Southern rock veterans Lynyrd Skynyrd took to the road once again this summer for their Big Wheels Keep On Turnin’ Tour. Various acts signed on to support the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees, including Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, Blackberry Smoke, Kansas, the Allman Brothers Band, and The Marshall Tucker Band. The primary supporting act for the tour, however, was Sacramento hard rockers Tesla. With Tesla in tow, Lynyrd Skynyrd made their way to the Charleston Coliseum in West Virginia for one of the final dates of the tour on November 6th 2021, but not before overcoming a barrage of obstacles which nearly prevented the trek from taking place altogether.
The origins of the Big Wheels Keep On Turnin’ Tour actually date back to 2018, when Lynyrd Skynyrd embarked on The Last of the Street Survivors Farewell Tour. The tour, initially intended to be the band’s last, was eventually scrapped along with most wide-scale events in the wake of the global shutdown brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic. Being sidelined from the road, the band were given time to reflect, and came to the realization that perhaps they weren’t prepared to give up the road just yet. Guitarist Gary Rossington commented,
“Covid turned our world upside down. And since that time, we have been talking amongst the band, and realized that music has such a way of healing. Maybe it’s not our time to go.”
Rossington, the only surviving original member still active with the group, has experienced a number of heart issues in recent years. In 2015 the guitarist underwent surgery following a heart attack, and went under the knife once again in 2019 to tend to a heart valve issue. Rossington was forced to undergo emergency heart surgery over the summer as well, but has urged the band to continue on. Despite his health issues, Rossington has played a number of shows throughout the tour, though he would be unable to make an appearance at the tour’s Charleston, West Virginia stop. Notably, Rossington’s wife Dale Kranz Rossington has continued on with the tour as one of the three backup singers utilized in the band’s live performances.
Compounding these issues, it was announced in August that guitarist Rickey Medlocke had tested positive for Covid-19, forcing the band to cancel a number of shows. The guitarist, who initially served as the band’s drummer prior to the recording of their debut album – he would depart the group in 1972 to front southern rock band Blackfoot before returning in 1996 as a guitarist – was able to recover, and offered advice to fans regarding his diagnosis,
“Really be safe and take care of yourself, because it’s not fun.”
Aside from bringing their music to the fans as support during these difficult times, one incentive for returning to the road was that of honoring the commitments which they had made for The Last of the Street Survivors Farewell Tour. In an official video shared on the band’s website, Johnny Van Zant indicated the band’s intention to “finish what the heck [they] started.” As such, many shows which had been scheduled for the previous tour and saw cancellation were rescheduled as a part of the 2021 tour.
Lynyrd Skynyrd have become a rock and roll institution at this juncture, being ranked as one of Rolling Stone’s Top 100 Artists of All Time and being inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. The band, who tragically lost a number of members in a 1977 plane crash, lead singer Ronnie Van Zant included, has gone through a number of lineup changes over the decades, but have never strayed far from their trademark southern rock aesthetic. In fact, the idea for each new lineup seems to be to remain as faithful as possible to the original incarnation of the group. Regardless of what faces are seen onstage, the sound you get is going to be the same. This was the case when Lynyrd Skynyrd returned to the mountain state.
The band rolled into town on a windy November night for their first West Virginia gig since their 2018 show with The Marshall Tucker Band at the Mountain Health Arena in Huntington. The crowd was enthusiastic, as the music of Lynyrd Skynyrd is essentially as ubiquitous to the residents of West Virginia as is Mountaineer football. Many fans even made the journey from out-of-state to catch the legendary band in a live setting.
The night kicked off with a charged up performance from Damon Johnson, who was backed by his rhythm section known as The Get Ready, consisting of drummer Jared Pope and bassist Robbie Harrington. Johnson, whose name may not ring an immediate bell to some listeners, is a legend in touring circles, having played with the likes of Alice Cooper, Black Star Riders, and Thin Lizzy, of which he is currently a member. He may also be recognized as the lead vocalist/guitarist and co-founding member of 90s rock outfit Brother Cane, who released three albums and achieved considerable success on the US Rock Charts with tracks like “I Lie in the Bed I Make” as well as “And Fools Shine On,” both of which hit number one. Johnson delivered blistering leads and energetic vocals in a set of solo originals as well as tunes from his days fronting Brother Cane. Johnson wrapped up with a crackling performance of his former band’s “Got No Shame” before inviting members of the audience to join him at the merch table where he would be signing autographs.
Tesla followed, kicking things off with a smoking rendition of “Modern Day Cowboy” from their debut Mechanical Resonance. Their performance featured a mix of new and classic songs, including their latest single “Cold Blue Steel.” Lyrically, the track takes aim at corrupt American politics and the resulting loss of civilian lives, taking care to point out that blame is being assigned to members of both major political parties. 35 years after the release of their debut album, Tesla’s lineup remains almost fully intact – an anomaly among older bands operating within a genre fraught with inner-band conflict and substance abuse – with only rhythm guitarist Tommy Skeoch missing from the fold.
It can be easy to forget just how many great songs Tesla delivered in their day. Rousing renditions of “Little Suzi,” “Changes,” “The Way It Is,” and others evoked an almost surprising sense of familiarity, as concertgoers joined in on the presentation of the songs.
Frontman Jeff Keith and guitarist Frank Hannon delivered dynamic performances which kept the audience engaged. The execution of Hannon’s signature wailing guitar effects are truly a sight to behold in a live setting. The guitarist would often utilize a propped up acoustic for intro sections before stepping back to dig away at the electric strapped around him. Such was the case for “Love Song,” which propelled the band into the Top 10 charts in 1989. Hannon utilized a double-neck Gibson to tackle the track’s 12-string section as well as the squealing mid-section lead bits. Keith led the crowd through a sing-along section during the song’s outro before closing out the track. Surprisingly enough, Tesla had one more tune in their back pocket in the form of “Signs,” during which Keith donned a baseball cap to reenact the reveal at the end of the first verse. The 1990 track which originated with the Five Man Electrical Band gave Tesla another hit, reaching number 8 on the Pop Music Charts.
The performance was highly impressive from front to back, but perhaps the most noteworthy performance came from drummer Troy Luccketta. Luccketta brought the flash and flair of a hair metal performer, while endowing the songs with a sense of swing seldom heard in music of this style. Dynamic shifts in feel and time signature provided levels of song structure which far transcended the “style over substance” approach taken by many of the band’s peers.
The Jumbotron was brought to the stage in anticipation of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s arrival, and a montage video synced to the music of AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck” was shown. While admittedly an odd choice given how many classic songs of their own the band could have chosen for the moment, one would be remiss not to acknowledge its effectiveness in pumping up the crowd.
Lynyrd Skynyrd took to the stage, opening with “Workin’ For MCA” and launching into what seemed to be an endless stream of classic numbers. With Rossington unable to appear, the band reached for their backup, which was none other than Damon Johnson. Johnson was not simply relegated to sideman status, however. In fact, Johnson was given vast freedom to exercise his own chops, tearing through a number of extended solos and exchanging licks with Medlocke and guitarist Mark Matejka, exquisitely rounding out the band’s signature three-guitar attack.
At roughly midway through the performance, frontman Johnny Van Zant, younger brother of the late Ronnie Van Zant, brought the musical proceedings to a halt to address the audience directly. Lynyrd Skynyrd is a band with deep American roots, and the group have always been staunch supporters of American military personnel and their families. Van Zant corralled members of the audience for a moment of silence enacted to honor the 13 American military members who recently lost their lives in an attack in Afghanistan. Van Zant also took time to acknowledge first responders, firefighters, police officers, doctors, and nurses for their sacrifice and effort during these trying times.
The set was comprised almost entirely of well-known songs from the band’s 1970s heyday, though one newer number, 2009’s “Skynyrd Nation” cropped up early in the set. Audience participation was paramount, as the crowd joined the band in diving into classic bar room cuts such as “Gimme Three Steps,” “Saturday Night Special,” “What’s Your Name,” and “Gimme Back My Bullets.”
While the band have always maintained a reputation as rough and rowdy southern rockers, the moments of vulnerability they choose to extend are as emotionally palpable as any, if not more so. This was evident during the arpeggio strumming of the opening chords to “Simple Man.” The song, one of many highlights from the band’s debut album (Pronounced ‘Lĕh-‘nérd ‘Skin-‘nérd), struck a chord with those in attendance, and the recitation of the song became a sort of ritual of unification for the audience, speaking to the power of music to bring people together in various ways.
The band later burned through a rollicking rendition of their 1974 hit “Sweet Home Alabama” before exiting the stage. Most knew that the show was far from finished though, and the members soon made their return amid clouds of fog following video footage of Ronnie Van Zant speaking from his fishing boat.
Everyone knew what was to come, though it hardly made the excitement less palpable. When the band launched into their epic signature tune “Free Bird,” the stadium rose to its feet to take in the moment. Medlocke took on Allen Collins’ acoustic part, while Johnson was granted Rossington’s iconic slide guitar lead which he executed flawlessly. The room was practically on fire when the band kicked into double time for the legendary solo section, which featured Johnson and Medlocke – now sporting a Gibson Explorer – trading fiery leads from the front of the stage up to the song’s conclusion.
As many of our musical heroes – particularly those who laid the groundwork for the classic rock we know and love – advance in age, opportunities to witness them in a live setting are rapidly dwindling. This is in no way helped by the current state of the world in which it is becoming increasingly difficult, not only to make a living as a musician, but to be able to perform at all. Perhaps this was a revelation which informed Lynyrd Skynyrd’s decision to hit the road once more.
The contrast in presentation of the tours is notable, with The Last of the Street Survivors Farewell Tour indicating the closing of a book, and the Big Wheels Keep On Turnin’ tour potentially hinting at the desire to continue past this point. In any case, should this run of shows be the last that Lynyrd Skynyrd ever embark upon, let it be known that they went out blazing, having not lost a step over the decades.
Photo: Alberto Cabello from Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Lynyrd Skynyrd And Tesla Rocks The Charleston Coliseum article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2021
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