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Lynyrd Skynyrd going out on own terms in farewell tour

| Thursday, Aug. 23, 2018, 1:33 a.m.
Lynyrd Skynyrd will play the KeyBank Pavilion on Aug. 25 with the Marshall Tucker Band.
Lynyrd Skynyrd will play the KeyBank Pavilion on Aug. 25 with the Marshall Tucker Band.

This summer, Lynyrd Skynyrd 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 to mark the occasion.

The long-running Southern rock bank will play the KeyBank Pavilion in Burgettstown on Aug. 25 as part of its Last of the Street Survivors Farewell Tour. The Marshall Tucker Band is also on the bill.

For the members of Skynyrd, the decision to stop touring 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 Gary’s health,” guitarist Rickey Medlocke explained in a recent phone interview. “He’s had a lot of ups and downs in the recent years, heart (disease), etc., you know. 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.

“I hope that maybe there will be some special shows here and there that we’ll maybe end up doing (in the future). But as far as the real heavy touring, this will go right through the end of the year, and then we’ll see what happens.,” he said. “Honestly, this is the best way to do it, go out on a high note and bid farewell.”

Taking a toll

Gary, of course is Gary Rossington, the guitarist and last remaining original member of Lynyrd Skynyrd. In October 2015, Rossington was sidelined by a heart attack and has had complications since then.

It’s clear from talking to Medlocke that health issues have taken a toll on Rossington and the band wanted to give fans a proper farewell tour rather than be abruptly forced off of the road by a health setback or some other problem.

“I know that the fans, a lot of fans are really sad about it because (Skynyrd 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,” Medlocke said. “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.”

Making memories

Medlocke said the band is making sure the last time around the touring circuit will be memorable by assembling set lists that will 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,” Medlocke said of the set list, which will include some songs Lynyrd Skynyrd has not played live for some time.

“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,” he said. “I think (the show covers) some exciting times in the band’s history and in the band’s life.”

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,” the guitarist quipped “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.

Triumph and tragedy

After all, the story of Lynyrd Skynyrd is one of rock’s most triumphant and tragic tales. Some of the triumphs came early as the group, based out of Jacksonville, Fla. – not exactly known as a hotbed of promising acts at the time – 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 the epic “Free Bird” and “Sweet Home Alabama” helping the group gain a foothold, Lynyrd Skynyrd appeared to be hitting a musical peak with its fifth album, the 1977 release “Street Survivors.” But the album had been out only three days when an October plane crash claimed the lives of singer-songwriter and band leader 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, premature and 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 in guitarist Ed King (who was in Skynyrd from 1972 to ’75) and singer Johnny Van Zant to replace his late brother, Ronnie, in the new edition of the group.

Lynyrd Skynyrd has been together ever since, putting out eight studio albums and several live releases, while becoming a steady and successful presence on the touring circuit, even 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 and Powell and bassist Eon Evans in 2009, losses that have only deepened the tragic elements of the Skynyrd story.

Band of brothers

Today’s band includes Rossington, Van Zant, Medlocke (who was an early member of Skynyrd from 1971-72 before he went on to form the band Blackfoot, which also 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 story, and Medlocke is pleased that the film gave Rossington a chance to tell the story of the band from his perspective.

Medlocke praised the film for presenting a balanced look at the group, capturing the brotherhood that existed during Skynyrd’s early years and not just the infamous conflicts and fights that have been highlighted in other documentaries on the band.

“It portrays the guys as a band of brothers that got together with an incredible writer named Ronnie Van Zant, along with Gary (Rossington) and Allen (Collins) and came up with stuff that was from the heart, that really, really made history,” Medlocke said. “I believe that all of that is portrayed in there.

“There are happy moments, as well as there are sad moments. 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.”

Alan Sculley is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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