Fifteen months after they last performed a live concert, Lynyrd Skynyrd returned to the stage on Friday to shake off the rust. The titans of Southern rock closed out Night One of the Pepsi Gulf Coast Jam, a country-leaning multi-day festival in Panama City Beach, Florida, that featured headlining sets by Brad Paisley and Luke Bryan.
Naturally, they ended their show with “Free Bird,” that storied 1973 marathon of guitar theatrics — a song so comically requested at gigs that Jason Isbell recently warned against shouting it out at his own shows. “One day somebody is gonna know every single note of it. And that’s the day you’ll hear freebird,” he tweeted. “Might be us, cuz baby we could freebird from a dead sleep on a Sunday morning.”
The 2021 lineup of Skynyrd sure can “freebird.” Anchored by founding guitarist Gary Rossington, the umpteenth version of the band plowed through the power ballad at the Gulf Coast Jam, nailing all the requisites: the piano intro and interlude by member Peter Keys; the know-’em-by-heart ad libs by singer Johnny Vant (“I’m as free as a bird now… how bout you?!”); and the masterful gull-like slide work by Rossington.
But it’s the guitar-frenzy climax that defines “Free Bird.” And for the past few decades, that’s meant letting Rickey Medlocke go wild. On Friday, the Skynyrd guitarist since ’96 pounded at his Gibson Explorer, scowled at the crowd, and marched the catwalk alongside guitarist Mark Matejka for eight solid minutes, before the whole production ended in a movie-credits roll call of Skynyrd members Current, Original, Later, and Former — many of whom are deceased.
That commitment to the band’s history is at the core of Lynyrd Skynyrd. When the band plays “Free Bird,” images of long-gone members like Ronnie Van Zant float by like ghosts, eliciting cheers. It’s also one of the reasons the group has rethought its final tour. On Tuesday, the band announced a new string of 2021 dates — the Big Wheels Keep on Turnin’ Tour takes the place of their Last of the Street Survivors Farewell Tour.
“We’re back, we’re playing shows, and we’re going to finish what the heck we started,” Johnny Van Zant said. “We miss the people singing the songs and having a good time, and that’s what Skynyrd is all about.”