Rock history lives?
I’ve spent too much time driving Interstate 80 to and from San Francisco over the past few years, but there’s one billboard that always brings a smile to my face during my commute: “The Dixon May Fair.” It reads like Groundhog Day—a sign that spring has come. For one reason or another, I’d never made it out to the fairgrounds, but this year was to be my year.
Last Thursday, I had the honor of sharing old-town Dixon with two iconic rock legends underneath the Ferris wheel lights.
There is a romance and old-timey nostalgia that I always like about the fair. The yell of the barker, the swarm of teens hiding behind hot-dog stands necking, the light beer flowing through the veins of farmers and suburbanites on warm, dusty nights. I’ve seen it time and time again, and yet my wonderment never ceases amid the neon glows and wafts of deep-fried foods.
Just one week before his 70th birthday, the Animals frontman Eric Burdon waddled his jolly little self onstage to perform the classics that made him and his band one of the top groups of the British Invasion. Of course, like any artist at the twilight of his career, Burdon could not stick to just the first few records. He tested the audience with a string of nonhits that kept everyone salivating for more shout-along choruses. When the band finally kicked into the classic “Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” it was chopped up with a reggae-ish vibe that made me think that Burdon may have thought this was the Whole Earth Festival or something.
The high point of his set came when the band stripped down their huge festival sound for a raw take on Mississippi Fred McDowell’s “Red Cross Store Blues.” The Animals, even with this lineup, will always sound at their best with the nuevo-reverb off and the small old tube amps buzzing.
What I found most intriguing about the evening was the frontmen themselves. How do these old rockers feel about performing the same songs going on 40 years?
Some of my questions were answered as John Kay & Steppenwolf blazed into their set. Dusk had settled into night, the amps were turned up and Kay’s signature swagger energized the crowd after the Animals’ safe set of tunes.
The group seemed to truly be enjoying itself as they went through songs that, once again, spanned six decades. But then it happened: that terrible lull. Where is “Magic Carpet Ride”? Where’s “Born to Be Wild”? Six songs into the set and you could feel the crowd’s anxiousness. I thought people would riot.
By 10:15 p.m., pockets of old biker dads and softball moms wandered out of the makeshift amphitheater, collectively mumbling, “Shit, it’s not worth seeing those old hits this late. I’ll just go watch it on YouTube.”
Were people really there to just see two famous tunes? I suppose not. They also want to ride the bull, eat a corn dog, get sick on the Tilt-A-Whirl and spend part of the night sitting down in a cotton-candied haze as any ol’ band plays some white-boy blues. But it’s all the better if you get to sip a beer and share your evening with a couple historic rock figures rather than just another local honky-tonk band.