Photo by Chris ZieglerIt takes a strange kind of man to book a county fair: part mover-and-shaker, part populist-crusader, part un-ironic Chubby Checker fan. And it takes a stranger man still to book Weird Al for five straight days at the county fair. Actually, it takes two strange men: promoter par excellence Ken Phebus (you'll remember him from the Galaxy Concert Theatre, the Coach House, the Sun Theatre . . .) and Steve Beazley, a local boy who started out following the fair animal parades with a shovel at the age of 12 and clambered up the chain of command to eventually become deputy general manager. Together, they've got an odd-couple chemistry that might be just the pinch in the butt the—well, "moribund" is such a strong word—"traditional" OC Fair entertainment program needs. And they're the only people you'll ever meet who will nod thoughtfully when you refer to Weird Al as an "artist in residence."
OC Weekly: So what's your own musical background? Play any instruments? Any albums that changed your life?Ken Phebus: I can't even play a kazoo—I do all my stuff on the phone. That's sort of an instrument.Phebus: Also a weapon sometimes. Steve Beazley: Can I tell you about an album that changed my life? Because what truly changed my life was Sting's The Dream of the Blue Turtles. I saw Sting at the Pacific Amphitheatre, and that was his first solo tour after the Police, and as I sat there listening to that concert and listening to Branford Marsalis, I couldn't believe what I was hearing. It was truly life-transforming. I'm almost getting goosebumps just even mentioning it again—I couldn't believe the sounds those people were making. What are the biggest changes people are going to notice this year?Phebus: Well, the Indigo Girls would be one example. That's one you wouldn't have seen in a million years at the fair. Beazley: In fact, this is the only fair they're playing on all legs of their tour. So you're going to mix it up a little bit? A little Indigo Girls, a little Skynyrd?Phebus: You have to understand your target market. I can't put Insane Clown Posse in this place because it's not appropriate. It would be a pretty sick joke, and I would probably enjoy myself—shortly before I was arrested—but you have to target what the demographic is, and that's families. And that means parents who wanna see Boz Scaggs, kids who wanna see . . . Beazley: . . . the Supertones. And Lynyrd Skynyrd has become more than just members of the band. It's almost a phenomenon—it transcends anybody in the band. It's culture, is what it is. The word really is "diversity." We're looking for a full menu. But five straight nights of Weird Al? Is Al that god-like in Orange County?Beazley: We said to Al, "Look, we're not looking at you as a concert. We're looking at you as a special attraction, a one-of-a-kind experience that you can't get anywhere else." So that's why we're getting people coming from all over the country to see this. We're looking at the people who are buying tickets over the Internet, and they're from Minnesota, New York—there are gonna be several dozen folks flying in. Al's Army? Al-heads? Al-ANON?Phebus: Totally. Beazley: Because of Al, people are forming their summer vacation around coming out here. Phebus: We're going through archival footage, we're going through warehouses of old [Al] costumes—we're even blowing up the Weird Al doll and flying it over the merchandise area. Beazley: Al's people are excited. They say, "What do you guys need? Want Al's high-school diploma? If you wanna put that on display, we'll give you that." No offense to anybody that's headlining, but the fact is on July 12, Huey Lewis is gonna get off his bus, do his gig, get back on the bus and go to the next gig, and that's all we need from him. But we wanted to find one artist that we could say, "Okay, let's shine the spotlight on him. Let's really illuminate his whole career." Like an artist in residence?Beazley: Yes, that's what it is. That's what it really is. It's an excellent way to think about it. I hadn't put that concept around it, but that's really what it is. Do any other fairs do things like this?Beazley: I can't remember ever seeing a fair book a major, nationally known artist for more than one night. It's a new mold, and we feel responsible for doing things like that, things that are new and groundbreaking. Do you guys ever cruise other fairs, check out the competition? What do you look for when you walk onto the midway as a professional, instead of as just some guy with a corn dog?Beazley: Once you start seeing all the fine points of something, you never look at it the same. Like once you take your transistor radio apart, you'll never listen to it the same again—you know all the parts in there. Your innocence is kind of lost, maybe you're a little more critical, but you're also more forgiving because you know how hard it is to put together. Phebus: I look for what level they're willing to stretch the envelope. Because my intention here is to stretch the envelope a bit, maybe bring in some eclectic kinds of talent to challenge fairgoers to experience entertainment they wouldn't normally look for. So it's the dawn of a new era for music at the fair?Phebus: Next year, we'll bring in Lou Reed and see if they can understand his language. Are you serious?Phebus: Well, I'd like to. Beazley: As a concept, a Lou Reed type.
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