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Promises from Lynyrd Skynyrd of a two-hour show on Saturday night in the Amphitheater proved to be as much b.s. as Skynyrd’s entire approach to Riverfest 2012. Event insiders told us the iconic Southern man’s band wouldn’t participate in any pre-show media, nor did band members want to indulge in any of the backstage hobnobbing with Riverfest supporters that most acts have done in the past.
So, when Skynyrd’s guitarists were fingering the familiar opening chords/notes to “Sweet Home Alabama” at about 10 p.m., barely an hour into the show, then heading off stage, we wondered if something was amiss. Or maybe this was Skynyrd’s version of a two-set show, like Widespread Panic, with pipe break in between. Moments later the band was back on stage thanking the Little Rock fans and offering up a rote version of “Free Bird” before heading back to their bus (the one with the ‘stars and bars” flag and “Gods and Guns” emblazoned on the side), having done their obligatory 75 minutes.
I’ve seen Lynyrd Skynyrd on one side or the other of the river, indoors and out, at least a dozen times, and this show would rate OK, if not underwhelming – a going-through-the-motions effort with lead singer Johnny Van Zant, youngest brother of group co-founder, the late Ronnie Van Zant, lacking his usual raucous pep. Granted, we could only see all this from the top sidewalk of the Amphitheater area, with the place filled to capacity and then some. No one who arrived for Skynyrd after its 9 p.m. set started was getting any closer than just inside the venue entrance.
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It almost made me wish I had stayed at the rock stage to the east, in the spacious Clinton Presidential Park, which was well suited for stretching the legs and visiting the beer and food stands while alternative rock act Chevelle took fans back to a late 1990s, early 2000s sound.
“I’m so glad you guys still like metal,” guitarist and singer Pete Loeffler yelled. “You all allow us to keep a job.”
As the sun was setting behind them, the three-piece Chevelle (Loeffler, his brother Sam on drums and brother-in-law Dean Bernardini on bass) thundered and growled through such personal favorites “Letter From a Thief,” “Get Some” and “Sleep Apnea.” Then, it began to sound the same and, for whatever reason, the sound was muddled (compared with the Amphitheater system), but we did like the big video screens on either side of the stage. We took some of it in from the fence line in front of the Clinton Library.
Some smart regional promoter will someday realize that the Presidential Park would be a fantastic place for a major Little Rock outdoor show. As much as Skynyrd hardly seemed interested in being there, Chevelle’s Loeffler was genuinely happy to be performing before an appreciative crowd, iPhone cameras raised throughout the show from fans to capture the moment, when they weren’t tossing Frisbees. After some more melodic numbers like the superb “Comfortable Liar” and before concluding the show, the band’s last after a seven-week tour, Loeffler said sincerely, “I gotta say you guys have been so awesome. I really needed this. Thank you.”
Instead of waiting for stage headliner Third Eye Blind and one more rendition of “Semi-Charmed Life” – but thank you to the between-acts emcee for reminding us why we didn’t want to hear the overplayed refrain again – we walked the 15 minutes back to the Amphitheater, just in time to hear Skynyrd’s fourth song, “What’s Your Name?,” while waiting in another line, at another gate, to have our blue wristband checked to make sure weren’t cheating to get in. Seriously, this gate had one guy dedicated to feeling the appropriateness of the wrist band required for admittance.
Skynyrd ripped through “That Smell,” “I Know A Little,” “Saturday Night Special,” “Simple Man,” “Give Me Three Steps” “Call Me The Breeze,” and a few others before wrapping up with its most famous two numbers. Much was made of Skynyrd being even less than a skeleton of its original self now, with only guitarist Gary Rossington remaining from the original lineup. Several, like Ronnie Van Zant and, most recently, keyboardist Billy Powell, have passed on to “rock and roll heaven,” as Johnny Van Zant noted before “Free Bird,” while a couple of other survivors long ago realized it was time to stop. But such current members as Rickey Medlocke and JVZ have been with the group more than twice as long as it was together before the tragic 1977 plane crash that took RVZ, and Steve and Cassie Gaines.
The most stirring moment of the night was seeing three sky lanterns released simultaneous (frankly, in the crowd, we could not make out whether they came from the stage or from fans nearby), followed by a single sky lantern, all of their flames finally disappearing from view as nearly everyone around us looked heavenward. It was beautiful, but it seemed to come entirely too early in the night. Surely there was more in the catalog to play, if the guys really cared to. Promises, promises...
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