Lynyrd Skynyrd + Status Quo + Massive Wagons
Saturday 29th June 2019
Wembley Arena, London
WARNING: This review triggered WRC’s long, rambly article alert … readers with low boredom thresholds and/or ADHD may want to jump directly to the thoughtfully-provided summary at the end.
I like cake. And I like Chicken Dhansak. But I wouldn’t ever dream of going for them both at the same time.
That’s the best I can come up with for how I couldn’t help but feel when I saw that Quo were announced as the main support for Lynyrd Skynyrd on the UK Leg of their Farewell Tour. I’ve loved both bands as long as I can remember, but - together? Regular WRC readers with elephantine memories (and high boredom thresholds) may recall I mentioned having been lucky enough to catch the first show of this tour in Florida last year where both Blackfoot and Molly Hatchet (RIP Phil McCormack, btw) were in support. I wouldn’t have dared to dream for a repeat of such a Wonka-esque Golden Ticket, but I must confess to have been hoping for another Southern Rock-fest.
Proceedings were got underway by Massive Wagons, who were a bit of an unknown to me (I don’t get out much), but a brief pre-show visit to the Googleatron informed me that they are the band behind ‘Back to the Stack’, a rather splendid tribute to a certain Mr Richard John Parfitt, to whom this set closer was dedicated tonight. We missed the opener (might have just heard the dying strains of ‘Last on the List’; not sure), but were treated to another selection of tracks, all from the Lancashire outfit’s 2018’s fourth studio album, ‘Full Nelson’. The curiously titled ‘Billy Balloon Head’ followed, and after a quick Mungo Jerry vocal riff from the tartan-suited Baz Mills (no double denim here), ‘Sunshine Smile’. A slight downshift of pace (though not power) for Ratio, before ‘Hate Me’ and aforementioned closer ‘Back to The Stack’.
This was a relatively short 30 minute outing that was totally full on … Baz Mills bounces around the stage constantly (can’t wait to see how he keeps this up for a full set), whilst the twin guitars of Adam Thistlethwaite/Stephen Holl and the rhythm section of Alex Thistlethwaite (drums) and Adam Bouskill (bass) powered through the set perfectly, seemingly enjoying every second but certainly not fazed by the size of the room or the scale of the occasion.
They came straight onto the Skynyrd dates on the back of a UK tour supporting The Wildhearts, and it will be interesting to see where this momentum takes them next - I hope that bigger and better things await them … from what I’ve seen & heard, I think they deserve it. Although having said that, I’ve got to get ‘Billy Balloon Head’ out of my sub-conscious .. seems it’s a total ear-worm.
I suspect like a lot of people, I fell a bit out of love with The Mighty Quo for a decade or so when they lost their way a bit. I’d still dig out an album or rustle up a playlist occasionally, but not often, truth be told. A few things changed this – in no particular order: ‘Two Way Traffic’ (a return to thoroughly enjoyable classic Quo, imo), Aquostic (the unplugged gig), and the Hello Quo documentary. To paraphrase Joe Elliot from the latter (and I think extend his interpretation of the period in question), there was a spell from 72-77 when they were untouchable – a straight run of great albums (‘Piledriver’, ‘Hello’, ‘Quo’, ‘On The Level’, ‘Blue for You’) was concluded with (IMO) one of the best double-live albums of the 70’s (seriously…I play this more than ‘Strangers in the Night’ … ‘Live & Dangerous’ … hell, even more than ‘Made in Japan’). I know Francis hates ‘Live’, but Steve Harris hates the first Maiden album, and I love that too. Do yourself a favour, if you haven’t done so for a few years – dig these out again and give them another listen.
So, I kinda tuned back in to TMQ. But as well as being a little bemused by Quo even being paired with Skynyrd, I must confess to slight … well, nerves - about seeing them without Rick, as this was a first for me. Whilst undoubtedly a great rhythm player (a heavy rhythm boogie woogie wreckin machine indeed - thanks, Massive Wagons), Rick was never going to appear in a Top ‘x’ players list - but in an outfit where the whole has always been greater than the sum of the parts, the sheer presence of him in the collective was monumental. I know that Richie Malone has been in post for a couple of years so can’t be making a bad fist of it, but still. Then there’s the fact Rick sang many of my favourite Quo tracks – ‘Big Fat Mama’, ‘Mystery Song’, ‘Rain’, ‘Little Lady’, etc. So these thoughts, and a couple of, to be frank, lukewarm recent reviews, and I was only half looking forward to seeing them – I care too much to see them fade or bomb.
So it was that the familiar riff of ‘Caroline’ cranked up with Richie Malone stage right, not RJP. A perfectly executed rendition, but I’m not quite on board yet. In hindsight, I think I was acclimatising. Next up was a couple of verses of ‘Something 'Bout You Baby I Like’ segueing neatly into ‘Rain’ with Rhino taking the vocal. Here we go. Watershed moment. Do or die, Shit or bust. Rhino does Rick proud, belting out a massive long-term favourite with aplomb. And I’m almost fully back on board.
A brief chat from ace raconteur Francis and we’re into a “a few songs cleverly stuck together by someone”… bits of ‘What You’re Proposing’ (with Andrew Bown stepping around the keyboards and coming out front as a third guitarist for the first of several times over the evening) , ‘Down the Dustpipe’ (with Bown now taking up harmonica duty), ‘Wild Side of Life’, ‘Railroad’, ‘Again & Again’ (Rhino on vocal duty again) and ‘Mystery Song’ (with Richie adeptly taking up the vocal honours). 10 years of Quo in a glorious six or so minutes and I’m fully back on board. And loving every minute.
It was at this point I got a 2-word text from AJ - “Quo awesome”. A wise man, our esteemed editor. ‘The Oriental’ from 2002’s ‘Heavy Traffic’ was followed by two new songs, ‘Cut me Some Slack’ and ‘Liberty Lane’, which Francis confessed afterwards he didn’t announce beforehand to prevent everyone making an additional trip to the loo (or words to that effect). More familiar service was resumed with ‘In the Army Now’ before a superb ‘Roll Over Lay Down’.
And then, Francis is alone on the stage, noodling around a little with an increasingly familiar refrain, playing the audience and milking every second before the rest of the band returned with perfect timing for the post-intro full on blast of ‘Down Down’. Not quite a ‘grown men cried’ moment … but certainly a ‘grown men joyously bounced around a bit, making knobs of themselves’ moment.
I think anything is going to be a little bit of a comedown after ‘Down Down’, but ‘Whatever You Want’ (with Andrew Bown adding lead vocal to his ever-increasing workload) did a pretty good job of maintaining the mood before ‘Rocking All Over the World’ brought proceedings to a close.
The loss of Rick will have been most keenly felt by his family and friends of course, but professionally there can be no doubt that his no longer being around created a massive hole, both for Quo generally and the Rossi/Parfitt double act that was arguably the essence of Quo for many years. I think the fact that Francis has chosen to (and has been able to) carry on must have been a tough call, but I also think it’s important to note that he continues to enjoy the partnerships with Andrew Bown and Rhino, who between them have over 75 years of service (43 & 34 respectively) in this band, quietly plying their trade and playing largely uncelebrated parts. It’s great to see these two in particular taking a step forward, and playing more instantly acknowledgable roles.
Rick was a huge character, and his presence will always be missed - and that’s no disrespect to the rest of the band, Richie Malone in particular, who did a great job whilst standing in the shoes of a giant. But I for one vote to remember him and his near-50 year contribution to this unique institution of a band with great fondness and happy memories of gigs gone by whilst looking forward to seeing Quo again with their name at the top of the ticket very, very soon.
And they’d better play ‘Forty Five Hundred Times’.
Skynyrd took a little while to take hold with me. Not many years out of short trousers and having worked through Quo (‘Blue For You’ and ‘Piledriver’ were 2 of my first 3 record shop purchases – on those old pre-recorded cassettes, no less!), I think I had discovered Deep Purple and thought they were the ‘be all and end all’ when I bought my first copy of ‘Pronounced’, purely on spec, from a second-hand record stall at Woolwich Market in about 1978. I left it on in the background wondering what it was all about and should I stick Machine Head on as a palate-cleanser when the solo (or should I say solos) on the final track of side 2 gouged me through both cheeks and reeled me in.
There’s little logical comparison between those bands of course, but the album grew on me with each subsequent listen and opened the door for a young Metalhead not only to more Skynyrd but Southern Rock as a genre, and some 40 years later I can say it must still be in my top 10 listened-to albums ever. And bands from the Allman Brothers and The Outlaws through to Blackberry Smoke and The Cadillac 3, not to mention minor detours down avenues to the likes of The Charlie Daniels Band and Hayseed Dixie ultimately have Skynyrd to thank for my listening to their music.
As with Massive Wagons, we almost missed set opener ‘Working for MCA’ due to quaffing whilst waxing lyrical about Quo as well as being mentally tuned in for the staccato intro of expected (well, by me, anyway) opener ‘Skynyrd Nation’, which for some reason was slid down a notch in the setlist. Fortunately, only mere seconds were lost. Tone suitably set, all believed Johnny Van Zant’s proclamation that “it’s going to be a helluva show”.
The rebel attitude may have dimmed a little in these twilight years (the Confederate Flag is replaced with a Confederate/Stars and Stripes combo), but there is no loss of enthusiasm or polish in the delivery. Granted, sole remaining ever-present Gary Rossington moves like a man who feels his years, but the similarly … well-seasoned Rickey Medlocke struts like a man a fraction of his 69 years, generally having a great time.
With nine people on stage, there’s plenty going on, and a massive screen at the rear alternates between (exceptionally good definition) close ups of the live action and a stackload of poignant archive Super-8 footage of years gone by.
Apparently, inspired by Gary Rossington wrapping his new car around a tree whilst loaded, ‘That Smell’ was apparently intended as a bit of a wake up call by Ronnie (no angel himself in that department, as he was the first to admit) to the overuse of … errr …relaxants being enjoyed by various band members at the time. It’s tragically ironic that just a few days after the release of the parent album (1977’s ‘Street Survivors’), the most devastating event of their history happened.
The more upbeat Steve Gaines–penned ‘I Know a Little’ was then followed by ‘Gimme Back My Bullets’, ‘The Needle & the Spoon’ and Saturday Night Special, before one of my personal highlights of the evening. A bit of a “No Stairway…denied” type thing, but I reckon that the answers ‘Freebird’ and ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ should not be allowed as responses to the question “What’s your favourite Skynyrd track?” Too easy, too common, and enables an easy disregard of a fantastic catalog. Personally, I’ve a number of contenders, but the winner – since the first time I heard it – is ‘The Ballad of Curtis Lowe’, so I was immensely happy to see it introduced to the setlist after God knows how many years. Although the omission of the last verse robbed me a little of one of my favourite lines ever:
“He lived a lifetime playing the black man’s Blues,
And on the day he lost his life, that was all he had to lose.”
From one firm favourite to another serious contender, I imagine the beautiful ‘Tuesdays Gone’ brought a many a lump to throat. Some more wonderful old Super-8 footage being shown on the big screen, and Peter Keys playing that delicate and emotive solo with the same grace as the marvellous Billy Powell did for so long.
On the home stretch, we got Ronnie’s plea for some peace and quiet in ‘Don’t Ask Me No Questions’, before a wonderful rendition of ‘Simple Man’ a great, understated song about listening to your mama and living your life properly. Johnny then recounted the tale of Ronnie’s encounter at The Jug with Linda Lou in ‘Gimme Three Steps’, before the long-serving cover of JJ Cale’s ‘Call me the Breeze’ kept the pace up. Or ‘Blowin’ down the road’, if you will.
Whilst there are a lot of new bands and a lot of new music to be hopefully about, we are sadly at a time where a lot of the old guard are heading for The Great Gig in the Sky. As we know, Skynyrd have lost more band members than is in any way reasonable, from the tragic event of 1977 onwards. Whilst these guys are no longer around, they are a long way from forgotten. As well as the archive footage shown, co-writer (and former guitarist) Ed King gets a special mention on the big screen at the start of crowd-pleasing set closer ‘Sweet Home Alabama’. But nowhere is this as poignant as during the encore (I say encore … there was no halt or curtain-call, as such) of the unparalleled 10 minutes of auditory glory that is ‘Freebird’.
As Peter Keys, plays the familiar piano intro, the screen shows vintage footage of Billy Powell playing the exact same thing (I think it was … I’m no pianist, but it was pretty well synchronised) ... as Johnny sings “If I leave here tomorrow”, the image subtly changes from a close up of him into an image of big brother Ronnie. Between the verses, the image changes to a series of gently flickering candles, one for each bandmate sadly no longer with us, all namechecked and remembered. Sounds cheesy and possibly a bit maudlin, but it wasn’t … it was respectful and a nice recognition of those no longer with us who contributed to this band. It saddens me to think of those candles increasing.
But then the clincher: at the start of the second verse, Johnny shelves his mic, puts a familiar looking hat on the mic stand, and leaves the stage … to leave us with vintage Ronnie on the big screen, taking all of the second verse and break to the instrumental - perfectly synchronised old image, great quality Ronnie vocal (complete with “How bout you?“), and live performance of the music itself. The closing section is, as you’d expect, flawless…. monumental... epic… emotional – pick your own superlative; they all apply.
And so, with waves and bows, the show was over, and after Birmingham on Sunday night, so is their presence on these shores. Farewell tours have been known to be false dawns (or should that be false sunsets?) before of course, but this felt, as billed, like a true farewell.
I doubt we’ll see their like again.
Despite railing about the lack of genre cohesion at the start of this ramble, this whole show worked perfectly. Don’t know why - it just did. So, whoever the inspired promoter is who put this ticket together, please be assured I have gorged myself on copious amounts of humble pie, and I doff my cap to you, Sir. Or Madam. And if this was pure dumbass luck, can you tell me your pick for next week’s lottery numbers please?
Either way, maybe I’ll give Dhansak and cake a go after all.
The short version…
This whole piece turned out a bit long (never have been good at sticking to word limit targets), but with two such iconic bands (and, admittedly, a natural tendency towards inane rambling), this was always likely to happen. So, the short version:
Massive Wagons – great, energetic, fun. Go see them
The Mighty Quo – there’s life in the old dog yet. Both heads of it. Go see them.
Skynyrd – The masters … Last of a Dyin’ Breed indeed. You’ve blown it unless you jump on plane & head west. I’d still consider it, though …