Lynyrd Skynyrd return to NYCB Theatre at Westbury, NY 5-28-15

Lynyrd Skynyrd return to NYCB Theatre at Westbury, NY 5-28-15

At the time of their ill-fated flight (October 20th, 1977), Lynyrd Skynyrd was one of the most popular bands in the world. With their first two albums spawning huge hits with “Free Bird” from their 1973 debut, (Pronounced Leh-nerd Skin-nerd), and “Sweet Home Alabama” from their 1974 sophomore effort, Second Helping, coupled with rousing live performances, up to that point the band had released five studio albums. With the first four selling over five million copies, and the fifth, Street Survivors, released just three days before the crash, would go on to sell over two million copies. The crash took the lives of lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines, backup vocalist Cassie Gaines and both pilots; Walter McCreary and William Gary, as well as road manager Dean Kilpatrick. Since then, original members Billy Powell (piano), Leon Wilkeson (bass), Bob Burns (drums), and Allen Collns (guitar) have passed on, but the spirit of Lynyrd Skynyrd lives into 2015. With original guitarist Gary Rossington leading the way, he is joined by the late Ronnie Van Zant’s brother Johnny on vocals who has been fronting the band since 1987 and helped them remain touring virtually non-stop ever since. Carrying on the Lynyrd Skynyrd tradition with Ricky Medlocke ( drums/mandolin), Michael Cartellone (drums), Mark Martejka (guitars/backing vocals), Peter Keys (keys), and Johnny Colt (bass), with Dale Krantz-Rossington and Carol Chase providing backup vocals, the band returned to NYCB Theatre at Westbury, NY on Thursday May 28th for the second time in less than a year. Greeted by a faithful following, the vibe in the theater was warm and inviting as everyone took their seats ready to rock with the legends.

Taking the stage to AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck”, the crowd left their seats and would not take them again for the rest of the night. Opening with the J.J. Cale penned “Call Me the Breeze,” Lynyrd Skynyrd kicked things off with a song containing a theme central to much of their work. While the studio track contains one of the most memorable horn riffs in Classic Rock history, here the band was able to mimic the horns as part of their triple guitar attack. Van Zant growled the lyrics with conviction while the band was in full swing mode, punctuated with a Honky-Tonk piano solo by Keys. Another fast-paced, boogie-laced number, “What’s Your Name?” followed the opener with the band again singing about life on the road and all of the perks and pratfalls as Van Zant sang about hotels, groupies, trouble with the law, and booze.

“Don’t Ask Me No Questions” continued the travelogue theme as Rossington laid down the melody with Keys playing in sync on piano. Again the guitars mimicked the horns on the studio version, to perfection. Rossington played a bending, bouncing solo on his telecaster as Keys pounded out a staccato run on piano. The song closed with all three guitarists taking a turn in the spotlight. “Gimme Back My Bullets” allowed the band to catch their breath. A heavy, mid-paced rocker with combative, menacing lyrics, managed to keep the crowd on its feet. A riff rivaling the best of ’70s Hard Rock and Heavy Metal led the charge, coupled with break beats throughout as Van Zant sang about a troubled man on the verge of inflicting destruction on the populace. While the band is known for helping create, and eventually perfecting Southern Rock, here they showed their versatility with an infectious head-banger. Cautionary tale “The Needle and the Spoon” followed with its story of heroin abuse and addiction where Van Zant delivered one of his most passionate vocals of the night over a contracted, tight riff that with brighter lyrics would probably crack the pop charts. Concise guitars and a steady backbeat laid the foundation for Van Zant as he sang, “I’ve been feeling so sick inside/gotta get better Lord before I die.” A fuzzed out, wah-wah drenched solo took over the middle section before returning to the melody, and finally closing with pounding drums and punchy guitars.

“Whiskey bottles and brand new cars/Oak tree you’re in my way/there’s too much coke and too much smoke” led “That Smell”, another song about the perils of substance abuse. Background singers Rossington and Chase were the stars of this number as they followed up lines with “Hell Yeah!” and “Yeah You!”, and also harmonized with Van Zant on the chorus. They also provided dark “Ooh”’s throughout the intricate solo. Here, Skynyrd pulled off another one of their signature tricks by combining morose lyrics with an infectious groove. With its languid, laid-back opening, “Simple Man” again allowed the band to catch its collective breath; relaxed Country was the feel for this number. The sound was accented with thunderous drumming and a rousing vocal, in which Van Zant was accompanied by the sell-out crowd from start to finish. Rossington played a solo perfectly in step with the core of the song as he showed that the space in between the notes is just as important as the notes themselves with a middle section that was short on fret work, but long on soul. “Tuesday’s Gone” showcased the band’s propensity for power ballads of the highest order. Opening with a piercing guitar line, Van Zant, again with help from the crowd, delivered a forlorn tale of love lost over a steady dose of ride cymbal, simple guitars, and blustery piano. Eschewing their usual, multiple guitar solos, the track featured a long solo by Keys on piano in which he went up and down the ivories with abandon, playing both frenetically and with restraint.

Two outright rave-ups closed the show as the band tore through FM rock staples “Gimme Three Steps” and their smash hit “Sweet Home Alabama.” The crowd stomped their feet and clapped their hands as the first of the two opened with its blazing, fuzz-heavy riff, followed by a solo before breaking into the melody. Once again the crowd could not contain itself as it practically drowned out Van Zant singing along. A twangy solo was the highlight of the track as Rossington brought the crowd back to 1976 while aggressively bending the strings on his guitar. Show closer “Sweet Home Alabama” found Matejka taking over the lead for the iconic solo and he did not disappoint the crowd as he took center stage and absolutely nailed it. Van Zant finally fully turned over singing duties to the crowd as Cartellone was the only one playing on drums and the crowd ran through the chorus several times before an extended outro featuring dueling guitars.

No encore in the history of Rock-n-Roll is more famous than “Free Bird.” In keeping with tradition, Van Zant said, “What song is it you wanna hear?” before the unforgettable opening took over the arena. Matejka strapped on an acoustic guitar while Rossington played rhythm as Medlocke took center stage, playing languid leads throughout the verses and in between. At around the six minute mark, Matejka turned in his acoustic for an electric and for the next seven minutes or so, Rossington took over Westbury with a mind-bending take on what many consider the greatest solo in Rock as he and Medlocke strummed power chords in support of Rossington. Keys peppered the solo with trill-heavy piano throughout. Ultra-high energy was the theme of the night, and that is exactly how they closed the show.

Despite the fact that the band only has one original member, Lynyrd Skynryd still puts on shows that rival their ’70s heyday. Touching on Country, Honky-Tonk, Blues, Rock, Southern Rock, and even hints of Heavy Metal, the band puts out ultimate energy, and feeds off of the energy of the crowd like no other band. Music lovers are sure to recognize most, if not all, of the songs as they have become stalwarts on the radio over the last forty plus years. Rock fans looking for a night of unabashed fun, look no further than Lynyrd Skynyrd.

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Gerard Smith
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