On the eve of the Arizona State Fair and its annual concert series, we rank the most epic rock concerts in Valley history.
“I’m not sure if we’ll have any new information for you,” Arizona State Fair spokeswoman Kristi Walsh says, with what sounds like genuine contrition. “This time of year, we’re fully focused on the fair.”
And that, dear reader, is how quickly our editorial focus was redirected from serious news to deep-fried Twinkies and AC/DC. We called the fair regarding a divisive issue involving an endangered New Deal-era building at the Arizona Fairgrounds; we hung up with an idea for a story about all-time great Phoenix rock concerts.
For many Phoenicians, that’s what the Arizona State Fair (October 16 – November 8) is all about: a 50-year legacy of music shows stretching all the way back to the debut of Veterans Memorial Coliseum in 1965. If you live in the Valley, and like rock music, you will eventually find yourself head-banging to Stone Temple Pilots or the Foo Fighters or what-have-you in the midst of bumper cars and cow paddocks. Bob Dylan once played the fair. So did Bob Seger and Mötley Crüe. It’s an annual rite of autumn. One our most cherished regional traditions.
But where do those great Arizona State Fair concerts rank among the all-time best in the Valley? And how prominently does the Coliseum – located inside the fairgrounds – figure in the debate? We interviewed a select group of Phoenix-area rock critics and promoters to build a Top 10 list of the most epic, indelible concerts in Valley history.
10. U2 at Sun Devil Stadium on December 19 and 20, 1987
Were they the most timeless shows U2 played in the Valley? Debatable. But the Dubliners’ back-to-back Tempe performances in 1987 were without question the most widely seen. Booked on the last leg of their legendary Joshua Tree tour, the sold-out shows were filmed by director Phil Joanou and provided the backbone for the band’s Rattle and Hum feature-film documentary the following year.
Scheduled when the band’s first choice for a venue – Denver’s McNichols Sports Arena – yielded less-than-spectacular footage, the Tempe shows were booked on the fly. “Tickets were only five bucks,” Valley musician and former East Valley Tribune music critic Chris Orf remembers. “They really wanted a sold-out show for the movie. And quickly.”
Naturally, the band got their wish, and 70,000 frothing fans got theirs – a singular set list comprising both well-known hits and rarities like a cover of the Beatles’ “Helter Skelter” and a performance of U2’s own “Mothers of the Disappeared,” during which lead singer Bono and his three bandmates each performed at the front of the stage under spotlight. The merits of the movie are debatable – Roger Ebert memorably panned it – but the shows remain an indelible Christmas present for the fans who scored a seat. “I remember it was the first time I heard really great crowd-stoking music,” Orf says. “When they whipped out the Beatles, man, people went nuts.”
9. Steely Dan at Cricket Pavilion on July 18, 2006
Ak-Chin (née Cricket/Desert Sky/Ashley Furniture HomeStore) Pavilion has one tragic shortcoming as a live music venue, besides the preposterous carousel of name changes: Its season only runs from April to October, which for an amphitheater in Phoenix seems cruelly incongruous.
Not that the 20,000 Steely Dan fans who came to see the louche 1970s yacht rockers in the summer of 2006 were discouraged in the slightest. It was Donald Fagan and Walter Becker’s first tour in 13 years, and the audience was sprinkled with a generation of admirers who had yet to witness the band’s maniacally polished musicianship in person. “[Steely Dan] were snotty kids who just learned how to play, as opposed to kids who didn’t, who were the punk bands,” Orf says. “They’re definitely one of my favorite live bands, and the tour rocked.”
The rock gods surely smiled upon the Dan’s Phoenix audience that night. As the sun went down, the triple-digit temperatures were miraculously chased away by a “weird sirocco thing blowin’ in off the desert,” in the words of Becker. Thus, it was a cool show in every sense of the word.
8. Jimmy Eat World at Modified Arts on December 9, 2009
Still referenced in hushed tones as “the secret JEW show,” this was one of those fabled big band/small venue surprise couplings to which every hardcore music fan should bear witness at least once. Organized on the down-low, without the knowledge of Modifed Arts owner Kimber Lanning, it was designed as a farewell concert of sorts for the Roosevelt Row venue, which was retiring as a live music space after a profoundly successful, decade-long run.
“It was one of the best [concerts] I was ever involved in,” remembers “Psycho” Steve Chilton, a Modified promotions assistant who now runs the Rebel Lounge in Central Phoenix. “[JEW frontman Jim Adkins] wanted to do something, participate in this whole series of final shows we were doing… but then he calls me back a week later and says the whole band wants to play. But, you know, don’t tell Kimber.”
Word of the show leaked, as words tend to do, resulting in “hundreds of people outside that we had to turn away,” Chilton remembers. It was a fitting final image for the gallery as a music hotspot; the success of the venue pulled the Valley’s live-music needle back to Downtown and paved the way for Charlie Levy’s Crescent Ballroom and other emerging venues.
7. The Police at Dooley’s on May 14, 1979
As a Police fan, you have a decent hand of shows to choose from, including a wild Veterans Memorial show at the 1980 Arizona State Fair during the Zenyatta Mondatta tour. Stoked by the success of “Roxanne,” local enthusiasm for the band had reached manic levels. Police – the real police – were dispatched to the fairgrounds to diffuse an outbreak of riots outside the Coliseum.
Fun stuff, but if you could go back in time, wouldn’t you rather see the Synchronicity legends pre-superstardom, in a sweat-soaked punk-rock dive like Tempe’s since-demolished Dooley’s? Just 18 months before the Coliseum melee, the Police were still obscure enough to play such a venue, remembers esteemed Valley rock promoter Danny Zelisko. “I booked that show… it was the first Police show in Arizona,” he says. “Tickets were $5. They cost me $2,000 [to book]. Everyone loved them.”
6. The Who at Sun Devil Stadium on October 31, 1982
It’s probably heretical to list a post-Keith Moon show over the four “classic lineup” concerts the band played in Phoenix before their drummer expired in 1978, but consider the peripherals. It was Halloween. It was outdoors. It was the band’s “farewell concert”… before they reunited in 1989 and again in 1996.
It all added up to a wild carnival atmosphere, remembers Orf, uniting the band’s Boomer base with a younger generation of rock fans eager to see the British Invasion legends perform their swan song: “I saw my biology teacher getting stoned in the crowd. It was an interesting formative experience.”
But the show is famous for another reason: a memorable dust-up involving opening act John Cougar, who was hit in the head with a whiskey bottle during his set. “He stormed off stage and then returned a few minutes later and challenged the guy to a fight,” Orf says. “You gotta hand it to him, he went on playing. It sort of set the tone for the evening.”
5. Arcade Fire at Modified Arts on December 6, 2004
For indie rock fans, it was the equivalent of catching the Beatles in Hamburg. Arcade Fire was still relatively obscure in late 2004. The band’s brilliant Funeral LP was just starting to make ripples with critics and fans. Thus, promoter Lanning was able to book the Quebecian chamber-rock ensemble at her tiny art gallery on Roosevelt Row.
It was an 80-person max-capacity venue at the time – barely enough to accommodate the famously well-staffed band itself. “I made the flier for that show, but I ended up not going,” laments Chilton. “I didn’t realize what kind of buzz it was generating and how big it was gonna be… and then six months later they were, you know, Arcade Fire. And they didn’t come back [to Phoenix] until eight years later.”
Lanning demurs when asked if she had the band pegged for stardom, but it was one of her favorite concerts in a promotion career spanning 15 years and more than 3,000 shows. “What I remember: The songs were breathing,” she says, using band jargon for a full-bodied, emotionally-rich performance. “They were impressive on stage, and they really had an amazing lifeforce. It was one of the great ones.”
4. Gin Blossoms at Veterans Memorial Coliseum on November 5, 1995
No list of all-time great Valley concerts would be complete without the Gin Blossoms – arguably, the local band most powerfully associated with the Phoenix-area live music scene through the decades. Any of the “Hey Jealously” rockers’ umpteen Tempe shows during their two-year residence at Long Wong’s could conceivably be in the conversation, but Orf – whose old outfit, the Zen Lunatics, were contemporaries of the band – offers another possibility.
“I have vivid memories of the time the Gin Blossoms played the State Fair with the Refreshments and Dead Hot Workshop,” he says. “It was like a Tempe Sound reunion show… and just supercool to all of the sudden be seeing your friends up on stage playing in front of thousands of people. It was the first time I saw a hometown show on that scale.”
3. Nirvana at Veterans Memorial Coliseum on October 18, 1993
Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain played upwards of 70 shows over the last six months of his life – a somewhat miraculous feat, given the whirlpool of depression and substance abuse that would soon consume him. Some of the concerts were tight and coherent. Some less so. Phoenix got one of the coherent ones.
About two months removed from a New York show in which Cobain had to be revived from a heroin stupor minutes before he went on stage, and several months after an infamous, critically-savaged Brazilian concert in which he tried to play his guitar with a cantaloupe, Nirvana was firing on all cylinders at the Arizona State Fair. Supporting their quadruple-platinum album In Utero, the trio – by then international superstars – tore through a 21-song set with the same unbridled punk-rock gusto that distinguished their legendary February 1990 show at the pint-size Mason Jar in Phoenix. The difference in 1993: There were 15,000 fans on hand. “Nirvana mowed the place down,” remembers Zelisko. “It was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen… the audience was just so energized and in tune with them.”
If anything, the band might have been too well-behaved. Cobain did not indulge his passion for encore-set guitar demolition in Phoenix, and bassist Krist Novoselic did not fling his instrument at the unruly frontman, as he did in Brazil. In lieu of the grunge-rock Tom & Jerry routine, Cobain and Novoselic playfully parodied Aerosmith and 4 Non Blondes between sets, and dusted off rarely-heard gems like “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter” for the ecstatic Phoenix crowd.
Starting with a June 1989 gig at the now-defunct Sun Club in Tempe, Nirvana played a total of four shows in Arizona, but the Arizona State Fair engagement gets the greatness-nod by virtue of its scale and emotional resonance. Cobain killed himself less than six months after the October concert, making it – for all intents and purposes – his farewell Arizona performance.
2. The Rolling Stones at Sun Devil Stadium on December 13, 1981
You could make a Top 10 case for any number of Rolling Stones concerts in Phoenix over the years, but two in particular stand out.
First, consider the band’s debut at Veterans Memorial Coliseum during its 1969 U.S. tour. Dubbed “history’s first mythic rock and roll tour” by critic Robert Christgau, the 14-city whirlwind was essentially the Stones’ coming-out party as The World’s Greatest Rock Band. Rock critics believe it marked the first, full culmination of the distinctive stage theatrics – from Charlie Watts’ prim drumming to Mick Jagger’s pansexual shimmying – that would sustain the band as live-performance overlords for five decades. And Phoenix got a piece of it, thanks to Memorial Coliseum, then an ultra-modern venue suited to the Stones’ revolutionary arena-only booking philosophy.
The other contender is the band’s Tattoo You-era December 1981 show at Sun Devil Stadium, arguably at the height of their powers as worldwide rock gods. It gets our Top 10 vote, based on the fact it was probably a better show. It was certainly better attended. According to Orf, the football stadium – newly-expanded to 70,000 seats – had never seen a bigger or more hotly-anticipated rock concert. “Oh, it was great, man,” he remembers. “People were freaking out because tickets were going for seven bucks, and the Stones hadn’t toured in a while. It was the first concert I’d ever seen that had a massive, purpose-built stage, with special effects and catwalks for Keith to run down. It was great.”
In short, it was a fully-realized, modern rock show. Orf points out that rock concerts staged pre-1970 tended to be shorter affairs, often part of multi-act promoter “variety shows.” Shorter, quieter, arguably less epic. The Stones played all of 14 songs at their 1969 show, which was considered a lot by the standards of the day.
On a side note: Parts of the Hal Ashby-directed rock doc Let’s Spend the Night Together were filmed at the 1981 Tempe concert – a less-sordid counterpoint to the 1969 tour, which concluded with the infamous Altamont stabbing.
1. U2 at Compton Terrace on March 1, 1985
The preeminent rock band of the last 30 years has a special relationship with the Valley of the Sun. In April 1987, the Irish foursome kicked off its game-changing Joshua Tree tour in the 14,000-seat ASU Activity Center in Tempe; consequently, fans in attendance were the first to hear classics “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and “Bullet the Blue Sky” performed live.
Eight months later, the band returned to the Valley for the aforementioned Rattle and Hum concerts. Several stadium-filling performances would follow over the years, including a sold-out show at University of Phoenix Stadium in 2009.
But before all that was U2’s 1985 show at Compton Terrace, the since-demolished outdoor venue originally located near Legend City in Phoenix. In the early 1970s, the amphitheater was moved to the desert near the old Thunderbird Raceway in south Phoenix, where many of its most fondly-remembered concerts took place. Grateful Dead in 1990. Lollapalooza in 1991.
And U2 in 1985 – the concert most frequently cited by our panel as a timeless Phoenix classic. Attended by 23,000 fans, it would prove to be the largest show of the band’s Unforgettable Fire tour, and among the most unruly. “Traffic in and out was insane,” Orf remembers. “And people were on edge. I remember Bono coming out and saying, ‘There’s more of you here than I expected.’”
Several fights broke out as packed concert-goers pushed to the front. Finally, Bono had enough. “They stopped the concert and Bono pointed directly to the guys fighting, and he said ‘You go over there and you go over there and meet another day.’ And people were like, ‘Wow, this guy is Jesus.’ It was like watching the birth of a global rock star.”
To punctuate his peace-and-love decree, Bono went off-list and cued his bandmates to play the U2 hit “Pride (In the Name of Love).” Later in the show, the song was performed a second time in its usual set list spot – the only time U2 ever performed the song twice at a paid event.
In terms of epic sweep, the show had the full package: an emerging band on the upward curve to superstardom, legions of revved-up fans, and a singular, seminal moment that attendees will recount until the end of their days. “That show will stay with me forever,” Lanning says. “It was one of those times when you’re painfully aware that you’re watching something much bigger than a music concert.”
A Brief History of the Coliseum
Once the premier concert venue in the Valley, Veterans Memorial Coliseum has led an active 50-year existence.
1964: Crews break ground on the $7 million “exposition center” project at the Arizona Fairgrounds. Architect Leslie Mahoney’s distinctive saddle-shaped roof, with tension cables supporting more than 1,000 precast concrete panels, was an engineering innovation.
November 3, 1965: The 12,371-seat Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum opens for business with a production of Ice Follies. With changes to the seating layout, the Coliseum would eventually seat more than 14,490.
January 21, 1967: The Monkees perform a concert at the Coliseum; the show is filmed and used in episode of the band’s NBC TV series.
October 18, 1968: The expansion Phoenix Suns NBA basketball team debuts in the Coliseum with a 116-107 victory against the Seattle Supersonics – a rare bright spot in an abysmal 16-66 debut season.
September 9, 1970: Elvis Presley kicks off his comeback tour at the Coliseum in front of a sold-out crowd of 15,000 (including floor seats). His first song: “That’s All Right.”
1970-1992: Until America West Arena steals some of its thunder – and the Suns – in 1992, the Coliseum thrives as the preeminent arena-size events venue in the Valley. Promoter Danny Zelisko claims he packed 20,000 fans into the building in 1984 for the Scorpions, who “rocked that place right off the foundation.” Other notable acts included Mother Theresa and Pope John Paul II.