This Is It
Rock 'n' roll was here to stay for 35 years at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre. Alas, the music dies this year. Five rock critics remember the good times.
In 1981 arena-scale rock found a home in Orange County tucked next to a theme park curiosity, Lion Country Safari. The opening of Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre signaled to excited music fans that the county had grown up.
Over three and a half decades, the outdoor bowl was the loud and proud host of close to 900 concerts, starting with David Lindley & El Rayo-X and the Charlie Daniels Band and ending in October (final act to be announced).
The 15,000-seat amphitheater has been the ideal setting for countless rock festivals, from an early Lollapalooza featuring Rage Against the Machine to the annual Christian Fishfest to the groundbreaking KROQ Weenie Roast. Oingo Boingo showcased its annual Halloween concert at Irvine seven times. Jimmy Buffett appeared some 26 times, the Grateful Dead 15. Prince brought his “Jam of the Year” tour. Madonna once sang like a virgin. The reunited Eagles sold out five nights. OC’s own No Doubt filled the place for four nights. A soaring Michael Jackson sold out three nights in a row. Those performances and scores of others were chronicled by the rock critics of The Orange County Register. Before the amphitheater is razed to put up apartments, we asked five to share their favorite memories.
Christopher Smith - 1979-82
As the first rock critic for The Orange County Register I made countless trips to LA arenas and clubs to hear the newest music. So, rather than a particular concert or two from the dozens and dozens I wrote about or saw over the decades, I ultimately dug Irvine Meadows for where it wasn’t, as well as for what that meant to Orange County music fans.
(One memory I can’t shake: the 1982 image of a drenched but not dispirited Frank Sinatra gamely hanging in during his first-ever Orange County concert under an oddly timed September downpour.)
The outdoor facility’s essential blessing was the tens of thousands of treks north up the 5 or 405 none of us had to make from 1981 on. Eventually, in 1993, Orange County would get a year-round concert venue with the Pond/Honda Center, but when Irvine Meadows opened, it seemed a shockingly cool gift from the music gods, with top-end rock, pop, country, etc. in our backyard.
Weird footnote: Irvine Meadows was also the Fitbit of facilities. No matter what we saw, from multi-act rock festivals to classical evenings ending with fireworks, the place exercised us equally, cardio and a concert for all. From the extended arrival – why was the plod across the 4,000-space lot more tedious than the 10-minute walk up the hill? – to that race/walk stampede down the pathway to beat traffic, I ended up humming a tune while trying to catch my breath.
For me, Irvine Meadows generated more than just memories – perhaps enough exercise equal to a few extra days alive to remember them.
Jim Washburn - 1983-88
Life in Orange County changed for the better when Irvine Meadows joined the landscape. For one thing, I got a nice checkerboard linoleum floor for my garage. When Michael Jackson played three nights there in 1988, he left his stage floor behind. Rather than discard it, a friend who worked as a Meadows stagehand rolled it up and took it. He couldn’t bring it home because his dad was a racist, so he gave it to me.
I never felt that deifying artists did them any favors, so to me it was nothing precious, just a linoleum floor. Sometimes, though, while scraping the Total Gym or a leaking washing machine across the floor, I’d reflect, “Hey, Michael Jackson moonwalked on this thing!” When we moved, we left it behind.
What I haven’t left behind are the memories of the magical performances at Irvine Meadows. I saw some great and varied things: David Lindley’s genre-grafting El Rayo-X, LA’s X, Prince, Tina Turner, the Gipsy Kings, the raucous Kinks, Tony Bennett, the reborn Who, Stevie Ray Vaughan wringing his strings, NRBQ quoting Shostakovich. I saw the Grateful Dead enough times for them to be everything that’s been said of them, from ruminant hippies meandering through a musical pasture to a band beaming golden waves of energy to the audience, though maybe that was the weed.
The setting and atmosphere helped: Hearing music under the stars always added to the wonder, and even the El Toro jets roaring overhead seemed to spur the musicians on.
Cary Darling - 1988-2000
I’ve come to treasure Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre even more since leaving California 16 years ago for stickier climes in South Florida and North Texas. Going to an outdoor summer show in OC is a breezy joy; doing the same in the South might leave you sauteeing in your own sweat, pelted with storm debris, or hunted by insects with all of the manners, grace and size of the bear in “The Revenant.”
But the weather is not the only source of fond memories. It’s not that the venue itself was a stunning architectural marvel of roof-free entertainment – you need to drive up to the Hollywood Bowl for that – or that the booking was shockingly adventurous. With that many seats to fill, that’s a near impossibility.
Still, it brought shows to the area that fans otherwise might have had to endure a soul-crushing, rush-hour drive to the Forum to see.
It wasn’t summertime in OC without at least a few trips to Irvine. From the global sophisticates dancing in the aisles to Sade and the Gipsy Kings to the sublime grooves of a Reggae Sunsplash dreadlocks party, the post-new wave dance-pop of Erasure and New Order to the shrieking, youthful fans who turned out for George Michael, Michael Jackson and Kris Kross, Irvine Meadows covered the musical waterfront back in the ’80s and ’90s.
Of course, it wasn’t all good times. There was the guy next to me at the first Lollapalooza in July ’91 who threw up all over himself right in the middle of the Jane’s Addiction set.
But I can’t complain too much. At least it wasn’t humid.
Ben Wener - 1997 - 2014
I came of age twice at Irvine Meadows.
My first concert – the first I begged my parents for tickets to see – was there: ZZ Top with Quiet Riot, June 25, 1983, after the Texas trio’s monster “Eliminator” album arrived. My mom and I sat high on the lawn, tried to make out what those dots with long beards were doing on stage and laughed at boogieing, beer-guzzling wannabe rednecks in cowboy hats.
Later years were filled with favorites from an ever-morphing adolescence, all of whom provided highlights in Irvine: The Eurythmics’ Annie Lennox belting out a sultry version of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” Adam Ant writhing in the rain on the “Strip” tour, Cyndi Lauper wailing her face off while standing in a trash can lifted up to the lawn via pulleys. I saw Echo & the Bunnymen cover the Doors while opening for New Order. I saw Love and Rockets open for Siouxsie and the Banshees, only to marvel years later when a reunited Bauhaus (L&R’s parent outfit) warmed up for a progeny they’d influenced, Nine Inch Nails. I still can’t remember how many times I wound up seeing Oingo Boingo around Halloween.
Miraculously, when I reached my mid-20s in the mid-’90s, I became that thing I’d been told in college was so rare: an employed critic. The onslaught of great performances, gem sets from unforgettable festivals and genuine oddities I witnessed grew a hundredfold, from transcendent nights with Neil Young and Prince and Sade at her peak to the sight of a drunken, post-hits Soul Asylum closing out a run sandwiched between Semisonic and Matchbox Twenty with a shambling version of “Sweet Home Alabama” that made the Replacements look sober. All that and Jimmy Buffett too.
One personal moment stands out above all, and I’m reminded of it every time I’m in the crowd at my old stomping ground. It was June 14, 1997. I had become the Register’s critic two months earlier, and here I was covering the hot-ticket party of the summer, KROQ 106.7’s marathon fifth Weenie Roast, infamous that year for running further past the 11-ish curfew than any other event before or since. The Wallflowers, Third Eye Blind, a visibly irritated Radiohead and several of OC’s finest (Social Distortion, the Offspring) played in the afternoon, among others, while Blur and Oasis, then at the height of their squabbling, appeared later that evening. Yet it was way too much music for one day, and after delays and malfunctions, headliner the Cure didn’t surface until well past midnight and finished closer to 2 a.m., costing KROQ a hefty sum in fines.
None of that is the moment, though. Earlier in the night, a harried publicist sought me out in my loge seat: “Do you want to interview Robert Smith backstage for a bit?” she asked. Next thing I knew, I was standing by the monitor mixing board, in the wings of the venue that had reared me, only a couple dozen feet from Dave Grohl leading Foo Fighters through a then-new tune called “Everlong,” about to be escorted into a green room for the first of many chats with my goth-rock idol. My face lit up, my brain momentarily froze, then unthawed to realize: This was now my life.
Kelli Skye Fadroski - 2006-present
“Scream for me, Irvine!” I’ll never forget the first time I heard British metal band Iron Maiden’s frontman Bruce Dickinson’s mighty call live at what was then Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre. It was 2012 and I couldn’t wait to take in the over-the-top spectacle and get my face melted by intense pyrotechnics, all while under a blanket of stars out in what seemed like the middle of nowhere.
My first concert after moving to Orange County from Lake Havasu City, Arizona, in 2000 was No Doubt, Lit and the Black Eyed Peas (sans Fergie) at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre, just three days after my 18th birthday. But that was just for fun. Since then I’ve professionally reviewed and photographed hundreds of heavy metal, country and rock shows at my beloved venue.
Some favorite memories stem from KROQ’s annual Weenie Roast, the station’s summer kick-off fest in Irvine. In 2002, Rob Zombie managed to get a bunch of fake blood (or maybe real) on my shirt during his set, Papa Roach actually lit the stage on fire, and we were treated to a surprise appearance by the Violent Femmes. Speaking of special guests, in 2003 I saw pop star Pink for the first time as she came out to perform with Transplants frontman Tim Armstrong.
The Foo Fighters were the big secret at Weenie Roast in 2011, and as the rotating stage slowly turned and frontman Dave Grohl belted out “Surprise!” the fans went bananas. In 2013, Stone Temple Pilots really shocked the crowd by revealing Linkin Park vocalist Chester Bennington as the replacement for the recently fired Scott Weiland.
The list just goes on and on. Watching Black Sabbath’s massive reunion and comedian Dave Chappelle’s big official return to stand-up in 2013 was amazing. Standing side stage as Huntington Beach-based metal band Avenged Sevenfold performed to a sold-out crowd during the Uproar Fest in 2010 was unforgettable and, more recently, spending St. Patrick’s Day 2016 with rowdy patrons as Flogging Molly provided the entertainment was a great way to kick off the venue’s final concert season. It will all be greatly missed.