Think the Arizona State Fair’s annual concert series is nothing but has-beens and country bumpkins? Huh. You obviously have never been to one recently, pal.
While it's true that years ago, the concert selection was sort of a mixed bag or heavy on country, things have sort of changed. These days, its more of a blend of pop, hip-hop, and rock (modern or otherwise), with a throwback act or two added in for good measure.
In essence, it kind of reflects the music world of today. You might even go so far as to call it a time capsule of sorts of what the majority of folks are listening to in our current era.
Then again, the Arizona State Fair’s concerts, which have taken place inside the Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum since the 1960s, has been doing that for years, as it's had a habit of featuring all sorts of music legends, be they at the start of their rise to fame or a few years removed from the spotlight.
The list of who’s played the fair is essentially a roll call of the music world for the past several decades, including such acts and artists as Green Day, Nirvana, Korn, Morrissey, KISS, Snoop Dog, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Alice Cooper, Foo Fighters, and hundreds of others.
In fact, the state fair has been showcasing red-hot acts and highly influential musicians as far back as the '70s. Legendary local concert promoter Danny Zelisko, who’s helped book bands for the fair for more than 35 years, would certainly agree with that statement.
“I wonder if people can understand how cool it is to go into the coliseum, this historic building where so much has taken place, and see a show,” he says. “There have been so many great shows that have taken place.”
You’re not kidding, Danny. Truth be told, we were curious about all the great concerts that have happened at the Arizona State Fair over the past 40 years. So much so that we wound the clock back exactly 40 years, spoke with folks like Zelisko and a few others about their memories of concerts at the fair, and assembled a rundown of the best shows that have gone down each year.
So kick back, grab a corn dog (or something else that's been deep-fried), and take a gander at our list of the 40 best concerts at the Arizona State Fair during the last 40 years.
Willie Nelson (1976)
The Arizona State Fair has a big and rich history of featuring down-home musicians of the country and western variety. And in 1976, that included a two-night stint by Willie Nelson during his heyday. The country legend was still riding the success of his 1975’s Red Headed Stranger and was fresh off the release of Wanted! The Outlaws, a collaboration with Waylon Jennings, Jessi Colter, and Tompall Glaser that served as the formative album of the outlaw country genre. “Two nights of Willie Nelson in his prime? That would've been great,” says local music historian John Dixon.
Also featured in 1976: Freddy Fender, the Oak Ridge Boys, Anson Williams, the Sylvers, Jim Ed Brown, La Costa, Mac Davis, England Dan and John Ford Coley, Bobby Goldsboro, Buffy St. Marie, David Brenner, Danny Davis, Starland Vocal Band, Jimmy Walker, K.C. and the Sunshine Band, Bert Convy, Jim Stafford, and Jim Ed Brown.
The Temptations (1977)
When legendary Motown artists the Temptations rolled into the Arizona State Fair in 1977, the group may not have featured its original lineup (considering that Eddie Kendricks, Damon Harris, and Paul Williams had departed the band) but could still put on a great performance. “In 1977, it would’ve been fun to have seen the Temptations,” Dixon says. “Even if they only had three of the original members in those days, it was still something that would’ve been a good show.”
Also featured in 1977: Dr. Hook, Jose Feliciano, Neil Sedaka, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, Mel Tillis, Norm Crosby, Billy Thundercloud, the Sylvers, Hudson Brothers, Seals and Croft, Freddy Fender, Donna Fargo, Tommy Overstreet, and Mickey Gilley.
Glen Campbell (1978)
By the time he got to Phoenix for this 1978 concert at the fair (see what we did there), Glen Campbell was already a bona fide country music superstar. Not only did the Rhinestone Cowboy have an armful of Grammy and Academy of Country Music awards by that point in his career, he also boasted numerous gold records and a bazillion hit singles. Thousands were likely in attendance at the show, based on the sheer popularity of country music in both America and the Valley in particular at that time. It makes us want to somehow find our way through a time portal to be there ourselves.
Also featured in 1978: The Sylvers, Captain and Tenille, Wild Cherry, Ronnie Milsap, Crystal Gayle, Debby and Pat Boone, Freddy Fender, Kenny Rogers, Barbara Madrell, T.G. Sheppard, Jim Nabors, the Spinners, Mel Tillis, Jim Stafford, and Mac Davis.
Gloria Gaynor (1979)
According to Don West, a former director of the Arizona State Fair, the event has always had a knack over the years for featuring artists and acts at just the right time in their careers. And 1979 was a big year for disco queen Gloria Gaynor. Her signature hit, “I Will Survive,” was all over the Billboard charts, including peaking at number one on the Hot 100. And her performance at that year’s fair came just weeks after the release of her latest album, I Have A Right, which had been selling like hotcakes. Suffice to say, you couldn’t have picked a better point to see Gaynor do her thing.
Also featured in 1979: Leif Garrett, the Knack, Ray Stevens, Leroy Van Dyke, Sister Sledge, Crystal Gayle, J.D. Summer and the Stamps, Jerry Reed, Peaches and Herb, the Oak Ridge Boys, Tanya Tucker, Willie Ames, Mel Tillis, Mel and Sugar, and Freddy Fender.
The Police (1980)
As we mentioned, The Police were a big deal during the Arizona State Fair in 1980, which Zelisko says blew the roof right off of that place. And there was a packed house at the coliseum that night, which sort of unnerved the band to a degree. “I remember being in the dressing room about 6 o'clock, and the place was already filled and everyone was making noise,” Zelisko says. “And Stewart [Copeland] came in and goes, “Holy shit, did you see how many people are out there?” It’s to be expected, considering the popularity of the band, plus the fact that tickets were only three bucks.
Also featured in 1980: Eddie Rabbitt, Air Supply, Smokey Robinson, Alice Cooper, Andy Williams, Anne Murray, Charlie Pride, Jerry Jeff Walker, Mickey Gilley, and Tom T. Hall.
Cheap Trick (1981)
The first-ever gig by the boys Cheap Trick at the state fair just happened to take place on Halloween night in 1981, which is rather fitting considering the show was probably all treats and little to no tricks. Tickets were reportedly only 50 cents, and the set included such favorites as “Stop This Game,” “Gonna Raise Hell,” and “Baby Loves to Rock,” as well as the legendary band’s inescapable hits “Surrender,” “Dream Police,” and “I Want You to Want Me,” among others. “Cheap Trick shows are just amazing,” says Keith Jackson of local punk band Glass Heroes. “And it’s always a great show. Always.”
Also featured in 1981: Alabama, Manhattan Transfer, Johnny Paycheck, Pointer Sisters, Ray Charles, Bucketeers, Gary U.S. Bonds, Alice Cooper, the Osmonds, Rick Springfield, Freddy Fender, and Mickey Gilley.
Johnny Cash (1982)
There were plenty of legends – whether you’re talking past, present, and future – dotting the 1982’s state fair concert lineup. George Thorogood made an appearance, as did Dick Clark, Kenny Loggins, Valley native Jerry Riopelle, and longtime Arizona resident Waylon Jennings. His fellow outlaw country cohort and onetime roommate Johnny Cash also made the first of many performances at the fair that year. And he reportedly brought down the house with a 90-minute show that included many of his signature hits and songs from his new album at the time, The Adventures of Johnny Cash.
Also featured in 1982: Beach Boys, Dianne Warwick, Larry Gatlin, the Osmonds, Little River Band, and Mac Davis.
Huey Lewis and the News (1983)
Let’s all hop aboard the Wayback Machine and head for yesteryear. It’s the fall of 1983. Return of the Jedi has been out a few months, Mr. T is kicking ass weekly on television, and the state fair’s concerts are largely a mix of country artists (Eddie Rabbit, Mel Tillis) pop stars (Anne Murray, Melissa Manchester) and few unique acts of the era, including Quarterflash (!!) and OXO (!!!). And then there’s Huey Lewis and the News, who were a month removed from dropping their breakthrough LP, Sports and, thus, utter and complete superstardom. As such, the setlist that evening was heavy on cuts from the album — such as “Heart of Rock & Roll,” "Heart and Soul," “If This is It,” and (of course) "I Want a New Drug” – as well as a cover of two, including their rendition of “Buzz Buzz Buzz” by the Hollywood Flames.
Also featured in 1983: Eddie Money, Mickey Gilley, the Osmond Brothers, Beach Boys, Wayne Newton, cast of Beatlemania, and Smokey Robinson.
Stevie Ray Vaughan (1984)
The late guitar virtuoso played the Arizona State Fair on four different occasions before his untimely passing in 1990. According to renowned local guitarist Paul “PC” Cardone, however, SRV’s first performance in '84, which was part of his ambitious Couldn’t Stand the Weather tour, was ultimately his most memorable of the bunch. “He just came out and tore it up,” Cardone says. “I remember it vividly. He was wearing this purple velvet suit and a big black hat, smoking a hand-rolled cigarette – at least I'm assuming it was a cigarette – and walked out onstage, did that James Brown shuffle, and just killed it. It was religious.”
Also featured in 1984: The Tubes, Chicago, A Flock of Seagulls, the Fixx, George Jones, the Beach Boys, Charlie Daniels Band, Donny and Marie Osmond, Greg Kihn Band, Johnny Cash, Larry Gatlin, Statler Brothers, Mickey Gilley, and Pointer Sisters.
Kenny Loggins (1985)
If you happened to attend Kenny’s coliseum show in '85, you could’ve conceivably cut loose to “Footloose” or sung along with "Heart to Heart,” “Easy Driver,” “Don’t Fight It,” and any of his other big hits of that era. If you’re noticing that “Danger Zone” and “Playing with the Boys” are absent, it’s because both songs famously originated on the Top Gun soundtrack, which was the better part of a year away from being released. Still, it sounds like this was a particularly great concert, even if you couldn’t pretend to be Maverick and go “riiiiight into the danger zoooooooooone.” You can be our wing man anytime, Kenny.
Also featured in 1985: Howard Jones, Donna Summer, Charlie Daniels Band, Paul Anka, Willie Nelson, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Beach Boys, George Strait, Exile, James Broad, T. Fulilangi, Janie Fricke, T.G. Sheppard, John Parr, Smokey Robinson, Red Skelton, and Rich Little.
Merle Haggard (1986)
The late outlaw country star Merle Haggard had a major yen for performing at various fairs around the nation throughout his 53-year career. Hence the reason why the self-described “poet of the common man” could be found crooning about hard times and no-good cheats inside Veterans Memorial Coliseum at a couple of different fairs in the '80s. His first-ever appearance in 1986 featured all-female vocal ensemble the Forester Sisters as openers, not to mention a big crowd — owing to the fact that Haggard was still ranking on the country charts – and a mix of classics like “Okie from Muskogee” and “Fighting Side of Me” with songs from both of the albums he’d released that year, A Friend in California and Out Among the Stars.
Also featured in 1986: Bonnie Raitt, Charlie Daniels Band, Emerson Lake & Powell, George Benson, Eddie Money, Kool and the Gang, Jay Leno, Reba McEntire, Starship, Tammy Wynette, Gary Morris, the Moody Blues, and Pointer Sisters
Dwight Yoakam (1987)
These days, Dwight Yoakam is widely considered to be a staunch country music traditionalist, the antithesis of today’s more pop-oriented focus of the genre, and one of the many inspirations behind the alt-country movement. Back in 1987, however, he was just a burgeoning superstar who worshipped at the altar of Buck Owens and had just gone big time after Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. launched him into the stratosphere, and won him a couple of Grammy awards to boot. Yoakam was one of the higher-profile artists at that year’s fair, and local bassist Steve Davis of Glass Heroes, who was in attendance, recalls it being a phenomenal gig. “Dwight Yoakam is a helluva performer and great showman,” he says. Two of the superstar’s signature songs of that era, “Guitars, Cadillacs” and “Little Sister,” were certainly on the set list, as were a few covers of Stonewall Jackson and Buck Owens. “He played a lot of material and it was just a fabulous performance with him being laid back and doing his thing.”
Also featured in 1987: Joe Walsh, Night Ranger, Stevie Ray Vaughan, the Judds, Bruce Hornsby, REO Speedwagon, Anne Murray, Jay Leno, Kenny Loggins, Lee Greenwood, Marie Osmond, Red Skelton, the Oak Ridge Boys, and the Temptations.
Neil Young (1988)
Don West remembers Neil Young's concert at the Arizona State Fair in 1988 it being split into two distinct portions with Young performing half of his songs electrically (including “After the Gold Rush,” “This Old House,” “For the Turnstiles” and “Heart of Gold”) and the rest acoustically. “It was part acoustic, part electric, and really great,” he says.
Also featured in 1988: Barbara Mandrell, Kingdom Come, Kathy Mattea, Beach Boys, Louie Anderson, Cheap Trick, Oingo Boingo, Roy Orbison, the Jets, Merle Haggard, Smokey Robinson, Swatch Impact Tour, the Oak Ridge Boys, Up With People, and More Dirty Dancing.
Crosby, Stills and Nash (1989)
A year after attempting to put all their drama (including drug addiction and prison stays) in the rearview and releasing the critically panned but commercially successful album American Dream, the legendary trio of David Crosby, Stephen Stills, and Graham Nash put on a pair of performances on back-to-back nights during the ’89 fair. And, as you’d expect given their stature, both shows were reportedly packed and included such CSN standards as “Our House,” “Teach Your Children,” “Almost Cut My Hair,” and “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” as well as songs from the various iterations of the ensemble from over the years, and even a few choice covers like “Blackbird” by the Beatles and the Allman Brothers Band’s “Midnight Rider.”
Also featured in 1989: Stevie Ray
Joe Satriani (1990)
The lineup of artists and acts that hit the fair in 1990 wasn’t lacking in star power by any means, especially when it came to rock and pop. “It was a tremendous year,” Zelisko says. “We had Alice Cooper, Billy Idol, Cheap Trick, Eddie Money, James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt, Santana, and the Smithereens. I mean, what a great lineup, right?” Definitely, and one of the biggest and best performances was provided by Joe Satriani. The guitar virtuoso filled the coliseum with his six-string mastery, including playing "Surfing with the Alien," his hit from the influential and respected album of the same name. “We got him at a time when he was really, really hot, and it was a wonderful set,” West says. “I think I still have a concert T-shirt from that show.”
Also featured in 1990: Little Feat, Lionel Cartwright, Reba McEntire, Rodney Dangerfield, the Oak Ridge Boys, the Temptations, Larry Gatlin, Lionel Cartwright, and Paul Rodriguez.
Doobie Brothers (1991)
When you’re a famous band that’s been around as long as the Doobie Brothers, you’re going to rack up loads of hits. And, like it or not, your fanbase is going to want to hear all of their favorites. That’s exactly what happened when the band came to the Arizona State Fair in 1991, according to West. “Let's face it, if you come to a Doobie Brothers show, you want to hear the hits,” he says. “And they just played hit after hit after hit: ‘Black Water,’ ‘Eyes of Silver,’ ‘Long Train Running … all those and more.” West remembers standing in the wings and “just listening to them play” and enjoying every second of the approximately 90-minute set. “They just sounded so great,” he says. “I don't remember how many were in the building for it, but it was a great show, I can tell you that.”
Also featured in 1991: Lynyrd Skynyrd, Tom Jones, Freddie Jackson, Restless Heart, Alabama, the Allman Brothers, Crystal Gayle, Beach Boys, Howie Mandel, Pauly Shore, Huey Lewis and the News, Kenny Loggins, Reba McEntire, Red Skelton, and Texas Tornadoes.
Beach Boys (1992)
Given that the Beach Boys live band only featured two of its original members by the time 1992 rolled around, you’d think their shows weren’t anything special. You’d be wrong, however, according to Jackson. “It was only Mike Love and Al Jardine, I think, that were performing live shows in those days,” he says. “But they were still fun to watch.” Jackson, a veteran of the Tempe music scene during its heyday from the late ‘80s onward, caught the Beach Boys at the fair with several of his cohorts from that era. “A bunch of us from the Long Wong's crew went down there for the show,” he says. “Brad Singer, the [original] owner of Zia Records got us all tickets.” He remembers it being a great time and is even willing to deem it the best concert of the 1992 lineup. “Was it a great show? Fuck yeah,” he says. “Was it the best one that year? It’s was definitely better than all that country that was going on.”
Also featured in 1992: Richard Marx, the B-52s, Travis Tritt, Tanya Tucker, Billy Ray Cyrus, Randy Travis, Vince Gill, Pam Tillis, Dennis Miller, Joe Satriani, Rita Rudner, Kenny Loggins, Lorrie Morgan, Van Shelton, Double Dare, Slaughter, Tesla, Nelson Ned, Billy Dean, Sinbad, and Tuesday Night Thunder.
The rock world underwent a massive paradigm shift in the early ‘90s, thanks to the rise of grunge and alternative. And while it took a few years for the Arizona State Fair’s concert series to catch up, it made up for lost time by booking such current acts as Stone Temple Pilots and locally grown stars Gin Blossoms in 1993. The STP show was particularly memorable, according to Zelisko. “It was just like they were mowing down the audience,” he says. “It was just incredible, the power coming off of that stage.”
A few days later, Nirvana performed, putting on one of the greatest and well-remembered concerts in state fair history. The show was significant for a number of reasons, including the fact it was the opening date of the In Utero tour and wound up being the band’s last-ever performance in Phoenix because, well ... you do the math. Plus, it was flat-out an awesome show, and a lengthy one at that.
Nirvana's set lasted 21 songs including the encore, and had tunes from all three of the band's major discs at that point. Bassist Krist Noveselic even brought up the band's now-legendary gig at the old Mason Jar and made a joke at the expense of its owner Franco Gagliano. Kurt Cobain even spent some time on the midway and even interacted with a few fans, albeit in Kurt-like fashion. “I remember somebody came up to Kurt and asked him to sign their state fair hat,” Zelisko says. “He did and was really nice about it. After handing it back, the person walked away and I heard them go, ‘Butt sauce?’ I loved it.”
Also featured in 1993: Los Lobos, Michael English, Jon Secada, Vince Gill, Billy Ray Cyrus, Rita Rudner, Fright Show, Howie Mandel, 4 Him, Reba McEntire, Shai, Nickelodeon, and Tracy Lawrence.
Green Day (1994)
As another example of booking the right band at the right time, we offer up Green Day's epic performance in November 1994. It was a wild and rowdy affair that went down when pretty much every teen was forking over their allowance to buy Dookie, the music videos for "Longview" and "Basket Case" were in heavy rotation on MTV, and everyone was claiming they'd liked the band since its days on Lookout Records.
As you'd expect, they blasted tons of songs from Dookie, its predecessor Kerplunk! and a few odds and sods ("Going to Pasalacqua," "All By Myself"). Green Day was particularly rambunctious that night, including Billie Joe Armstrong, who went against the wishes of the state fair staff and unleashed a playful and obscenity filled tirade early on. "Hey, they say that the state fair is a family event so I'm not allowed to swear," Armstrong announced. "Fuck that!" Props for being punk as fuck, Billie.
Also featured in 1994: KISS, Kenny G., All 4 One, Beatriz Adriana, Blue Oyster Cult, Billy Ray Cyrus, B.T.O., Jim Bailey, Candlebox, Howie Mandel, Sawyer Brown, Collin Raye, Tanya Tucker, Jeff Foxworthy, Gin Blossoms, Lorrie Morgan, Jeff Dunham, Marty Stuart, Chris LeDoux, and Double Dare.
Gin Blossoms (1995)
Yes, we’re well aware that there have been plenty of chances to not only see the Gin Blossoms during their heyday, both at the state fair or around town. All that said, their appearance at Veterans Memorial Coliseum on November 5, 1995, sort of stands out due to the fact it also featured the Refreshments and Dead Hot Workshop as openers but also an onstage appearance by the late Elvis “The Cat” DelMonte, the infamous street artist and musician who was a fixture on Mill Avenue for years.
Here’s an excerpt from an online review of the Blossoms’ headlining set: “Robin's voice sounded great, and guitarists Scott Johnson and Jesse Valenzuela showed surprising stage presence, as they jumped around throughout the evening, looking like they were really enjoying themselves. This was obviously a by-product of their extensive touring schedule over the last [sic] year and came as a minor surprise to most of us who were accustomed to seeing a more reserved band in past years. (Keep in mind the Blossoms hadn't played Phoenix in nearly a year.)”
Sounds fun. Then came their encore, which included a visit from Valley rock legend Stevie Nicks, who joined the Gin Blossoms for a “torrid cover” of Tom Petty’s “I Need to Know.” Rock on.
Also featured in 1995: Brandy, Soul Asylum, Steve Miller Band, Tanya Tucker, Travis Tritt, Clint Black, Mortal Kombat Live Tour, Cheap Trick, Bad Company, Moody Blues, Eddie Money, Loverboy, Gallagher, Bronco, and Randy Travis.
West’s had a few philosophies in mind when he was booking concerts for the State Fair, one of which was particularly wise. “We always tried to stay current and book what people were listening to," he says. And in 1996, there were a helluva lot of people listening to Coolio. Or at least it seemed that way as “Fantastic Voyage,” “Gangster’s Paradise” and “1, 2, 3, 4 (Sumpin' New)” were all over the airwaves. And it translated into a big crowd turning out at the fair to see the rapper do his thing. And on a Monday night, no less. To paraphrase the man himself, ain’t no party like a Coolio party.
Also featured in 1996: Goo Goo Dolls, Sheryl Crow, Chris Isaak, Collin Raye, Patty Loveless, Martina McBride, Junior Brown, Gin Blossoms, Beach Boys, Coolio, Creedence Clearwater Revisited, KC and the Sunshine Band, Monica, U Pick Nick, Wynonna, and Wheel of Fortune.
Yes, Morrissey did, in fact, play the Arizona State Fair. And if you walked into Veterans Memorial Coliseum on that night hoping to hear Morrissey croon out such Smiths favorites as “How Soon is Now” or “This Charming Man,” you likely left the venue disappointed. Moz was more focused more on his solo work at this well-attended concert, which kicked off the second half of his Maladjusted tour, save for his rendition of “Paint a Vulgar Picture” and “Shoplifters of the World Unite.” Sorry, lads.
That’s not to say the concert itself was a disappointment. Not in the slightest. Morrissey’s silken pipes were in fine form as he meandered his way through his discography, including songs from Vauxhall and I (“Billy Budd,” “The More You Ignore Me, The Closer I Get”), Southpaw Grammar (“Boy Racer,” "Teachers Are Afraid of the Pupils"), and, of course, Maladjusted.
He even caused a bit of a ruckus during the encore, as one online review of the show noted: “Halfway into the final song, ‘Shoplifters of the World Unite,’ Morrissey helped a few fans up on stage. After hugging their idol, security pulled the fans away from Morrissey but one managed to escape and run back to him. In the melée, Morrissey removed his shirt and threw it into the audience. He was then sprayed with water by someone in the front rows. After a brief moment of surprise, he stuck his tongue out for it and then teasingly pulled his underwear above the waist of his trousers.” Very cheeky, Moz.
Also featured in 1997: Tonic, Toby Keith, Weird Al Yankovic, Tim McGraw, Sammy Hagar, the Monkees, John Michael Montgomery, Bryan White, Patty Loveless, Creedence Clearwater Revisited, House of Blues, Howard Jones, Howie Mandel, Marco Antonio Solis, Tanya Tucker, Randy Travis, Carrot Top, Terri Clark, and Paul Brandt.
Alice Cooper (1998)
The Valley’s resident shock jock was a huge fan of the Arizona State Fair, both of performing at the event (which he’s done on six occasions) and also as a hangout spot. As a matter of fact, you might have run into the rocker at a ring toss booth or in line for the roller coaster. “He's disguised himself and gone out on the midway before,” Zelisko says. It’s probably led to some double takes, especially among those who had seen him tear down the house inside the coliseum earlier that evening. And believe us, Cooper always brought his “A” game to the fair. “Alice gave some great shows there,” Zelisko says. That includes his 1998 appearance, which featured 20 different songs being packed into a 90-minute set. And yes, it included all the hallmarks of an Alice Cooper-style spectacle, ranging from onstage props like sarcophagi, flaming drumsticks being twirled about, and all the songs fans have come to love. And seeing as it was at the fair, general admission was free. “It was a great way to see one of his show on the cheap,” Zelisko says.
Also featured in 1998: Third Eye Blind, Faith Hill, Wynonna, Martina McBride, Joe Satriani, Toby Keith, Village People, Steve Miller Band, Billy Ray Cyrus, Creedence Clearwater Revisited, Chris Isaak, Fiesta Puro Mexico, Gallagher, and Beach Boys.
Weird Al Yankovic (1999)
Back in 1999, Weird Al was king. Okay, maybe not, but “The Saga Begins” (his clever recounting of The Phantom Menace that parodied Don McLean’s “American Pie”) was stuck in our heads and practically on repeat in our CD players. (Come to think of it, so was the rest of Running With Scissors, the album from whence the song sprang.) And we capped off our own personal Alapalooza by getting to see him at the state fair in October ‘99. While it admittedly followed the same format as practically every other Weird Al concert you’ve ever attended (polka medley, Al TV segments, etc.), it was the first time we’d seen the grand finale of “The Saga Begins,” complete with dancing stormtroopers onstage and Yankovic dressed as the younger version of Obi-Wan Kenobi. It’s since become a hallmark of his live show, but felt pretty fresh and new at the time. The Force was definitely with him that night.
Also featured in 1999: Megadeth, LeAnn Rimes, Live, Jethro Tull, Reba McEntire, Better Than Ezra, All-4-One, Gap Band, Blessid Union of Souls, Toby Keith, Carrot Top, John Michael Montgomery, Kool and the Gang, Lonestar, Terri Clark, David Kersh, Vince Gill, and Wayne Newton.
Foo Fighters (2000)
Danny Zelisko digs it whenever circumstances allow Foo Fighters to swing by the fair. And, frankly, so do we. They’ve come through twice (in 2000 and 2006) and brought the goods both times. “Everybody's been in a good mood when they’ve been here,” Zelisko says. “They're loose, and there's not a lot of pressure to perform or worry about setting up their sound and lights since we handle that end. There’s like a giant club feel to the place and that translates to a fun show for everyone.” True dat, especially the audience. We prefer the one in 2000, however, not only because it offered a bigger and better set list but also because Queens of the Stone age opened the evening. And you can never go wrong with QOTSA, as you’ll see below.
Also featured in 2000: Don Henley, Jessica Simpson, Reba McEntire, Weird Al Yankovic, Kenny Chesney, Culture Club, Lee Ann Womack, Pure Prairie League, Clay Walker,
Nu-metal sort of reached its zenith in 2001, as acts like Drowning Pool and Disturbed were practically inescapable. True metal purists, however, probably preferred O.G. acts like Tesla, who have always seemed to value substance over style and were more about musicianship than the excesses of rock 'n' roll. (Plus, they had sort of that everyman vibe.) And these same folks turned out in droves at the coliseum in October 2001 for the band’s concert, which definitely stood out amid a year dominated by boot-scootin’ acts. “It went very heavy on the country in 2001: Alan Jackson, Bill Engvall, Larry the CG, Brad Paisley, LeeAnne Rimes,” Zelisko says. Tesla’s gig, which was already a stand-out show to begin with, especially when the last thing you’d want to hear is some self-righteous cowboy like Toby Keith or Lee Greenwood bloviating about ‘Murica in the weeks following 9/11. Plus, they did a killer cover of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs.”
Also featured in 2001: David Cassidy, Toby Keith, Billy Gillman, Barrage, Bill Engvall, Larry the Cable Guy, Chely Wright, Carrot Top, Lifehouse, Circus Maximus, Lee Greenwood, the Calling, the Oak Ridge Boys, Pointer Sisters, and Randy Travis.
Lee Ann Womack (2002)
The fair’s country craze continued into the next year with no less than 10 different bands and performers were of a country bent. (Keith Urban! Mark Chestnut! Sawyer Brown!) Arguably, the best of the bunch was Lee Ann Womack, the singer-songwriter whose songs have gotten major radio play but are neither poppy nor pandering to nu-country’s standard tropes of beer and badonkadonks. Specializing in authentic-sounding country that isn't short on twang or pedal steel guitar, Womack’s aesthetics she’s closer in spirit and substance to the Dolly Partons and Barbara Mandrells of the country world than the Trish Yearwoods. In other words, she transformed Veterans Memorial Coliseum into a 13,000-person capacity mega-church meant for worshiping the gods of Waylon and Willie.
Also featured in 2002: Keith Urban, Stone Temple Pilots, Shedaisy, Sawyer Brown, Coolio, the B-52s, Pat Green, Mark Chestnut, Gin Blossoms, Lonestar, Joe Diffie, Tracy Lawrence, Jamie O'Neal, Elvis: The Concert, Wayne Brady, and Abba: The Music.
Missy Elliott (2003)
A chance to check out Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott in her prime? And it's (more or less) a free concert to boot? You know it's an offer that fans of the hip-hop queen – or hip-hop in general – couldn’t have refused. And they didn’t, which speaks to the fact that Miss E was phenomenally popular in the early aughts and had one of the biggest hip-hop albums of that year, Under Construction, and such red-hot singles as "Gossip Folks," her collaboration with Ludacris. So yeah, Elliott was a big deal in 2003, as was her performance at the fair.
Also performing in 2003: Train, George Jones, Los Tigres Del Norte, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Alan Jackson, Zapp, Midnight Star, Evelyn Champagne King, Mark Chesnutt, Joe Diffie, Tracy Lawrence, Sawyer Brown, Dazz Band, Carl Carlton and a Taste of Honey, and Los
Velvet Revolver (2004)
Before being torn apart by the late Scott Weiland’s personal demons, Velvet Revolver was an enticing slice of hard rock heaven. And when the supergroup (which also starred Slash, Duff McKagan, Matt Sorum, and Dave Kushner) was firing on all cylinders, they had a tendency to put on a masterful and captivating show. Just ask local fan Bubba Whicker, who was in attendance when Velvet Revolver invaded the coliseum during the 2004 fair season. “They really got the crowd going at this show. The first song, 'Sucker Train Blues' had the entire arena on their feet. We sang along as they played the Aerosmith cover ‘No More, No More,’ which I’ve never seen a band cover before,” Whicker says. “And by the time the group played ‘It’s So Easy,' the entire crowd was still on their feet. It made me happy to live in Arizona that has a fair that will have the heavier [sort of] bands play.”
Also featured in 2004: Alice Cooper, Steve Miller Band, Los Kumbia Kings, Pat Green, Lonestar, Vince Gill, Patty Loveless, Carrot Top, Hall and Oates, Michael McDonald, Average White Band, Los Lonely Boys, Wallace and Ladmo Tribute, John Michael Montgomery, and Tracy Lawrence
Beck is one mellow dude. Beatific even. And no, we’re neither riffing on the title of his first album nor offering commentary on his religion. Instead, it’s a reference to the musician’s laidback and unflappable persona, which came in handy during his October 2005 gig at the fair. Allow us to set the scene: the coliseum is teeming with people, including a throng of hundreds gathered in front of the stage as Beck and his backing band perform. Pretty much everyone in attendance has a plastic glowstick that was given away at the fair that evening. The only problem? People can’t seem to stop from throwing the damn things onstage during the concert.
Thankfully, it didn’t seem to faze Beck, who good-humoredly tolerated the situation as he shucked and jived to avoid glowsticks while moving nimbly through a fantastic set that managed to cram 26 songs into 90 minutes. Seeing as he was touring in support of his latest disc, Guero, there were plenty of singles from the album in the mix ("E-Pro," "Girl," "Hell Yes"). To his credit, Beck also featured songs from throughout his prolific career, including those from the excellent Sea Change and Midnight Vultures. Nothing could seemingly kill the good vibes of the show, and even the casual Beck fans that drifted into the show after growing bored with the midway had a good time.
Also Featured in 2005: Rob Thomas, ZZ Top, Gavin DeGraw, Martina McBride, Gloria Trevi, Montgomery Gentry, Frankie J, Big and Rich, Cowboy Troy, and Lupilla Rivera.
Pet Shop Boys (2006)
This memorable performance by the iconic synthpop act offered everything you could want in a Pet Shop Boys show. There were fabbo costumes (including Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe sporting tux and tails), an upbeat verve and celebratory atmosphere, enormous video screens, and a 22-song set list with practically everything you’d want to hear (“West End Girls,” “Opportunities,” “Left to My Own Devices,” “Go West”) not to mention gleeful rendition of U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name” and Brenda Lee’s “Always on My Mind.” Who cares if Idolator poked fun at the fact that Pet Shop Boys were “[sharing] a bill with batter-dipped foodstuffs and demolition derbies.” Those cynical scribes have lumps of coal instead of hearts, anyway.
Also Featured in 2006: Foo Fighters,
If ever there was proof of why showing up early for a highly anticipated state fair concert is a good idea, it’d be Rihanna’s show in 2007. People were packed all the way to the nosebleeds to see the burgeoning R&B starlet, who was only a few years into her career at that point but had racked up three hit albums and a slew of other accolades. And on that night in October 2007, all eyes were on her inside the coliseum, and not just because she was dressed in a form-fitting and vaguely BDSM-style costume. Rihanna provided a captivating 16-song performance that started with “Pon de Replay,” ended with her monster hit “Umbrella, and offered plenty of grace, charm, and style in between. In fact, Zelisko says, it was her magnetic personality and relationship with the crowd that helped make the concert what it was. “The Rihanna show was great,” he says. “I enjoyed the interaction between her and this audience that was in there. Because at that time, she was a true budding superstar. For her to be playing during the state fair was a great way for a lot of people who wouldn't ordinarily wouldn't be able to see her to get to see her.”
Also Featured in 2007: Kid Rock, Weird Al Yankovic, Steve Miller, Gretchen Wilson, Daughtry, Live, Collective Soul, Montgomery Gentry, Howie Mandel, Alice Cooper, Sugarland, and Little Big Town.
If you were to ask us our opinion of Weezer’s performance at the Arizona State Fair, we’d probably reply, “Which time?” Rivers Cuomo and company have become repeat visitors, having played the event on four occasions over the last decade. “We had a real Weezer love fest for a while,” Zelisko says. “They like the fair; let's just put it that way.” And we’ve liked 'em at the fair, too, particularly their first shot in 2008. There were no shortage of unforgettable moments by the singer, who may or may not have been a bit batty at the time, like when he bombed around the crowd on the shoulders of a security guard or played drums during Weezer’s cover of Pink Floyd’s “Time.” Zelisko was blown away by both the cover and the entire show. “That was, to me, probably the standout moment of that fair,” he says. “They were exceptionally great.”
Also Featured in 2008: Mary J. Blige, LL Cool J, Goo Goo Dolls, Sheryl Crow, Blake Shelton, Miranda Lambert, Larry the Cable Guy, Sheryl Crow, and Kumbia All Starz.
Bob Dylan (2009)
When life gives you lemons, as that old chestnut goes, you try to make lemonade. Or in Zelisko’s case, when folk rock legend Bob Dylan cancels his summertime show at a local spring training stadium due to a heat wave, you book him at the Arizona State Fair a few months later. That’s exactly what happened in 2009, and it led to Dylan making his first-ever appearance at the event, not to mention a great show.
According to a review of the concert penned by Dylan superfan Howard Weiner, Dylan was in fine form that night as he performed such standards as “Lay Lady Lay,” “Thunder on the Mountain,” and “Jolene,” among others. His onstage moves were also on point. “Dylan swaggered to the center of the stage, harp in hand, and delivered an animated lead-singer production of 'Workingman’s Blues,'” Weiner wrote. “He waggled his finger at the crowd as he preached the chorus, demanding his boots and shoes.” Zelisko, a major Dylan fan himself, was similarly impressed. “I grew up in the '60s, so I'd consider him up there in the godlike category of people who are important in society, much less the music business,” he says. “As I recall, he gave a great show there. He can hardly do any wrong to me. That was my highlight of that year.”
Also featured in 2009: The Black Crowes, Stone Temple Pilots, Lady Antebellum, Kelly Clarkson, Rodney Atkins and Julianne Hough, Raven, Honky Tonk Tailgate Party, Billy Currington, Little Big Town, Jars of Clay, David Cook, Stevie B., Lisa Lisa, Debbie Deb, Shannon, and Trinere.
Snoop Dogg (2010)
Fans of Snoop Dogg who witnessed the rapper’s debut appearance at the Arizona State Fair in 2010 probably walked away from the experience satisfied, considering the Doggfather gave 'em everything they could’ve possibly wanted. He served up all of his signatures ("Gin and Juice," "Drop It Like Hot," "Who Am I?"), as well as such choice shizzle as Dr. Dre's "Deep Cover" and House of Pain's "Jump Around." And the near-sellout crowd couldn't have been more stoked.
Also Featured in 2010: Colbie
Judas Priest (2011)
If there’s one thing Judas Priest knows how to do with aplomb, it's putting on a show-stopping performance. And the hellacious hullabaloo it unleashed upon the coliseum five years ago most certainly qualifies as such. It was a balls-out and over-the-top heavy metal free-for-all involving jets of flame lighting up the venue, onstage theatrics by lead singer and local boy Rob Halford (including multiple costume changes), and – best of all – Judas Priest’s original lineup doing what they do best: wailing away and unleashing rock 'n' roll fury. “If you're really into Priest at all or into metal spectacles, they’re some of the best in the business. I really enjoyed it,” Zelisko says. “There’s also the fact that Judas Priest had never played the fair before, too.”
Also Featured in 2011: Weezer, Darius Rucker, Bret Michaels, Trace Adkins, Billy Idol, the Band Perry, Snoop Dog, Sublime with Rome, and Big Time Rush.
Jane’s Addiction (2012)
Wrapping up our trifecta of iconic acts making their long-awaited state fair debut is Jane’s Addiction, the ultra-influential and genre-defying alternative band that finally made an appearance in 2012. And for local Jane’s fans, it was well worth the wait. Pretty much everyone and their mothers went, as evidenced by the near-capacity crowd in attendance. And front man Perry Farrell and the rest had 'em in the palms of their hands, as we noted it our recap of the show and its “hour-long, greatest hits-style set.” Per the piece:
Nostalgic favorites like "Mountain Song" and "Just Because" followed, and the group made sure to kick the crowd energy up a few notches with "Been Caught Stealing." The crowd cheered as Farrell and Co. took seats onstage, complete with bongo drums and Navarro went acoustic. Arguably the strangest part of the set came during "Ted, Just Admit It," as vintage BDSM porn clips played on large screens behind the band. I'd be lying if I said my focus didn't shift during the song, as two women in lingerie, perched on a bench atop the stage, pleasured each other in some bizarre act of performance art.
As good as that show was, the one held backstage was even better. “Beforehand, they had this listening party back in the dressing room where they had a small setup and they jammed about 50 people in there to just sit and watch the sound check happen,” Zelisko says. Some people have all the luck.
Also featured in 2012: Korn, Billy Curington, Weezer, Adam Lambert, the Mavericks, John Fogerty, Nas, Prince Royce, Karmin, Jerrod Niemann, Jana Kramer, Sublime with Rome, Old School Jam, and Zendaya.
Alabama Shakes (2013)
Fair warning: If you’ve never heard the singing voice of Alabama Shakes frontwoman Brittany Howard, be it live and in person or on one of their many tracks, it’s likely to both shock and awe with its power and beauty. Seriously. It’s been known to happen, like when Zelisko first heard it. “What a voice,” he says. “She's a phenomenal singer.” We’re certain that many in attendance when Alabama Shakes rolled through the coliseum in October 2013 had that same reaction. After all, it was a big show. “The Alabama Shakes were a big deal then and still are now,” Zelisko says. “And a lot of people came out for that show. They’re a terrific band."
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Also Featured in 2013: Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers, Trace Adkins, Cheap Trick, ZZ Top, the Wanted, Prince Royce, Snoop Dog, Jerry Lewis, Megadeth, Zendaya, Billy Currington, and Kidz Bop.
Queens of the Stone Age (2014)
Look, we're not going to lie. We're just as blown away as you that a band of the caliber of Queens of the Stone Age would play an event like the Arizona State Fair. And it's something we noted in our lengthy review of the show. Even better, QOTSA was the best act of a lineup that was already loaded up with greatness (including Wiz Khalifa, Colbie Caillat, John Fogerty, and Weezer). So does that mean that Queens of the Stone Age are the best of the best? Quite possibly, particularly when it comes to the fair. Wonder if they got a blue ribbon?
Also Featured in 2014: Justin Moore, Sublime with Rome, Darius Rucker, Weezer, Wiz Khalifa, John Fogerty, Fifth Harmony, Barenaked Ladies, Colbie Caillat, Berlin, Tom Keifer, John Waite, Josh Turner, Afrojack, and Old School Jam.