"The last time I saw The Animals was almost 50 years ago to the day," said a man named Marcos from Daytona Beach, as he scouted outside Laguna Beach's Irvine Bowl—where the Pageant of the Masters is held—for someone who might be selling an extra ticket. "I'm hoping they'll let me in for free because of that."
On Dec. 2, Eric Burdon and the Animals played the KXMAS benefit show. For those of you who don't know (I'm looking at you, millennials), the Animals were part of the 1960s' British Invasion, and Burdon has since collaborated with Ringo Starr, Billy Preston and Steve Winwood, among many others, and hung out with classic-rock gods such as Bo Diddley and Jimi Hendrix.
The Irvine Bowl greeted concert-goers, who mostly looked between the ages of 50 and 70, with interactive holiday-themed installations. In addition to a food truck serving warm bites, Okura Sushi offered miso soup, teriyaki-chicken bowls and prerolled sushi. Considering it was nearly 50 degrees out, the miso soup was clutch. There was also more than enough beer and wine being poured to layer on a hefty liquor-coat. Everyone appeared to be keeping toasty.
The skinniest Santa Claus in the history of Christmas walked past me, following a woman who seemed as if she were heading somewhere important. They had an Alice-and-the-White-Rabbit dynamic going on: "You're going so fast!" Santa yelled at the woman as he adjusted his fake beard and disheveled hat. "Lay off the cookies, Santa, and get your fucking ass going!" she sassed back without breaking stride.
A man wearing a black top hat with a leopard-print scarf tied around the base of it and a matching leopard blazer was easily the best-dressed attendee. He wore silver bejeweled spike earrings that dangled above his shoulder and walked with pep. He'd fit in at the circus—perhaps as a funky lion tamer.
Unlike 99 percent of concerts I've been to, there was no barrier separating the crowd from the performer. It was more than possible for attendees to swarm the stage, but luckily for Burdon and his band, this was Laguna Beach, not San Francisco, and most people's posteriors were glued to their seats as they sipped on red wine.
I asked a man named Rick if I could stand in the very front and take photos for the first three songs—you know, the typical concert-photography rules. After he agreed, he told me that working as security for Burdon's show was beyond any wild dream he could conjure. "I play guitar," he said dreamily, "and I often perform the chords of 'House of the Rising Sun' while singing the lyrics to 'Amazing Grace.' I play it at church, and everyone loves it."
The lights went down as Burdon, wearing all black clothes and black sunglasses, took the stage, strutting to the intro of "Spill the Wine." For a septuagenarian, he exuded swagger, even though he refers to himself as an overfed, long-haired, leaping gnome; age is clearly irrelevant when it comes to being a rock star.
The set was essentially a collection of his greatest hits mixed with stories from the golden era of rock. Among his stories was the tale of going to Diddley's funeral. "I'd never been to a black funeral before, and it was heavy," Burdon recalled. "My wife and I were moved around the church, and I didn't even realize we were moving right past the casket. I looked over at him and was amazed. He looked so good!"
Burdon then touched Diddley's face. "I thought he was alive, they did his makeup so good! I leaned over the casket to get a good look at him, and my wife was pulling me away by my shirt," he continued. "I kept looking at him, and then he opened his eyes and said, 'I ain't dead, mothafucker.' So I decided to write a song about that experience."
Burdon and his band—all of whom were wearing fantastic hats—then performed "Bo Diddley Special" as the crowd howled.
About three-quarters through the set, Burdon addressed the crowd, calling attention to Rick. "I see this white shirt in front of me, and it says 'security.' I don't want you to stop the people from dancing. In fact, I have a contract that says you can't do that. If the people want to dance, LET THEM! BECAUSE THAT'S WHAT ROCK & ROLL IS ALL ABOUT!"
Stunned, Rick let everyone rush the stage. The rest of the show was what dreams are made of. Surrounded by fans, Burdon performed "House of the Rising Sun," "We Gotta Get Out of This Place," "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" and "It's My Life." He even threw in a Three Dog Night cover.
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Up front, I saw Marcos. "They let you in?!" I shouted as he reached his hand out for a high-five.
"I found someone selling a ticket for $20," he said. "I'm so happy to be here!"
Burdon ended the show with a message. "Pray for peace," he told the crowd. "You gotta get MAD about it. You GOTTA DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT! Don't underestimate the power of the people." He then kicked over the microphone stand and waltzed offstage.
From now on, I want to be the female version of Eric Burdon.