“If I leave here tomorrow, would you still remember me?” is the opening line to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird.”
It’s a song that’s been heard at funerals, graduations and in countless barrooms. Not to mention on all those classic-rock radio stations. It was heard once again — maybe for the final time by the band itself in the Twin Cities — Friday at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul as part of Last of the Street Survivors Farewell Tour.
“We’re not here to say goodbye,” Skynyrd replacement singer Johnny Van Zant declared early on. “We’re here to make memories.”
They did that. From the autobiographical opener “Working for the MCA” to the closing “Free Bird,” Skynyrd set out to prove its music isn’t nostalgic but timeless. The 100-minute performance was a concert, but it felt like a Make Skynyrd Great Again rally.
Granted, there is only one surviving member — guitarist Gary Rossington, age 66 — from the original Skynyrd lineup. You’ll recall things took a tragic turn for these Southern rockers with a 1977 plane crash that killed lead singer Ronnie Van Zant and two other members.
The band re-formed in 1987 with Ronnie’s younger brother Johnny as singer. Personnel have changed over the years, but the repertoire has remained mostly the same. And more important, the musicianship has arguably gotten better. The three-guitar attack has never sounded more potent, with Rickey Medlocke, a member since ’96, and Mark Matejka, since ’06, joining Rossington.
The original stepped forward more than he has in recent Skynyrd shows at the Minnesota State Fair. He delivered expressive and economic solos with unanimated passion. The more demonstrative Medlocke was smokin’ all night, and Matejka held his own, giving them three slide guitarists.
Two film clips of Ronnie singing suggested that he’s a richer, grittier singer than Johnny, who is a capable caretaker and relentless cheerleader for Skynyrd, America and Ronnie.
His older brother was a poet of the common man, who was proud not only of his Southern roots and simple life but not afraid to preach against drugs and for gun control, all set to simple boogie rock ‘n’ blues. And a darn good storyteller, too.
Johnny Van Zant clearly took pride in those same values, celebrating “Simple Man” while videos played of various Skynyrd members over the years goofing with their kids, playing cards, walking in the woods, riding horses and fishing. Van Zant also saluted America and the troops, with a newish song, the post-9/11 patriotic “Red, White and Blue,” and he toasted his fans with the 2009 anthem “Skynyrd Nation,” 12,000 strong on Friday.
Other than those numbers, the set list revisited the ’70s heyday, with highlights including the unstoppable boogie of “They Call Me the Breeze,” the sentimental ballad “Tuesday’s Gone,” the ebullient and catchy “What’s Your Name” and the nasty and gnarly “That Smell.”
Of course, Skynyrd saved “Free Bird” for the encore. As fog crept across the stage while a gold statue of an American eagle landed on a white grand piano, Van Zant sang the opening line about still remembering me. And then, in a spoken word aside, he answered: “Yes, sir.”
If the 1973 song (which was written about the late Allman Brothers guitarist Duane Allman) isn’t dramatic enough, Van Zant put a black hat, like the kind brother Ronnie used to wear, on a mic stand and exited the stage. Because it was time for Ronnie to sing via black-and-white video. His presence added a new dimension before the guitar trio, under a spinning disco ball, soared in one of rock’s most famous jams.
After the 11-minute classic, Van Zant returned, holding an American flag. He tossed his ball cap to a fan, grabbed Ronnie’s hat like it was a cherished talisman and headed into tomorrowland.