like a settled member of the band now. (He has been there 14 years now. Enough time for anyone to settle, no? – Ed.) But surely he could have played the odd Blackfoot track such as Highway Song, Dry County or On The Run? Maybe next time, eh Rickey?
Tags: 38 Special, Artimus Pyle, Billy Powell, Blackfoot, Carol Chase, Dale Krantz-Rossington, David Carradine, Donnie Van Zant, Ed King, Gary Rossington, Golden Earring, JJ Cale, Johnny Van Zant, Led Zeppelin, Leon Wilkeson, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Mark Matejka, Pete Rudge, Rickey Medlocke, Ronnie Van Zant, The Who, Then & Now, Then And Now