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Photo by Keith MayI've made nearly an annual payday from writing about how uninspired the OC Fair is compared with Seattle's annual Labor Day fair, Bumbershoot. Bumbershoots past have featured the likes of Tony Bennett, P-Funk, Nirvana, the Seattle Symphony, Elvis Costello, Ray Charles, the Sex Pistols, Buck Owens and Allen Ginsberg. This time, we had to content ourselves with Ratdog, Loretta Lynn, Karl Denson's Tiny Universe, the incredible Jon Brion, Spalding Gray, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, the Rollins Band, King Sunny Ade, the post-mummification David Lee Roth and hundreds of other acts, along with the usual film fest, art exhibits, dance, poetry, book fair and such. Meanwhile, we got a succession of no-account, one-hit mullet-heads who started out inconsequential and went downhill from there.
My take on a fair is that it should reflect who we are, by giving some idea of where we've been and where we're headed. To judge by the OC Fair, we're a county of pigs, sheep and goats, canning apricots, using miracle mops and scarfing candied apples while listening to Billy Ray Cyrus. You'd never know that on the very same fairgrounds, at the Pacific Amphitheater, we once lined up to see Frank Sinatra, Marvin Gaye or the Talking Heads.
OC Fair officials have argued for years that the fair's mandate is to be a "traditional" event, which is a convenient excuse for not trying very hard. The "traditional" fairs they've looked to are only traditional in hindsight. Old-school county fairs were booking Hank Williams when he was at his peak and Elvis Presley when he was a fresh, controversial phenomenon. Otis Redding played county fairs. The Yardbirds with Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page in all their fuzztoned '60s glory played them. Even the pallid Velvet Underground played them.
Today, it is a rare exception when the OC Fair books acts that mattered even 40 years ago, much less now.
More bothersome is the way it has managed to ignore the best of our local talent. It is beyond pathetic that if you want to hear Santa Ana-raised saxophone colossus Karl Denson or OC-bred western swing stylist Big Sandy at a fair, you've got to go 1,200 miles to Seattle to do it. Nirvana, Pearl Jam and the other giants of the Seattle scene all played Bumbershoot because that fair noticed and supported local talent on the way up. Meanwhile, OC folks like No Doubt, the Offspring, Sugar Ray and Lit went straight on to worldwide fame with no recognition from the event that purported to celebrate the best of OC.
Do I like flogging a dead horse? No. I've carped on this subject for years because I've always believed the fair was capable of being nudged into change and that it would be damn good for OC's sense of community if it did.
And I'm carping now because I fear it may be my last chance. Among the wandering unlaminates checking out Bumbershoot's wonders this year were the OC Fair's deputy general manager, Steve Beazley, and its just-named talent buyer, Ken Phebus, who has peopled the stages at the Coach House, the Galaxy Concert and the Sun theaters, the Doheny Days and Doheny Blues fests (the latter two with co-buyer Mike Dixon), and oodles of out-of-county venues and events.
The OC Fair could scarcely have a bigger booster than Beazley. The 39-year-old Costa Mesan's grandmother began working at the fair in 1952, and he started there when he was 12, shoveling up after the parade horses. He has been there in some capacity ever since (with time off to get a doctorate in political psychology) and is now in a position to help reshape the fair. Though I doubt Beazley would put it this way, I got the impression from talking with him that in his current position overseeing the entertainment, he'd like to leave his shovel behind.
Reached on his cell phone post-Bumbershoot as he was attending Washington's Puyallup Fair (featuring Bonnie Raitt, Smokey Robinson and others), Beazley said, "The OC Fair has a great tradition, and we don't want to lose sight of that, but we've always got to work to keep it from stagnating. We want to upgrade the quality of the acts and maintain and expand the diversity we have, with the goal each year of keeping the fair 80 percent the same and making it 20 percent different. That may seem slow to some, but in four years, that would be an 80 percent shift. We've already tried some small changes [introducing a Lab-sponsored local music stage this year, while a planned Sun Theater stage fell through when corporate dipsticks SMG bought the Sun]. I think bringing Ken onboard will make the biggest difference."
Phebus has been a friend of mine since the '80s, but, that lapse aside, he's one savvy guy. He's not above booking a Loverboy if it will sell tickets, but he has also brought Miles Davis, avant-garde jazzman Sun Ra and such to the county. You don't have to scratch him too deep to find the old hippie lurking there, and I mean the good kind of hippie, with little tolerance for the status quo and a love of shaking things up. He's got a knack for getting big acts to play small venues (Davis at the Coach House, Dylan at the Sun, etc.; even booking picnics at Lake Mission Viejo, Phebus was getting acts like Chris Isaak and Emmylou Harris) and hopes to similarly ratchet up the talent at the fair.
"I don't see why we can't be getting acts the quality of a Tony Bennett, k.d. lang or Joe Cocker in there," he said. "The Orange County Fair won't ever be like Bumbershoot because Orange County isn't Seattle. But I've lived here all my life and brought in thousands of artists, enough to know we have a large and sophisticated audience for music here. I've wanted to do the fair for years because I think it's going to be a real challenge to get the quality of acts people here deserve."
Translated, I think that means, "Don't hold your breath waiting for the fair to have the edgier acts that have appeared at Bumbershoot or the OC clubs Phebus booked. But on the other hand, no longer will the acts be lamer than they get at the fair in Rolling Stop, North Dakota."
It's probably too much to expect one event to encompass the scope of the arts—and to have sheep, goats and carny rides as well. Maybe down the line, Beazley and Phebus could use the sprawling fairgrounds for a second arts-based event that better represents who we are and where we're headed. And if something good doesn't happen, I've got Phebus' home phone number.