Lynyrd Skynyrd

July 15, 2017
Pacific Amphitheatre
Costa Mesa, CA

Review & Photos by Mimi Franco

Everyone knows the South knows how to party. Lynyrd Skynyrd set out to prove that when they brought their party to the Orange County fair. On a balmy summer night, the six-piece band brought some southern heat to Orange County and opened up their own brand of whoop ass on 8,000 fans ready to throw down.

Before Lynyrd Skynyrd took the stage, local band Jeremiah Red warmed up the crowd with their own hard-charging, southern rock sound. The band, which had been together for nine years, broke up the year before to pursue “other interests.” That all changed when they received a letter in February inviting them to open for the iconic Lynyrd Skynyrd. And that was good news for those of us who were fortunate to be in the audience. Jeremiah Red lit it up the crowd and was the perfect complement for the show that was about to come. They left the audience buzzing and collected some new fans along the way.

Then it was Lynyrd Skynyrd's turn to take the stage. Opening with J.J. Cale's "Call Me The Breeze," the musicians put everyone on notice that they were there to rock. Gary Rossington, the only original member of the band, took the lead on guitar and was joined by Rickie Medlock and Mark "Sparky" Matejka for the triple ax attack the band is known for. Singer Johnny Van Zant, the brother of founding member Ronnie Van Zant, worked the stage and kept the audience on their toes with his down-home vocals. To add to the already festive air, Peter Keys launched into a honky tonk piano solo that had audience members out of their seats and dancing in the aisles.

The party carried on with a set list that included staples from the Skynyrd arsenal — "What's Your Name," "You Got That Right," "Saturday Night Special" and "That Smell." Van Zant thanked everyone for their continued support for all these years. There is a special bond between the die-hard Skynyrd fans and the band. There's a painful history there that, while never openly spoken of, everyone is aware exists. It took Skynyrd 10 years to heal, recover and reform, but when they did, they rose up like a phoenix to become the power band they are now.

Humble, powerful, connected. Every song they sing evoked a memory for those in the audience, and that is not lost on the band. Skynyrd knows they are a complicated compilation of the past and the present. They managed to preserve one while transitioning into the other.

And with that solemnity in place, the lights dimmed, Johnny Van Zant stepped up to the mic and dedicated "Simple Man" to all of the service men and women who have and still are laying their lives on the line for the U.S. This is a song about staying true to who you are and embracing the simple things in life (truth, honor, family) over the more superficial and fleeting. For the service members in the audience, past and present, it was rare moment where they could relax and bask in the praise for job well done that. It was a poignant and powerful tribute from a band whose southern roots honor God, family and country.

Not skipping a beat, the tempo changed, the party was back on and the band launched into the title track from their fourth album Gimme Back My Bullets, a defiant punch-in-the-face song about rising up and finding your own way, no matter what others may think. Anyone who has ever had someone tell them, "it can't be done" or "you'll never amount to anything," will get this song. Plenty of people in the audience did and cheered back in a solidarity of approval. Rossington dropped in some solid slide guitar, while the rhythm of drummer Michael Cartellone and bassist Johnny Colt tied it all together.

Next up was "Needle And The Spoon," a thundering song with baleful guitar riffs from Medlock, Rossington and Matejka. Written by Ronnie Van Zant and Allan Collins, "Needle and the Spoon" is a raw, deeply personal song about the perils of illicit drugs and the effects it has on not only the abuser, but the people around them. The song is a glimpse inside the dragon in a no-holds barred format. It was written that way, the band delivers it that way, the message is taken that way. It's a downhill slide once you begin to chase the dragon, and you might not make it out alive.

"Tuesday's Gone," the second song off of their debut album in 1973, moved from somber to a little more upbeat. Introduced by keyboardist Peter Keys and joined by Rossington, the familiar, comforting chords of this song had everyone in the audience on their feet, waving their arms and singing in unison. While many believed the song was about lost love when it was written by Ronnie Van Zant and Allen Collins, it was really about the loss of their old way of life before it changed irrevocably as they transitioned to rock stardom. It is a fond look back on what used to be as the train kept moving forward to the next stop on the rock and roll line. "Give Me Three Steps" was a nice segue back into the bawdy, bodacious, raucousness that Skynyrd is known for. Dirty, gritty guitar riffs from Medlock, Rossington and Matejka opened the song while Johnnie Van Zant told the story.

As soon as the first note dropped on "Sweet Home Alabama," everyone was on their feet and singing along. But not before Johnnie Van Zant stepped on stage, tied a confederate flag on his mic and proudly announced "Heritage not hate" to uproarious applause. The guitar riffs are what this song is known for and the triple threat of Matejka, Medlocke and Rossington brought it home. It was the perfect send up for what everyone knew was coming. As the band left the stage, the crowd responded with deafening cheers, then the chanting began: "Freebird, Freebird, Freebird."

And so it began on a darkened stage, a golden statue of a bald eagle placed carefully on the piano. Keys elegantly stroked his keys, Rossington played his chill-evoking solo, and Johnnie Van Zant sang the opening lines. The rest of the band soon joined in and it was an on-point rendition of a piece of music history — note for note, every guitar solo, nailed and in sync, the drums and bass on par, and the audience on its feet. This was a power anthem with the force of a category five hurricane. It was what the fans came to see and hear, and Skynyrd gave it to them.

One cannot help but stop and think of all Lynyrd Skynyrd has gone through to get this point. Loss, heartache, injuries and set backs. With the sadness and despair comes the hope and that is what "Freebird" means to so many. Lynyrd Skynyrd came to blow people out of the water and they succeeded.

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