LYNYRD SKYNYRD AT THE PALAIS DES SPORTS (PARIS)THE 25th OF APRIL 2015
I have to confess that I had some doubts, their last performance in the Zénith in June 2009 having let me a bad feeling. The feeling that the Lynyrd Skynyrd's musicians hurried through their concert in an automatic way, just like you can clock in at the factury. Gary Rossington seemed to move like a zombie, Johnny Van Zant's belly had a double volume, Peter Keys could hardly fill the recent emptiness let by Billy Powell and the others mainly rely on Rickey Medlocke to make the show. Sorry for the diehard fans but for me, that was smelling the end. So, with almost six years more on the clock and a very average last album, it was normal for me that this band (though legendary) gave me some apprehensions. I was wrong !
It's 20h30 when I arrive in front of the door of the Palais des Sports. It's a bit late but I just drove nearly three hundred kilometers with my car. Oh yes ! I don't live in the Ile de France (the Region in which we can find Paris, Translator's note) anymore for almost one year and I'm now one of those guys who have to travel to see their idols. When I was a Parisian, then when I lived in the suburb, I was aware to be lucky to have concert halls just a short way away from my house and the guys that ate up hundreds of kilometers to see a show (like the RTJ editorial board does for years, Translator's note) were worthy of my admiration. Now, I'm one of them.
The music that escapes from the hall tells me that the opening band has begun. I'm surprised of the security organisation. No one searches me and an usherette leads me to the pit by the light of a flashlight. Immediatly, I notice two things : the hall is well filled and the sound quiet loud with (again !) the low frequences pushed all the way up, and that's not the best tuning to appreciate Southern Rock. On stage, a certain Jared James Nichols finishes a tune laminating his Gibson. He seems to know how to play. He thanks the audience and I understand that's it's the end of his set. The bands concludes with a well crafted « Mississippi Queen ». Apparently, it was about classic blues rock, admittedly already heard but still better than the bland support band that we were imposed at the Zénith in 2009.
The lights relight and it's a pleasure for me to see that a great part of the hard core of the French fans made the trip. All the Regions of France are embodied ; that's true that a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert is always an event. I shake hands, I greet acquaintances by far. I catch sight of some familiar faces, that I crossed along the years and the concerts. There is something for everyone. Hairy, bearded, moustached (I'm one of them), tattooed, biker and even some looking « normal » people. Old, not completely young, not yet completely old. I'm surprised to see many representatives of the « feeding bottle class », hardly escaped from the high school. A lot of them weren't probably born as a risen from the dead Lynyrd Skynyrd flooded the stage of the Elysée Montmartre in 1992. It's the proof that there is no age to appreciate the good music.
Jostling for position, I manage to reach the third row as the volume of the sound system is increasing with AC/DC ; the show is about to begin. The lights are subduing, turn blue and a voice announces Lynyrd Skynyrd. And it starts with « Workin’ for MCA ». Right from the beginning, I notice that the musicians feel in top form and smile. The Indian Rickey Medlocke stays true to himself, Johnny Van Zant seems to have slimed down and wears a French flag on his leather jacket, Gary Rossington looks to fit. The audience is won over and is screaming his pleasure. The only major fault : the sound engineering and the low frequences pushed forward, harming considerably the sound of the guitars. Too bad !
The band moves directly on « I ain’t the one » in front of a crowd in a frenzy. Tonight, Lynyrd Skynyrd seems to keep it classic ; yet, the third tune puts me in a doubt. Usually, « Call me the breeze » rather appears at the end of the set. Does the band have a surprise in store for us ? Gary Rossington gives a good solo and Rickey Medlocke sings a verse or two after playing a part of the rhythm with the teeth. Despite he's sixty five, he's still a show-man beyond compare.
Then, we get a « What’s your name » high in vitamins and a traditional « That smell » (Johnny let the audience sing on the sentence « There’s too much coke and too much smoke », Gary plays the middle solo and Rickey and Mark Matejka the solo at the third). Then Johnny Van Zant exhort us to clap our hands on a drum roll that leads to « Saturday night special », a tune that is always effective live. If only the low frequences weren't so loud !
As I heared the first bars of « The needle and the spoon », I thought that we were going to start for a medley of oldies, certainly pleasant but that leaves a taste of too few. But no ! They played it right to the end with a good wah wah guitar solo performed by Mister Medlocke. First surprise. The second one will follow just behind.
Johnny Van Zant tells us that they haven't often played the next tune and he dedicates it to all the girls in the crowd. The intro of « I need you » gives me the thrill. Just for that, I'm happy to have done the trip. Amazing ! Rickey and Gary are in charge of the solos at the third and the crowd sings on the chorus. Then, Johnny gives tribute to the American and French troops fighting for freedom and the backing vocalists tuck into « Simple man ». The chorus of this magic tune is also sung all together by the audience. It's always a great moment.
And we go on in the good spirit with « Mississippi kid », with Sparky on acoustic guitar, Rickey on the mandolin and Gary who sends us a superb slide solo on a splendid white guitar. We already saw it on DVD but on stage, I assure you that it's worth going out of your way to see. In addition, Peter Keys gives us a little piano solo.
On « Tuesday’s gone » (and its harmonica now became traditional), Gary Rossington's guitar takes us back in the past. At one point, a little group of guys split the crowd, led by a big tattoed everywhere hefty man who wears a Pantera bib on his jean jaquette. I notice that he's a man of taste because he also wears a Waylon Jennings patch. The big fellow teleports himself to the first line and throws a T Shirt at the feet of Johnny Van Zant who, after having looked at it, throws it him back straight away. The big fellow throws it him back again in his turn, letting him understand by signs that he can keep it. Johnny leaves the T Shirt close to Michael Cartellone's drums. Satisfied, the husky guy and his pals return. Funny ! It remained me the old time. In addition, this agitation allowed me to reach the second line.
Back to a more sustained tempo with a « Gimme three steps » that hits the bull's eye. We appreciate this lively tune knowing that we come up to the end of the show.
Just after, the bottom of the stage lights up on a big flag in the coulours of Alabama. Rickey suffuses some arpeggios and the mythical intro of « Sweet home » rings out in the Palais des Sports, unleashing a general ovation. An intense moment with solos as if they would shower down and Johnny who let the audience sing on the chorus. A rush accurs as Rickey Medlocke throws his pick in the crowd. The lights relight and the musicians leave the stage. Everyone shouts for an encore knowing that they will come back for the inevitable « Free bird ».
Peter Keys is the first to come back on stage. He points out the finger to the sky in memory of Billy Powell and launches into a quiet good piano improvisation. Then he moves on the intro of « Free bird » supported by Mark Matejka on acoustic guitar. The tune starts, an huge eagle appears in the background and Johnny Van Zant raises his microphone stand hitting his chest near the heart, encouraging us to show our contentment. The audience screams like as one man ! We know what follows by heart but it's so good : Gary's slide solo on his old Gibson 1961 LesPaul-SG, the acceleration of the tempo, Rickey's solo then Mark Matejka arrives supporting him, the disco ball. Anything goes. But tonight, Lynyrd Skynyrd's guys really seem to have a ball. On stage or in the crowd, everybody wears radiant smiles, except Gary Rossington who showed an impenetrable mask all along the concert. But it's his trademark. Two or three times during the show, he pointed someone in the audience with his finger, and that's already an immeasurable honour. By the way, even on the older pics, we never saw him a lot split his sides laughing.
And then the musical orgy expires. Johnny Van Zant spreads the French flag out. Gary Rossington crashes a last chord and throws a handful of picks in the crowd, triggering a good rush. Rickey Medlocke grabs his Gibson Explorer by the body and the horn to the first line spectators who try to touch this magical instrument. The musicians greet the audience and leave the stage, looking happy.
The lights are barely relight and the security personnel pushes the people to the way out. Obviously, we don't have to stay too much time in the enclosure of the Palais des Sports. I would like to greet some old acquaintances that I glimpsed but I lose sight of them in the crush. Outside, a queue begins to stretch in front of the T- Shirts stand. Without recognizing anyone around and thinking of the two hundred miles that I have to drive, I decide to dash. I move from metro to RER (the train to the suburbs of Paris, Translator's note) and I pick up my car waiting quietly for me near the Gagny's station (no, I'm not crazy enough to go to Paris with my car).
The way back, hurrying in the deep night on a deserted highway, I remember some highlights of the show. Rickey and his guitar cartwheels that made his reputation, Johnny spreading a big size French flag out and tieing it around his microphone stand, Gary playing his splendid slide solo on « Mississippi kid », Johnny Colt changing in several occasions his hat during the show (lid decorated with a feather, trapper hat, muskrat Indian headdress, « gambler’s hat »), a way to pay tribute to the missed Leon Wilkeson. The electrifying atmosphere of the evenings of big concerts. And then « I need you », the unexpected surprise.
I can't speak for the other members of the audience but from my point of view, I felt like being carried away in Jacksonville tonight.
I know that the Lynyrd Skynyrd's guys have to finish this tour on the Old Continent by some countries in the East of Europe in which they never played yet. If they hit a show like this one the fans from over there could not be able to recover.
Now, I suspect that some people won't share my opinion and that they will advance, with reason, clearly less enthusiastic arguments.
Yes, Lynyrd Skynyrd doesn't play new tunes in concert anymore and settles for plunging into the old repertoire.
Yes, their two last albums are very average.
Yes, the current Skynyrd tends to become a tribute band dedicated to the old Lynyrd.
Yes, they deserve no special credit springing a surprise on us with « I need you » because they rehearsed the two first albums in order to play them the 2nd and 3rd of April in the Florida Theater of Jacksonville.
Yes, they play it cool living on their past.
Yes, they go after money without taking any risk.
However, in front of all those valid arguments, I have to object this : And then ? Honestly, who could reproach them for that ? Moreover, what is the matter for us of all that stuff when we are only interested in being present at a good concert ?
OK, in 2009, we had a rendez-vous with the disappointment. But here, they fixed it easily. I even found them healthier than six years ago with, in addition, the smile and the pleasure to play.
For my part, instead of seeing on stage aging guys, playing new but sluggish tunes without passion, I prefer a thousandfold be present at a quality show, orientated on the legacy and the memory.
Tonight, a few meters away from me, I saw legendary musicians playing classic tunes. I have seen one of the last still living pioneers (Gary Rossington), one of the last great Southern Rock singers (Johnny Van Zant) and one of the last great Southern rockers (Rickey Medlocke). All of that is easily enough for me.
I came to see a Southern Rock concert. I haven't been disappointed.
And I think that I wasn't the only one in this case.
So, that's all that matters !