Usually when you hear someone yell out “FREEBIRD!” at a concert when a band is about to do an encore you probably smile, laugh, roll your eyes or snicker. On Thursday night though, if you yelled out this song request, there was a VERY good chance that your wish was going to be granted. That’s because you were at the free Lynyrd Skynyrd concert in Coney Island. The concert was part of Coney Island’s Seaside Summer Concert Series and is currently celebrating their 35th anniversary. This was the first time that the band, currently celebrating their 40th anniversary, had ever played at Coney Island (otherwise known as “America’s Playground”).
"Free Bird" - Lynyrd Skynyrd At Coney Island, NY 7.18.2013
While the band only has two original members left (Johnny Van Zant and Gary Rossington) the rest of the members understand the history of the group and exceed in their roles and musicianship. The musicians are Gary Rossington (guitar), Johnny Van Zant (vocals), Rickey Medlock (guitar), Johnny Colt (bass), Mark “Sparky” Matejka (guitar), and Peter Keys (keyboardist). The Rock n Roll Hall of Fame band performed a nearly two hour set to a crowd full of “Skynyrd Nation” fans, both young and old, and undoubtedly proved why they are the quintessential American rock band.
I got to the venue about an hour before the scheduled start time and for a $5 donation I was able to sit in a seat only a few rows back from the stage. As the 7:30pm start time approached the seats quickly filled up and judging by all the Skynyrd shirts people were wearing it was obvious the fans had come out to show support and were looking forward to a rocking good time. The extremely hot day had taken its toll on many people and many were seen waving fans and drinking water, but right before the band took the stage the sun had set behind a building and thankfully provided some relief. It was a beautiful, although muggy, evening for a rock show and the impressive Coney Island backdrop added to the shows experience.
Skynyrd came out to a standing crowd and wasted no time getting down to business. “What’s Your Name” got the show started to a positive start and the crowd willingly started to sing along. Johnny Van Zant is one of the most charismatic vocalist you’ll ever find in a band and he proved this by constantly hyping up the crowd and using hand gestures to coincide with the lyrics in every song. The energy was kept high and rocking during the next two songs “Call Me The Breeze” and “Gimmie Back My Bullets”. The stage presence of the three guitarists was equally as entertaining to watch as they would glide around the stage smiling at each other and occasionally come together to jam out and impress us with their solos.
“That Smell” was another song that had the crowd karaoking along and standing at attention, whether alone or with a friend/loved one. Van Zant had commented that although it was a Thursday night he wanted us to rock out as if it was Saturday night, and this led into another fan favorite song “Saturday Night Special”. After this song Van Zant had taken some time to talk to the crowd. He commented that his favorite holiday was July 4th and that the next song was dedicated to all the men and women serving in our armed forces and fighting overseas. What came next was a moment that I think everybody who was at the show will remember and undoubtedly be a highlight. The band started playing some mellow notes and after about a minute it became obvious that the song was “Simple Man”. Everybody got on their feet and the excitement had reached its highest peak of the night. Myself, as well as the few hundred that were there, sang the song word for word and reflected to ourselves on what the song personally meant to us. Rossington and Medlock took the song and carried it on an emotional journey as they traded licks and solos.
After a sweet version of “Mississippi Kid” the band got the crowd dancing again to one of their biggest hits that we’ve all heard on the radio and elsewhere a million times, “Gimme Three Steps”. The high energy momentum was carried into the next song that opened with a unique intro and full on rock n roll swagger leading into “Sweet Home Alabama”. I'm not sure how many people in the crowd were actually from Alabama but from the way people were singing it seemed like everyone wanted to go to the state where the skies are so blue. After the song Van Zant thanked the crowd for their love and support and the members exited the stage.
It only took 4 seconds after the band left the stage for the person behind me to be the first in the crowd to yell out the encore request. The stage was lit black but NOBODY was leaving without hearing one of the most famous songs ever. Anticipation was building when after a few minutes four yellow lights from the stage joined together to illuminate an American bald eagle statue that was placed on Peter Keys piano. The moment we all were waiting for was coming and we knew it. Suddenly Mr. Keys appeared, sat down stage left at his piano, and began tickling the keys and setting the mood.
He did this for about a minute before going into the opening notes for “Freebird”. The rest of the band then slowly took to the stage and their instruments amid an almost deafening response of approval from the crowd. Van Zant brought out with him an American flag and draped it over the mic stand as he began singing the verses. To say this was a surreal moment would be putting it lightly. The familiar sliding notes of the guitars filled the air and fans were singing EVERY word, some of them with arms raised in the air, as though they were being blessed. When the song picked up in speed a giant disco ball began to lower in front of the stage, creating a sparkly and intense atmosphere. Medlock and Rossington showed off their impressive and high speed solos as the song picked up in momentum. A guitar battle was happening before our very eyes and everyone was loving it! The roughly 9 minute song stood up to everyone’s expectations and at the conclusion left us all amazed and thankful that this band, 40 years later, is still going strong and rocking.
For further Lynyrd Skynyrd news, music, and tour info, check out their Zumic artist page.