For 35 years, sweltering, bumper-to-bumper traffic off the 405 exit for Irvine Center Drive come sunset has been as beloved an OC summer ritual as hitting the beach or bitching about another lost Angels season. And it was no different this past July, as police waved hoards holding beer cans and sporting tie-dyed T-shirts across Bake Parkway. Dead and Company was in town, the last gasp of the Grateful Dead, and the parking lot of Irvine Meadows bustled with Deadheads. True to tradition, wherever they go, they create a makeshift vendor area crammed with campers and tents dubbed Shakedown Street, after the famous Dead song and album.
Fans started filing into the sold-out venue as the sun dropped over Irvine Meadows' picturesque hillside setting, creating another majestic view on this clear summer night. Before Jerry Garcia's death in 1995, the Dead made Irvine Meadows a regular stop, playing there 15 times, most famously in 1989 in what police labeled as a “near riot” when approximately 500 fans without tickets reportedly threw rocks and bottles at authorities and lit bonfires when they couldn't enter the venue. Though the mood was much calmer 27 years later, excitement still surged through the crowd full of aging hippies in cargo shorts.
On the arduous walk from the gate to the amphitheater, fans whispered about John Mayer's inclusion in the group and whether the group is still credible without Phil Lesh. But the biggest topic was whether this was the final time they'd ever catch a show at Irvine Meadows.
“I can't believe it's actually closing,” one middle-aged attendee said to another as he lit up a joint.
“Yeah, it's been like this for a while,” his balding friend said. “Sad to see the place go.”
In September 2012, the Irvine Co. confirmed what had been rumored for nearly a decade: It would shut down the venue that hosted some of the biggest concerts in Orange County history. The old shell will be demolished, replaced by another expansion of Irvine's Los Olivos neighborhood, which also washed away Wild Rivers waterpark. Another part of Orange County history will be erased wholesale for shitty, overpriced apartments.
But on this July night, thoughts of Irvine Meadows' impending death quickly gave way to the music. Following a thrilling first set that saw the headband-wearing Mayer and eternally shaggy original Dead member Bob Weir trade guitar licks like longtime band mates, Brad Locker was roaming around the venue, answering questions and ushering photographers in and out of the photo pit. Tall, with long curly hair and glasses, Locker has worked at Irvine Meadows since 1995; his first show was Oingo Boingo.
In the middle of the set break, the vice president of marketing at Live Nation SoCal calmly relaxed on a couch in the backstage trailer. In his 22 seasons at Irvine Meadows, he has experienced the best and worst of the amphitheater. Seeing his work paying off means secretly watching as fans cheer, sing along and scream to their favorite bands. In recent months, despite Irvine Meadows' long goodbye, the highs have been more pronounced.
“My favorite moment at every show is we turn around right when the first note hits and we look at the fans and say we brought them here,” he says. “None of those people stayed home and watched reruns of Two and a Half Men, so we did something right.”
In this final season, Locker has been extra-attentive to fans, even if they don't realize he's taking an informal survey of their concert experience. “Whether it's informational interviews I've conducted after a show as an exit interview from a customer-marketing perspective, what was good and what was bad, this year, the answer has been consistent,” Locker continues. “The 'What was bad tonight?' answer has morphed into 'This is my last time I'm going to come here, and I saw Depeche Mode here in 1988, and it's sad.'”
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Since 1981, when Canadian singer Anne Murray inaugurated the venue, the 16,000-plus-capacity Irvine Meadows has been an essential stop on many nationwide tours. Artists came not just for the bucolic settings, but also for its strategic location between Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino and San Diego counties and a crisp sound that's hard to replicate at similarly sized outdoor amphitheaters. Ozzy Osbourne recorded a live album there in 1982. Michael Jackson's Bad tour stopped there in 1988. Prince and the New Power Generation played the venue during 1997's Jam of the Year Tour. The Eagles performed three shows as part of their Hell Freezes Over tour in Irvine.
Those were the one-offs. Events such as Lollapalooza, Lilith Fair, Area Two Epicenter Festival, HORDE, even Funny or Die's Oddball Comedy and Curiosity traveling show came to Irvine Meadows yearly. Even more popular were the local renters: KROQ's Weenie Roast (every year except one since 1993), Christian-music fete FishFest (since 2002), and the Pacific Symphony Orchestra summer residency, wowing the plebes since 1987. Running down the list of what Locker calls the “5-plus club,” referring to artists that have played the venue on more than five occasions, Locker rattles off names such as KISS, Dave Matthews Band, Jimmy Buffett, Def Leppard, Slightly Stoopid and Fleetwood Mac.
In recent years, the venue ushered in hip-hop superstars who became magnets for sold-out crowds. Snoop Dogg has headlined a slew of shows, and the venue has seen tours including How the West Was Won, Drake v. Lil Wayne, the Endless Summer Tour, Wiz Khalifa and the Ice-T-led Art of Rap.
“Irvine Meadows has been home to so many KROQ shows it's not going to feel right to do the Weenie Roast anywhere else,” said Kevin Ryder of Kevin & Bean fame earlier this year. “I really can't imagine where it's going to be next summer, and it's really making us sad. It's one of the best venues in Southern California.”
Avalon Attractions was the longtime promoter of the venue from its inception until being sold to S.F.X. in the late 1990s, before Clear Channel Entertainment purchased the promotional wing and subsequently spun it off as Live Nation. But even with the flurry of corporate activity over the years, many of the longtime employees at Irvine Meadows remained.
If not for Irvine Meadows, many young, up-and-coming musicians wouldn't have been able to check out some of their favorite bands in an outdoor setting without having to drive to LA, San Bernardino or Chula Vista. “The first show I went to [at Irvine Meadows] was Coldplay during the X&Y tour,” recalls Sameer Gadhia, lead singer of Young the Giant. “I remember snagging last-minute seats, and 16-year-old me was extremely pumped. I think a lot of the guys were at that show, actually. I realized how much responsibility a band has to slay it on a platform like that. They did.”
Having an amphitheater close to the band's base inspired Gadhia and his band mates to get a glimpse of the big time, years before they could even imagine it. It's particularly satisfying to Gadhia that Young the Giant were asked to open for Gwen Stefani during her goodbye to the place on Oct. 29 and 30. “Irvine Meadows was the portal to the greater world—the coolest musicians played there, and I remember always trying to scrounge up enough money to get into those shows,” he says. “It represented a gateway to another consciousness, and I only felt aware of its electricity there. Now that it's gone, I hope there is another portal that takes its place as a venue to inspire all the young musicians out there. For me, it won't be the same.”
And that was the other wonderful thing about Irvine Meadows. Unlike other similarly scaled concert arenas, it hosted many local bands, either as openers or headliners or part of legendary bills. One such group was Sublime, which first performed in 1994, when Bradley Nowell was still alive. Bassist Eric Wilson—whose Sublime With Rome performs Oct. 15—remembers sneaking into Irvine Meadows by hopping over the fence by the late, great Lion Country Safari, wildlife be damned.
“We caused all sorts of trouble backstage,” he says with a chuckle, remembering when Sublime played the 1995 Weenie Roast. “We made fake passes and replaced other bands' with those, and they were trying to figure it out. The same day we were causing all that havoc, Gavin Rossdale and Gwen Stefani were hanging out backstage.”
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In August, the Stetson set was in full force for Jason Aldean's seemingly annual tour stop in Irvine. Country music's hold over Orange County is long gone, but Aldean brought out a scene that recalled the Red River Shootout. RVs and Winnebagos lined the parking lot. Beer pong and corn hole were actively and competitively played in the hours before the country singer and his band took the stage. Just as with the fans who lined Shakedown Street a month earlier, fans expressed shock and disbelief that the venue was in its last months—but there was a concert going on, so—oh, well, huh?
As people fold up their assorted grills, tables, chairs and coolers, two women stand with their Jeep Liberty's hatch wide open, knocking back a final beer as they salute Irvine Meadows. “The first time I came here was the Weenie Roast back in 1996,” says Holly Jones, of Long Beach. “I've been to a bunch of those—country concerts and a comedy show. Where else am I going to go now? I don't want to drive up all the way to San Manuel, and I'm not going to LA. It's sad.”
Hanging out with a rambunctious crew who claimed to have seen bands such as the Talking Heads, Boy George and Iron Maiden, Chuck Norrib has driven down the 405 from Norwalk for the better part of the past 14 years. His first show was working at the venue for 2002 Weenie Roast, which he recalls as “Rob Zombie driving in his golf cart right past me.” As a patron, he has also seen numerous shows over the years. “The past six years, country has taken off here,” Norrib says in between swigs as he stands in front of his Winnebago. “We've been coming here for the past five or six years for this, and it's been a blast. I've made so many friends in this parking lot over the years that I'm sad that I won't be able to come hang out down here anymore.”
At the entrance of the VIP parking area, Debby Engelbart waves in some stragglers while keeping her eyes open for people trying to slip past her. Entering without a permit means you'll incur Engelbart's wrath. As with Locker, Engelbart is a longtime Irvine Meadows employee. She started in 1996 as a security guard for Weenie Roast, but her first show at the amphitheater was Bon Jovi's Slippery When Wet tour in 1987. The outdoor amphitheater was where she met her daughter's father (at a Janet Jackson show during her first season), and she headed there just after giving birth. “[Her daughter's] first show was seeing Metallica when she was just days old,” she says calmly, wryly smiling for a beat. “I had to pick up tickets for my sister, so I brought my daughter in, who was literally almost born here, since I worked a show the day before that, and she kind of got kidnapped backstage! The three heads of Avalon took off with her backstage, and I had to hunt her down. They figured since I was there that I could still work, and I definitely couldn't! But she had her first two years here, since I was working.”
Being behind the scenes afforded Engelbart the chance to know nearly every person associated with the venue over the past 20 years. She has seen her co-workers' kids getting gigs alongside them, helping to keep the amphitheater's original spirit alive.
Even though Engelbart stopped working on-site in 2000 after a car accident, getting one last season to work and hang out with old friends was enough of a reason to return. “This is a family,” Engelbart says of the staff. “You're breaking up a family here. These are people who have worked with each other for 10, 15, 20 years. Great friends, great experiences, great shows. I'll be very, very sad when it closes. It's like losing your parents' home.”
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A solution to move Irvine Meadows to another location isn't imminent, but ideas are floating around that will bring another large-scale music venue sooner than later. Locker is optimistic about the prospect of another amphitheater nearby, most likely at the Orange County Great Park. “We've tried to move the ball in the right direction,” he says. “We think that the City Council is moving in a positive direction in terms of understanding how important live music is to the residents of Irvine. We feel like they're going to hear more from the residents, especially during an election cycle. There's a role that [Live Nation] can play, [and] there's a role that the council can play where we can ensure that people can go see live music in the long term.”
The Irvine City Council has so far indicated it's on board with continuing the music. “The Great Park Board has four priorities for the future, 248-acre Cultural Terrace, which is part of the Orange County Great Park land: amphitheater, library, lake and museums,” says Craig Reem, Irvine's director of public affairs and communications. So far, developer FivePoint has committed $2 million toward the research and planning for a future venue, but there's currently nothing concrete. Questions remain over such critical details as the size of the venue, who'll pay for the new amphitheater, and—since this is Irvine—how traffic and noise will affect residents.
In the meanwhile, the 2016 season—one of the most vibrant in recent years—continues. Irvine Meadows hosted 40 shows, got back its original name after being known as Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre because of a branding deal, and is seeing many longtime employees such as Engelbart return to see their spot close right. One of them is longtime general manager Matt Curto. He started in 1985 as an assistant executive director, becoming general manager within a few years. Outside of a few special projects he worked on with Live Nation, Curto retired from his position in 2010. Coming back in tandem with current general manager Jerry Gray was something that felt right.
“It's always been a fun way to pass the evening,” he says of his time at the venue. “Working with the artists—not so much directly, but you're working with the fans and the guests who come to the amphitheater, and it's always different. I'm very grateful to Live Nation for asking me to come back this year.”
Though he'd known about the Irvine Co.'s plans for a long time, it doesn't make the decision any easier to accept. “I think it's just losing an iconic venue,” Curto says. “The other night, Perry Ferrell and Jane's Addiction made comments at their show how this is one of their favorite venues. Luke Bryan said how this was one of his favorite venues to play and credited Irvine as the fastest-selling date on the tour. So that says something about the amphitheater itself.”
“We've been hearing about it closing every time we've been here the past few years, but I can't believe it's finally happening,” Wilson says. “I can't believe it's for real this time, just to put some houses there.”
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In late September, Blink-182 returned for a two-night residency that concludes on Friday. Night One brings out a crowd of older punks, millennials, families and surf bros. As they head into the venue, an assortment of signs urges fans to sign a petition to save live music in Irvine and a big whiteboard encourages people to share their stories about the venue.
Between A Day to Remember's and Blink's sets, people introduce themselves and grab their neighbors an adult beverage or two. By the time Blink hit the stage, new friends embrace as “Feeling This” and “What's My Age Again?” kick off the set. “Two thousand sixteen, Irvine Meadows, you can say I was there before they bulldozed this place,” bassist Mark Hoppus says before zipping through “Happy Holidays, You Bastard.”
By the time the set reaches its conclusion with an exhilarating version of “Dammit,” mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, boyfriends and girlfriends, and friends new and old scream along to the band's signature anthem. Then as fans scamper out of the amphitheater in the hopes of beating traffic, thrilled after a great concert, the song's chorus echoes in everyone's minds:
“But everybody's gone/And I've been here for too long/To face this on my own/Well, I guess this is growing up/Well, I guess this is growing up.”
Daniel Kohn is a writer based in Southern California. With bylines in an assortment of outlets, Kohn primarily specializes in music with other interests ranging from sports to food. As a transplant, Kohn loves the beautiful weather and is glad he no longer has to deal with brutal winters. If you see him, say hi and of course, he’s always willing to down a beer or two…if you’re paying.