Goodbye is a Memory

We came prepared to get sunburned, but instead we were rain-kissed. On Sunday, beloved local legends Lynyrd Skynyrd played their final Northeast Florida show at TIAA Bank Field. As bittersweet a final act surely must be, the festival was all hog, no hooves; it was a rock concert—not a eulogy.

Fans in as much red-white-and-blue and Skynyrd gear as could surely exist in one place came pouring in for the 3 p.m. start, when The Marshall Tucker Band took the stage. Theirs was the first of several bucket list acts on the itinerary; fans were already singing along as we took our seats. Alas, the relatively short set was called for weather a few songs in, just after they played “Night’s Magic.”

Seconds later, the sky opened up and people scrambled to take cover. Never have so many cowboy boots clambered down those stadium steps—not even when the Jags play the Texans.

After about 30 minutes of brew-haha and some of the finest people watching this side of the Atlantic, the storm passed and longtime Skynyrd openers Blackberry Smoke began. Not having heard of them before last week, and then only for a few in-house snarky comments about ignored interview requests, the quality of their quintessential Southern rock sound and look was a surprising gift.

When next-up Charlie Daniels Band came out in full regalia—CD himself in white cowboy hat, red Western shirt, and plate-sized belt buckle—it felt like we’d been transported to another, probably better, era. Visions of my wood-paneled childhood kitchen where my parents would dance and sing under the light of a single, yellow bulb flashed through my mind when the band played “Wooly Swamp,” one of my all-time CDB faves, followed soon thereafter by another classic, “Long-Haired Country Boy.” The show wouldn’t have been complete without “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” and that 81-year-old master fiddler gave the crowd our due. Best that’s ever been.

The earlier downpour had spooked some of us into fearing the show might be canceled, but after the CDB set, it was starting to feel like the unseasonably perfect weather would hold for the rest of the night.

Jason Aldean came on next and got all the country cuties out of their seats. Aldean’s was a slightly surprising name on the lineup, but he made an excellent, savvy addition. It was clear plenty of folks had come to see him. Aldean belted out some of his large collection of hits, including “Big Green Tractor,” “Flyover States,” and “Any Ol’ Barstool.” The vibe was a tinge subdued until, with the sun peeking out just in time to sink over the horizon, he cranked it up with “My Kinda Party.” A truly seasoned performer like everyone on the tour, his 13 years on the national stage make him the touring baby of the bunch. Aldean played to the crowd with that mix of finesse, twang and rebelliousness that characterizes good Southern music.

Kid Rock. Damn, son. I’ve seen him before, years back in Alabama in the early days of his crossover from whatever he was doing before to Southern rock. Dude was good then; he’s great now. By the time he came on—major props to the speed of the set change crew—it was dark, allowing for some killer pyrotechnics and lights.

Now, Kid Rock’s not on my playlist, though I’ll sing along to his songs now and again, but he slays a stadium. Dude owned it. And his grizzly ol’ lady drummer is my new heroine.

Personal observation: Most Southern/country shows (and KISS) sooner or later take their opportunity to punish a captive audience with politics and/or Bible-thumping—not The Last of the Street Survivors Tour, thank god. CDB sang a brief, sweet hymn, and Kid Rock gave a short and very fitting homage to real American hero John McCain, whose funeral was held during the weekend; otherwise, it was pretty much all music and good times.

Kid Rock’s performance was interrupted by another weather delay; giving the boy from Michigan a chance to change out of the jeans, black T-shirt, socks and shoes that some fool let him wear to perform under stage lights in Florida in the summer and into shorts and a T-shirt. Again he brought the crowd to its feet—though one attendee noted that she was less than impressed by the stripper-esque dancers onstage with him. I say let the ladies shake it. A little eye candy never hurt nobody.

Now it was time for the moment we’d been waiting for: Lynyrd Skynyrd. Attendees were so excited that during the break the wave even broke out—a feat made all the more impressive by the fact that there was a huge gap behind the stage. It took a couple of attempts, but eventually the wave made the jump, much to everyone’s amusement.

The crowd was on its feet when the hometown boys came out at 10:20 p.m. to the recorded strains of AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck,” the most fitting song imaginable for the evening. As the Australian rock gods faded out, Skynyrd launched into “Workin’ for MCA” followed by “Skynyrd Nation.”

Other Jacksonville-sprung bands have a nasty habit of sneering at their roots. Lynyrd Skynyrd is not one of them. This town is so used to holding its arms out for an embrace and getting snubbed that it was refreshing and touching when Van Zant hugged us back and talked about how much he and the band love their Jacksonville home. “We’re not saying goodbye, we’re making memories,” he said.

At this point, we’d indulged in seven-plus hours of solid festival-ing, and there were some tired puppies in that audience, so some of their slower standards didn’t elicit much response. Jams like “What’s Your Name” and “I Know A Little” were welcome up-tempo reprieves for sleepy eyes and ears.

After 31 years as frontman, lead singer Johnny Van Zant is as much Lynyrd Skynyrd as his dearly departed big brother Ronnie, who perished in the band’s tragic 1977 plane crash, days after the release of the album Street Survivors, for which the present tour is named. Van Zant’s musicianship was matched by the guitarist duo of pre-plane-crash band members, Rickey Medlocke and Gary Rossington, two true showmen with the shredding ability to hold those the big, bold riffs that characterize their sound.

Skynyrd delivered a tinge of schmaltz—I’m not complaining; it’s a farewell tour, that’s what we came for—and some more than well-earned sentimentality. Before playing fan favorite “Simple Man,” a haunting, poetic ballad that in earlier years would’ve brought the lighters out to illuminate us all in the delicate glow of tiny firelights, Van Zant dedicated the night “to all fallen members of Lynyrd Skynyrd.”

They played a few of their more rollicking numbers: “Gimme Three Steps,” a personal fave, “Call Me the Breeze,” and, of course, “Sweet Home Alabama.”

(Side note for fans of both Skynyrd and football: I agree with local sports cognoscente Sam Kouvaris, who wrote in the Florida Times-Union that the Jaguars should continue the tradition of playing Skynyrd at home games. In fact, not only do I agree: I demand it. If not “Sweet Home Alabama,” which they’ve been playing as long as I’ve been a season ticket-holder, then maybe “Call Me The Breeze”—except when the Saints come to town—then perhaps they could play “That Smell.”)

The night wouldn’t have been complete without THAT song—you know the one. After “Sweet Home Alabama,” which finished with red-white-and-blue confetti shot into the air, the band left the stage and the stadium in the dark for a few minutes. I’ve heard people chant “Freebird” before, but only in jest. Well, that was true … until Sunday night. After a few minutes, the guys returned to the stage and gave us what we’d been waiting for. Cell phone lights lit the night like fireflies as a video clip of Ronnie Van Zant played. “That’s what this country is all about, being free,” RVZ said. “I think everyone wants to be free.”

With that, for one last encore at home, Lynyrd Skynyrd played “Freebird.” It was the first time I’d heard it live and it was the last time Northeast Florida would hear the song that defined the band and a genre and a generation in so many ways, played by the band that brung it.

At the end of the song, as more confetti shot into the air, followed by fireworks streaking into the sky, a light rain misted us like a kiss from heaven.

And the lights went dark.