OC REGISTER: Critics Recall Their Favorite Irvine Meadows Shows

An era ends this summer when Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre finishes its last season as Orange County’s haven for rock music.

Thirty-five years of concerts were chronicled by the rock critics of The Orange County Register (some of whom still have their hearing). We asked them to share their memories.

Christopher Smith, 1979-1982

Looking back, I ultimately dug Irvine Meadows for where it wasn’t and for what that meant to Orange County music fans, rather than a particular concert or two from the dozen and dozens I either wrote about or saw over the decades.

(OK, one memory I can’t shake: the 1982 image of a drenched but not dispirited Frank Sinatra gamely hanging in during his first-ever Orange County concert under an oddly timed September downpour.)

But the outdoor facility’s ultimate blessing was the tens of thousands of treks up the 5 or 405 freeways none of us had to make eight months of the year from 1981 on. Eventually, in 1993, Orange County would get a year-round concert venue with The Pond/Honda Center, but when it opened, Irvine Meadows seemed a shockingly cool outdoor gift from the music gods, with top-end rock, pop, country, etc., in our backyard.

Weird footnote: Irvine Meadows was also the Fitbit of facilities. No matter what we saw, multi-act rock festivals to evenings ending with fireworks from the Pacific Symphony, the place exercised us equally, cardio and a concert for all. From the extended arrival – why was the plod across the 4,000 space lot somehow more tedious than the 10-minute walk up the hill? – to that race/walk stampede down the pathway to beat traffic onto Irvine Center Drive, I often ended up humming a tune while trying to catch my breath.

For me, Irvine Meadows generated more than just memories, perhaps enough exercise equal to a few extra days alive to remember them.

Jim Washburn, 1983-1988

Life in Orange County changed for the better when Irvine Meadows joined the landscape. For one thing, I got a nice checkerboard linoleum floor for my garage. When Michael Jackson played three nights there in 1988, he left his stage floor behind. Rather than discard it, a friend who worked as a Meadows stagehand rolled it up and took it. He couldn’t bring it home because his dad was racist, so he gave it to me.

I never felt that deifying artists did them any favors, so to me it was nothing precious, just a linoleum floor. Sometimes, though, while scraping the Total Gym or a leaking washing machine across the floor, I’d reflect, “Hey, Michael Jackson moonwalked on this thing!” When we moved we left it behind.

What I haven’t left behind are the memories of the magical performances at Irvine Meadows. I saw some great and varied things: David Lindley’s genre-grafting El Rayo-X, L.A.’s X, Prince, Tina Turner, the Gipsy Kings, the raucous Kinks, Tony Bennett, the reborn Who, Stevie Ray Vaughan wringing his strings, NRBQ quoting Shostakovich. I saw the Grateful Dead enough times for them to be everything that’s been said of them, from ruminant hippies meandering through a musical pasture to a band beaming golden waves of energy to the audience – though maybe that was the weed.

The setting and atmosphere helped: Hearing music under the stars always added to the wonder, and even the El Toro jets roaring overhead seemed to spur the musicians on.

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