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Lynyrd Skynyrd’s ‘Free Bird’ flies toward retirement with farewell tour stop at Blossom

July 28, 2018

Lynyrd Skynyrd’s ‘Free Bird’ flies toward retirement with farewell tour stop at Blossom

CUYAHOGA FALLS, Ohio – With apologies to NASA . . . Cleveland, Lynyrd Skynyrd Retirement Base: The “Free Bird” has landed.″

A week removed from the 49th anniversary of Ohio native Neil Armstrong’s famous “one step for man, one giant leap for mankind,″ and on the day of a massive lunar eclipse, one of the most popular bands in the history of rock ‘n’ roll played their final concert in Northeast Ohio.

Skynyrd, formed in 1968 and reformed in 1987, 10 years after a plane crash that killed three members, brought its Last of the Street Survivors Farewell Tour to a grateful and multigenerational Blossom Music Center Friday night. The band is hanging up its guitars and Confederate Flag after this world tour ends in 2019 . . . maybe. It’s likely that there will be a few select shows and possibly a Las Vegas residency, said longtime member Rickey Medlocke in an interview to preview Friday’s gig.

It could be that the 18,000 or so – no official estimate was available – were there to say thanks for the music created by lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, who was killed in that plane crash, and nurtured by his younger brother, Johnny in the vocalist role in the years since.

Those thanks were richly deserved, if not for the performance itself, which truthfully was spot-on, then for the treasure trove of classic Southern rock songs Skynyrd has left.

Not one single classic rock cover band has ever finished a barroom gig without hearing some beer-emboldened wag bellow, “Play ‘Free Bird!’ ″ Usually, the plea is ignored, but that doesn’t mean hits like “Gimme Three Steps,″ “Simple Man,″ “Saturday Night Special,″ J.J. Cale’s “Call Me the Breeze,″ “That Smell,” “Tuesday’s Gone,″ “What’s Your Name″ and of course, “Sweet Home Alabama″ don’t show up on setlists.

It’s almost as if the Skynyrd discography is a “Dick, Jane and Sally” textbook for rockers.

Yet those tunes are complex in their simplicity, and that may be their appeal to the weekend warriors who thrive on them, the “meat in the seats″ who are at the local watering hole to hear them and the more serious musicians who study them.

And that itself makes hearing them from the men who created them – Van Zant, guitarists Medlocke and original member Gary Rossington (who survived the crash) – almost like a master class.

The songs are so commonly played that you don’t really realize the skill and élan of a Medlocke or a Rossington, or the vocal enthusiasm of Van Zant.

No doubt Skynyrd could have remained a legacy act, touring past the time when all its members – which include Solon-born Michael Cartellone on drums – start collecting Social Security. “Retiring” this way – if indeed they are retiring, as nobody in music ever really calls it quits until the casket lid shuts – was a wise call.

You can’t say they’re going out on top, as the band’s heyday is past. But they haven’t lost a step . . . or three.

Even better was that Blackberry Smoke, one of the three opening acts, could well become the “next” Skynyrd. Lead singer Charlie Starr’s distinctive nasal voice, catchy hooks and tasty guitar licks make the band a fitting successor for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee Skynyrd.

Singer-songwriter-producer-drummer Tom Hambridge and the Marshall Tucker Band (which has only vocalist Doug Gray as the lone original member of a band formed in 1972) filled out the bill in a marathon show.

Quite frankly, the show would have been better served had it featured only Blackberry Smoke and Skynyrd. The MTB’s vocals left a lot to be desired, and sloppy playing marred Hambridge’s set. Best-case interpretation is that having those two acts helped build anticipation.

But truthfully, there’s a simpler way to heighten expectation, and all you need is one guy with a microphone and a brew:

“Do ‘Free Bird!’ ″

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