Arizona State Fair Concerts

The 40 Best Arizona State Fair Concerts of the Past 40 Years

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 Vaughan, Loretta Lynn, Crystal Gayle, Reba McEntire, Conway Twitty, Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam, Bad English, Ronnie Milsap, Little Richard, Oingo Boingo, REO Speedwagon, Donny Osmond, Garry Shandling, Clint Black, and Vikki Carr.

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.

Nirvana (1993)
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.

Coolio (1996)
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.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Benjamin Leatherman is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times. He covers local nightlife, music, culture, geekery, and fringe pursuits.