This year, Lynyrd Skynrd joins several other major rock acts, including Paul Simon, Elton John and Ozzy Osbourne, that have decided to retire from touring and are launching farewell tours.
For the members of Skynyrd, the decision came down to wanting to go out on their terms, rather than having touring taken away from them.
“Well, the major reason, a lot of it, actually has to do with [guitarist] Gary [Rossington]’s health,” says guitarist Rickey Medlocke. “He’s had a lot of ups and downs in the recent years...Basically, he’s not able to go out and do the real grind as such. And we’re all, we completely understand that. I promised Gary almost, what is it, 23, years ago, that I would be with him through everything. I wanted to be there with him standing on stage until the last note of ‘Free Bird’ was hit.”
Photo by Clay Patrick McBride
Rossington is the last remaining original member of Lynyrd Skynyrd. In October 2015, he was sidelined by a heart attack and has had complications since. “A lot of fans are really sad about it because [tours] gave them something to look forward to every summer and come out and have a good time and listen to the music and all of that kind of stuff. I’ve often said to a lot of people, and I’ve said in interviews, that while it lasted, people should take the time and the opportunity to get out and see the band and have a good time with us because you never knew when you were going to wake up one day and we had called it a day. So that time is here.”
The band is making sure their last time around will be memorable by assembling set lists that go beyond the expected selection of hits and fan favorites, and bringing out production that will be unique to this tour.
“It’s a mixed bag of tricks. [The set list] changes, like one night on a Friday night we’ll do one set and on the next night we’ll do a different one. I think that’s one good way of kind of covering all the ground. The production part of it is going to be really spectacular. There are a lot of surprises in it, a lot of things that I think that will make even grown men weep. [The show] covers some exciting times in the band’s history and in the band’s life, so I hope everybody comes out and enjoys it as much as we’ve enjoyed actually putting it together.”
Medlocke’s words may have provided a hint about a visual component of the show, but he wasn’t going to spill the beans on exactly what’s in store. “If I told you, I’d have to kill you. This band and crew, everyone’s been sworn to secrecy.”
So that means be prepared and bring tissues to the show. They might come in handy.
The story of Lynyrd Skynyrd is one of rock’s most triumphant and tragic tales. The group, based out of Jacksonville, Florida, overcame hardscrabble beginnings and several personnel changes to scrap their way to a record deal in the early 1970s with a hard-hitting but soulful brand of Southern rock. With early hits like “Free Bird” and “Sweet Home Alabama” helping the group gain a foothold, theyy appeared to be hitting a musical peak in 1977 with their fifth album, Street Survivors.
The album had been out only three days when a plane crash claimed the lives of singer/songwriter Ronnie Van Zant, as well as guitarist Steve Gaines and backing singer Cassie Gaines (Steve’s sister), among others.
It looked like Lynyrd Skynyrd had come to a sudden, tragic end. But in 1987, surviving members Rossington, guitarist Allen Collins, bassist Leon Wilkeson, keyboardist Billy Powell and drummer Artimus Pyle decided to revive Skynyrd, bringing back guitarist Ed King (who was in Skynyrd from 1972 to 1975) and singer Johnny Van Zant to replace his late brother, Ronnie.
Lynyrd Skynyrd has been together ever since, putting out eight studio albums and several live releases, while becoming successful on the touring circuit, though the group endured its share of detractors who never felt the latter-day version of the band measured up to the original. There have been numerous personnel changes during this second chapter, some of which were necessitated by the deaths of Collins in 1990, Wilkeson in 2001, Powell in 2009 and bassist Eon Evans that same year.
Today’s band includes Rossington, Van Zant, Medlocke (who was an early member from 1971-72 before he went on to form the band Blackfoot, which enjoyed a successful run), Michael Cartellone (drums), Mark Matejka (guitar), Peter Keys (keyboards) and Keith Christopher (bass).
The history of Lynyrd Skynyrd is told in a new documentary, If I Leave Here Tomorrow, which premiered in March at the South By Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas. Various band members participated in the film, and Medlocke is pleased that it gave Rossington a chance to tell the band’s story from his perspective.
“It portrays the guys as a band of brothers that got together with an incredible writer named Ronnie Van Zandt, along with Gary and Allen, and came up with stuff that was from the heart, that really, really made history...It’s a roller coaster ride through the history of Lynyrd Skynyrd, and I’m very happy that Gary had a chance to get on film and tell his side of everything.”
Lynyrd Skynyrd will perform October 5 at the Xcel Energy Center in Minneapolis. Tickets are available online through Ticketmaster.com.