Story and Photos by Scott A. Smith
Armed with a heavy-on-the-hits set list, Lynyrd Skynyrd recently scared away any Friday the 13th ju-ju and made everything feel like a summer time Saturday night.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame band made this happen in high-decibel glory Sept. 13 at The Joint inside the Tulsa Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Catoosa, Okla. Fronted by original guitarist Gary Rossington and long-time members Johnny Van Zant (vocals) and Rickey Medlocke (guitar), Lynyrd Skynyrd emerged onto the stage as a dexterous music machine that left some room for improvisational playing.
The laid-back Rossington hit the stage first, wearing a black-and-white fedora, a dark shirt, blue jeans and boots. Silhouetted by three soft spotlights, Rossington’s shadow was thrown across the stage and into the first few rows of fans as his slide guitar howled and cried via the loud-but-clear P.A. system.
Although he possessed a more refined stage persona than Medlocke and guitarist Mark “Sparky” Matejke, Rossington was the visual and sonic backbone for Skynyrd. The bearded musician’s six-string work was spot-on throughout the 100-minute concert, and when it came time for the still-terrific, still-relevant “Tuesday’s Gone,” Rossington’s slide work took on an even more majestic tone. Truth be told, Rossington’s guitar created goose-bumps aplenty throughout “Tuesday’s Gone,” which remains the-better-but-slightly-neglected brother to Skynyrd’s solid “Free Bird.”
Still resembling his older brother and original Skynyrd singer, the late Ronnie Van Zant, Johnny Van Zant handled his lead-singer duties with the ease and comfort of a pro. Faithful readings of “That Smell” and “Gimme Back My Bullets” arrived early in the evening, with Van Zant’s vocal chops standing strong and proud. Van Zant sang with conviction and without mimicking Ronnie Van Zant’s original vocal efforts, helping keep “Sweet Home Alabama,” “Call Me the Breeze,” “I Know a Little” and “Gimme Three Steps” as grade-A rock music.
Former Damn Yankees drummer Michael Cartellone and ex-Black Crowes bassist Johnny Colt locked into an air-tight, inspired rhythm section, while Skynyrd’s background singers, Dale Krantz Rossington and Carol Chase, added nice vocal touches to the group’s rugged, guitar-coated sounds. Cartellone threw 150 percent into his drumming, widening his eyes and smiling at his band mates, while Colt seemingly donned a different hat for each song. It was rewarding for fans to have Colt’s bass prominent in the mix without taking thunder away from Skynyrd’s triple-guitar attack.
Dedicated to all U.S. military personnel, the slightly dark “Simple Man” came dangerously close to stealing the show. The hypnotic verses were balanced by intense, crunching instrumental play on the song’s emotional chorus, drawing some of the audience’s loudest cheers.
More whistles and shouts of approval were heaped upon “Free Bird,” the FM radio staple that naturally was Skynyrd’s encore in Catoosa. For much of the song’s second half, a large disco ball spun overhead while thin, strobe-like lights shot into the ball and sprayed spinning light patterns onto the standing audience. Rossington, Medlocke, Matejka and Colt almost huddled at the stage’s front edge, ripping out urgent-sounding notes and chords as the song built to its climax.
Like The Who, Skynyrd is an entity that’s occasionally haunted by its past. The horrific, 1977 plane crash that killed part of the original Skynyrd band (Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines and back-up singer Cassie Gaines) refuses to let go of Skynyrd’s soul. On The Joint’s stage, big-screen images listed the names and displayed archive photographs of original and long-time members. Before “Tuesday’s Gone,” current keyboardist Peter “Keys” Pisarczyk played a short, soothing piano solo as a blue-colored image of the late Billy Powell, Skynyrd’s original keyboardist, was placed on the big screen.
The ridiculous, cruel joke that continues to circulate about Skynyrd’s lack of original members deservedly dies on the door step once the current band first roars onto a stage. Skynyrd’s spirit and sincere recreations of its pioneering back catalog make Skynyrd a breathing, still-creative engine. The Tulsa Hard Rock gig made fans sing, dance, scream with affection, hug and wave cell-phones to simulate the flickering flames of cigarette lighters, proving that Skynyrd is a band of street-surviving brothers and sisters. Watching the Hard Rock audience quickly hit home a simple fact — the group’s followers anxiously are waiting to see and hear what step Lynyrd Skynyrd takes next.