I just finished compiling a premium for this year's marathon comprised of waffling stage banter from various artists. I thought about the next volume being the audience's heckling back, but honestly, wouldn't 50% of it be people yelling "Freebird?" Jason Fry of the Wall Street Journal recently took an extended look at the daily invocation of Ronnie Van Zandt that doubtlessly takes place on hundreds of concerts, and not just for artists whose music might be moronic enough to attract morons. Though I'm sure it helps:
One recent Tuesday night at New York's Bowery Ballroom, the Crimea had just finished its second song. The Welsh quintet's first song had gone over fairly well, the second less so, and singer/guitarist Davey MacManus looked out at the still-gathering crowd.
Then, from somewhere in the darkness came the cry, "Freebird!"
It made this night like so many other rock 'n' roll nights in America.
"Freebird" has been a rallying cry for fans of Southern rock since the 1970s. This exchange between Lynyrd Skynyrd's Ronnie Van Zant and an Atlanta audience introduces the version of "Freebird" from the 1976 live album "One More From the Road". That cut has been a radio mainstay since the album's release, likely inspiring many more shouts for "Freebird."
Bands don't always welcome the request, though. Mike Doughty had a suggestion for audience members yelling for "Freebird," as captured in this clip from the 2002 album "Smofe + Smang: Live in Minneapolis."
And in some cases, entertainers become slightly unhinged when they hear the song title, especially after Chicago DJ Kevin Matthews urged listeners to yell "Freebird."
"Freebird" isn't the Crimea's song; it's from the 1973 debut album by legendary Southern rockers Lynyrd Skynyrd. The band's nine-minute march from ruminative piano to wailing guitar couldn't be less like the Crimea's jagged punk-pop. But it was requested nonetheless.
Somebody is always yelling out the title. "I don't know that I've ever seen a show where it hasn't happened," says Bill Davis of the veteran country-punk band Dash Rip Rock.
"It's just the most astonishing phenomenon," says Mike Doughty, the former front man of the "deep slacker jazz" band Soul Coughing, adding that "these kids, they can't be listening to Lynyrd Skynyrd."
Yelling "Freebird!" has been a rock cliché for years, guaranteed to elicit laughs from drunks and scorn from music fans who have long since tired of the joke. And it has spread beyond music, prompting the Chicago White Sox organist to add the song to her repertoire and inspiring a greeting card in which a drunk holding a lighter hollers "Freebird!" at wedding musicians.
Bands mostly just ignore the taunt. But one common retort is: "I've got your 'free bird' right here." That's accompanied by a middle finger. It's a strategy Dash Rip Rock's former bassist Ned Hickel used. According to fans' accounts of shows, so have Jewel and Hot Tuna's Jack Casady. Jewel declines to comment. Mr. Casady says that's "usually not my response to those kind of things."
Others have offered more than the bird. On a recent live album, Modest Mouse's Isaac Brock declares that "if this were the Make-a-Wish Foundation, and you were going to die in 20 minutes -- just long enough to play 'Freebird' -- we still wouldn't play it." Dash Rip Rock often plays "Stairway to Freebird," a mash-up of the Skynyrd epic and Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven" that Mr. Davis boasts lasts "less than two minutes... You're finished before people get mad."
A few years ago, Mr. Doughty started promoting the Weather Girls' "It's Raining Men" as the new "Freebird," asking audiences at his solo shows to call for the disco chestnut instead. Now, he says, he gets yells for both songs at every performance.
A harsh reaction to "Freebird" came from the late comedian Bill Hicks during a Chicago gig in the early 1990s. On a bootleg recording of the show, Mr. Hicks at first just sounds irked. "Please stop yelling that," he says. "It's not funny, it's not clever -- it's stupid."
The comic soon works himself into a rage, but the "Freebirds" keep coming. "Freebird," he finally says wearily, then intones: "And in the beginning there was the Word -- 'Freebird.' And 'Freebird' would be yelled throughout the centuries. 'Freebird,' the mantra of the moron."
How did this strange ritual begin? "Freebird" is hardly obscure -- it's a radio staple consistently voted one of rock's greatest songs. One version -- and an important piece of the explanation -- anchors Skynyrd's 1976 live album "One More From the Road." On the record, singer Ronnie Van Zant, who was killed along with two other bandmates in a 1977 plane crash, asks the crowd, "What song is it you want to hear?" That unleashes a deafening call for "Freebird," and Skynyrd obliges with a 14-minute rendition.
To understand the phenomenon, it also helps to be from Chicago. When asked
why they continue to request "Freebird," Mr. Hicks's tormentors yell out "Kevin Matthews!"
Kevin Matthews is a Chicago radio personality who has exhorted his fans -- the KevHeads -- to yell "Freebird" for years, and claims to have originated the tradition in the late 1980s, when he says he hit upon it as a way to torment Florence Henderson of "Brady Bunch" fame, who was giving a concert. He figured somebody should yell something at her "to break up the monotony." The longtime Skynyrd fan settled on "Freebird," saying the epic song "just popped into my head."
Mr. Matthews says the call was heeded, inspiring him to go down the listings of coming area shows, looking for entertainers who deserved a "Freebird" and encouraging the KevHeads to make it happen.
But he bemoans the decline of "Freebird" etiquette. "It was never meant to be yelled at a cool concert -- it was meant to be yelled at someone really lame," he says. "If you're going to yell 'Freebird,' yell 'Freebird' at a Jim Nabors concert."