Kid Rock / Lynyrd Skynyrd: Madison Square Garden, NYC 5/15
There are two types of people in this world: those who think Kid Rock is a musical genius, able to adapt numerous musical genres into a distinctive blend while treating each with the proper respect it deserves and those who think he is simply the Antichrist who needs to be eliminated from the planet before he does more harm. One of the most polarizing artists, fans of Detroit’s native son gush effusively over him and defend him from attacks on many fronts while his detractors curse him furiously, often rising to dangerous levels of pique. He’s simply not an artist who inspires apathy and nearly everyone has an opinion about his music, his lifestyle or his well-publicized love life. Say what you will about Kid Rock, he knows and has a healthy respect for music and the people who perform it, regardless of background, genre or preconceptions. It’s no surprise that his September 2000 appearance with Phish remains one of the more memorable collaborations or that the Las Vegas crowd welcomed the Kid with open arms.
Kid Rock returned to New York City’s Madison Square Garden for the first time since playing the hallowed arena in the maelstrom of publicity and activity that followed the release of Devil Without A Cause, the multi-platinum album that vaulted him into the national limelight. Back then, the Kid’s melange of rock, rap, metal, country and southern rock was starting to find a good number of fans but yet Kid Rock played to a relatively empty, nearly half filled arena. Many years later, the self-proclaimed “Early Morning Stoned Pimp” returned to the Garden a much bigger phenomenon than he was at the turn of the century. This time around Kid Rock not only sold out MSG for the New York leg of his Rock N Roll Revival Tour, he brought out the heavy artillery. Not only did he beef up the show with J. Geils Band frontman Peter Wolf and visionary rapper Rev. Run, he invited his favorite band, Lynyrd Skynyrd, to open the night with their first ever appearance at Madison Square Garden.
In his live show, Kid Rock brings together numerous genres, unifying them to such a degree that he gets hardcore punk fans to sway to traditional country rhythms and inspires Southern rock diehards to headbang to heavy metal riffs. It’s a skill that he hardly receives enough credit for and his remarkable ability to earnestly play different styles is quite striking. During one stretch, Rock worked the David Allan Coe standard “You Never Call Me By My Name” into his rap-meets-C&W smash “Cowboy” and along with drummer Stephanie Eulinberg, who came from behind the drums to offer a female counterpoint, turned MSG into a sawdust covered roadhouse with a bawdy romp through his Anti-Pam ballad “Half Your Age.” Not many performers who show such skill with an acoustic guitar and a country tune can then stand alongside Rev. Run and credibly work out a medley of Run D.M.C. hits, including “King Of Rock” and “Walk This Way,” scratch out a beat on a turntable while standing directly above it and then hold court on every single instrument present on the stage. While he’s not creating a wealth of truly original music or pushing the boundaries of improvisational rock, Kid Rock is staying true to the theme of his Revival tour by paying homage to the many different genres that make up the modern landscape of popular music.
A consummate showman, Rock keeps things lively. With the Twisted Brown Trucker Band playing him onto the stage like the soul greats of old, Kid Rock bounded into the spotlight to the adrenalized drum beat of “Rock N Roll Jesus.” After running through “Welcome 2 The Party,” his traditional greeting song that sets the tone for the evening, he ducked backstage to change out of his dapper white suit, leaving Peter Wolf to hold court with an uptempo romp through “Love Stinks.” Wolf would return at the end of Rock’s first set for a medley of songs ostensibly tied to Rock’s hometown of Detroit, trading verses on “Ain’t To Proud To Beg” before Rock ceded Wolf the lead for “Must Have Got Lost.” Just as Skynyrd’s presence requires them to play “Free Bird,” Wolf’s pairing with Kid Rock wouldn’t have seemed complete without “Centerfold” with J. Geils’ defining Eighties ode to the corruption of nostalgic memories seeming like it was just a Kid Rock song written two decades too early.
While no one is going to mistake Kid Rock’s songwriting skills for those of Bob Dylan, Paul Simon or Kurt Cobain, he does possess their mindset for putting others in their place. Where Dylan and Simon wrapped the acidic undercurrents of their politically charged songs in wonderfully worded and intricately thought out metaphors, Rock opts for a more direct, less nuanced approach: sticking his middle finger in the air and shouting “fuck you.” Despite the boastful persona he adopts in songs like “Devil Without A Cause” and “Cocky,” the true Kid Rock, the one that brings people squarely into his camp is the introspective, humble Robert Ritchie found within “God Only Knows” and “Picture.” It’s that latter personality that allows Rock to gather the crowd on to his side so that the unabashedly confrontational phrases, found in “You Never Met A Mother F*er Quite Like Me” and “Bawitaba” as well as the salacious witticisms found in “Cowboy” and “So Hott” get the biggest response. The beer swilling, roguish philosophy espoused by and presumably lived by Rock gives the guys in the audience hope that even though they’re never going to be in the same room with Pamela Anderson, if it did happen maybe she’d dig them. Justin Timberlake never does that for his fans.
Kid Rock has never hid his love for Skynyrd: he’s inducted them into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame; he’s joined them at the Nokia Theater for a raucous reading of “Sweet Home Alabama;” he makes constant allusions to Skynyrd in his songs, going so far as to cribbing the illustrious guitar riff from “Sweet Home Alabama” on “All Summer Long” and he always makes sure to include a verse or two of “Free Bird” somewhere in his live show. Given the prelude, it was surprising that the one pairing that never occurred at the Garden was one between Kid Rock and his idols.
The passage of time and a plane crash that has been immortalized into classic rock lore by the likes of fellow Skynyrd disciples Drive-By Truckers have reduced the current configuration of Lynyrd Skynyrd to two original members, guitarist Gary Rossington and keyboardist Billy Powell, singer Johnny Van Zandt, Ronnie’s younger brother, former Blackfoot guitarist Rickey Medlocke, bassist Ean Evans, drummer Michael Cartellone and guitarist Mark Matejka, a recent recruit from the Charlie Daniels Band. The latter three looking young enough to place doubt as to whether they were born when Lynyrd Skynyrd originally emerged from the swamplands of the South.
Despite having the bloodline to front a band playing under the legendary name, Johnny Van Zandt never once tried to coopt one cheer or accolade that belongs to Skynyrd. Whenever he goaded the audience on which was often he asked them to cheer for Lynyrd Skynyrd, the memory of that great band or the enduring songs they created. Realizing that he is helping perpetuate his brother’s legacy and not his own, Van Zandt doesn’t try to glom on to any of the residual cheers or plaudits simply because he’s the one holding the American flag adorned microphone stand.
For the most part, the Lynyrd Skynyrd that took the stage at Madison Square Garden was a caricature of the original band. As they moved through “Simple Man,” “Saturday Night Special” and “Gimme Three Steps,” the various members of the band strutted around the stage, pumping their fists in the air, unnecessarily preening and gesturing while beckoning people to cheer. It hardly seemed like the way a titan of classic rock should comport themselves on a large stage. In addition to acting like they had collectively drunk one Red Bull to many, they trotted out many of the Rock Star 101 gimmicks that no longer have any place on stage. Even if does hearken back to the original band, watching Rossington, Medlocke, Matejka and Evans line up and stroll purposefully down the walkway to the edge of the stage to perform a four man guitar line came across as hackneyed.
Based primarily on their reputation and the fact that they hadn’t played “Free Bird” yet, Skynyrd earned an encore after closing their set with a fine version of “Sweet Home Alabama.” After a duet between Johnny and Ronnie Van Zandt (the latter on video tape), they stood still for ten minutes of “Free Bird.” When they stopped running around like decapitated chickens, the majesty that was Skynyrd was allowed to breathe and waft throughout the Garden like a fine wine. In focusing on the song, Skynyrd accomplished what they set out to do and reminded everyone of the legacy of one of the defining Southern rock bands of our generation.