On May 21, 1975, my dad attended a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert at the St. Paul Civic Center. Legend has it, one of my uncles, jubilantly high on the spirits of rock and alcohol, passed out while dancing to the epic “Freebird” guitar solo.
Two years later, the Southern rock greats would split following a plane crash that killed, among others, lead singer Ronnie Van Zant. Ten years later, I’m born and Skynyrd is reborn with Ronnie’s brother, Johnny, helming the mic. Fast-forward 31 years, and I enlisted my dad to help review Friday’s Skynyrd show – a stop on their “Last of the Street Survivors Farewell Tour” – at St. Paul’s Xcel Energy Center.
Now that you’re all caught up on the major events of the past 43 years, here’s a chronological rundown of a night that featured searing guitar heroics, artistically underrated everyman anthems, and a whole lotta hard-rocking Baby Boomers.
“If you don’t like electric lead guitar,” Dad said, “you came to the wrong place.”
While enjoying takeout from Fresh Wok in south Minneapolis, we brush up on the Wikipedia page for Bad Company, one of the evening’s openers. Mom wonders aloud if she should wait up. I say don’t bother.
First we pick up my wife, who had a gig shooting photos of Death Cab for Cutie – an emo band that has never attempted a triple lead guitar solo – at the nearby Palace Theatre. We score a killer parking spot along West Seventh Street; Dad asks the lot attendant “if they still take cash” – dad humor FTW!
FIRST ACT: JAMEY JOHNSON
The thunder-voiced county star receives a hearty reception from the packed Xcel crowd, especially during rousing hit “In Color.” Johnson says he was apprehensive to play Skynyrd cover “Four Walls of Raiford,” but the band practically insisted.
Dad’s take: “Really good, unique county rock/blues – complete with an obscure Skynyrd song!”
SECOND ACT: BAD COMPANY
“Back in the day, we used to save a few syllables and call ’em Bad Co.” says Dad, who detected the odor of marijuana inside Xcel – “skunk weed, good stuff.” These days, the U.K. classic rockers’ crunchy, punchy songs still sound at home in an arena, with spry frontman Paul Rodgers prowling the stage with lusty aplomb. The well-seasoned crowd is very into hits like “Feel Like Making Love” and its spiritual successor, “Ready for Love.” The logical conclusion would be a song titled “I Am Currently Making Love,” I joke to Dad; it gets a laugh.
Lighters and smartphone flashlights come out for an audience singalong of “Shooting Star,” a cautionary tale of rock ‘n’ roll excess. The band kept titular jam “Bad Company” up their sleeve for a mini-encore.
Dad’s take: While he quibbled some with the sonic monotony, Dad was mostly pleased. “They sounded like back in the day; I was surprised with how good they sounded,” he says. “After all these years, Paul Rodgers’ voice was spot-on.”
THIRD ACT: LYNYRD SKYNYRD
The only heyday member remaining in Lynyrd Skynyrd is guitarist Gary Rossington, whose recent heart issues – including purported on-stage heart attacks! – are contributing factors to his group’s retirement. The Jacksonville, Florida-launched hell raisers sounded no worse for the wear on Friday.
Something of a hokey-yet-endearing showman, Van Zant tears into “Workin' for MCA” to begin the set, his band’s trademark guitar interplay already blazing. The Honkette backup singers and a small horn section add roadhouse swagger to songs like “What’s Your Name” and “I Know a Little,” while boogieing pianist Peter Keys displays his ivory-tickling mastery on every track. Johnny-era Skynyrd cuts – knuckle-dragging “Skynyrd Nation,” troop-pandering "Red White and Blue" – only resonate superficially, but thankfully the band sticks mostly to the ‘70s hits.
The hard-strutting "Saturday Night Special,” with its pro-gun-control message, must be weird for parts of the fanbase (“lots of 763ers,” Dad notes) to compartmentalize, especially the dumbasses who brought Confederate flags to this St. Paul show. The whole crowd gets behind Skynyrd's other staples: Ballad “Tuesday’s Gone” inspires a sea of waving hands; lifestyle anthem “Simple Man” is accompanied by vintage fishing videos; Rossington wails triumphant on barroom stomper “Gimme Three Steps,” the rare badass song about begging to run away from a fight. Dad is especially into “The Ballad of Curtis Loew,” a soulful ode to an ol’ Dobro guitar ace. “One of my favorite Skynyrd songs,” he says. “I love it.” Ahead of the encore, Skynyrd powerfully demonstrates why “Sweet Home Alabama” deserves its place in the great American rock canon.
“They’re leaving without playing ‘Freebird,’” Dad winks. “We can start the chant now.”
Moments later, Skynyrd returns to a fog-machine-blanketed stage for their signature tune. As the famous power ballad ramps up, a palpable sense of excitement bubbles throughout the X: We’re about to rock the hell out. And rock we did, as Skynyrd exploded out of the organ-kissed intro and into five minutes of absolute face meltery. Van Zant exits the stage midway through, allowing a video clip of his late brother to assume digital frontman duties. Forming a wall at the lip of the stage, Skynrd's three guitarists and bassist squeeze absolute fury out of their axes, epically ripping through the song’s protracted climax as a disco ball fractures flashing light everywhere. This is pure rock ‘n’ roll id, the pleasure center of the guitar universe. Or, to borrow a phrase from my reporter’s notebook: AWW FUCK YEAH.
Dad’s take: “Is the wailing up to your standards?” I shout to Dad, mid-“Freebird.” Two massive thumbs up.
My erudite music critic take: Skynyrd rocks; dads rock!