With curiosity and a twinge of annoyance, my husband Chris and I read the sign posted near the entrance of Estrella Hall at the California Mid-State Fair.
The Alice Cooper and Mötley Crüe concert had been delayed “due to transportation reasons,” we were told. Doors would open a couple hours late, at 8:30 p.m., with the first act taking the stage at the Chumash Grandstand Arena no later than 10 p.m.
Chris and I had come to the fair on July 25 to witness a moment in heavy metal history: Mötley Crüe’s final tour. Those four hedonistic hellions, once renowned for their drug-fueled debauchery on and off stage, were finally throwing in the proverbial towel.
We had expected a night of hard rock rebellion. What we got was a long, long wait that afforded ample time for people watching — and there were plenty of people to watch.
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Middle-aged men in AC/DC, Iron Maiden and Mötley Crüe concert T-shirts strolled the grounds with women in slinky tops, skinny jeans and boots. A few young guys wandered around in faux heavy metal outfits — leather vests, leopard print leggings, bandannas and wild wigs, their bare torsos exposed to the night air.
Fair fashion standouts included a brick-red bodybuilder in a Gold's Gym tank top, a mullet-sporting man in a rainbow tie-dye T-shirt and athletic shorts, and a woman with cropped purple hair, tight camouflage pants, a jean jacket and leopard print shoes.
Opening act Alice Cooper finally kicked off the night around 10:35 p.m., striding on stage in a red-and-black striped shirt and tight pants in front of a scrim that replicated his signature eye makeup.
Twirling his cane, he launched into an energetic version of "No More Mr. Nice Guy."
Cooper and his backing band — bassist Chuck Garric, drummer Glen Sobel and guitarists Tommy Henriksen, Ryan Roxie and Nita Strauss — fought an uphill battle to regain the crowd's attention, but they gained ground with each song. "Under My Wheels" was followed by "I'm Eighteen," as audience members obligingly sang along.
By the time a guitarist launched into the unmistakable opening riff of "Poison," those sparks had been fanned into flames. "Raise your hands if you're poison," Cooper said as the crowd cheered.
Cooper's set was low on pyrotechnics, but high on audio thrills and onstage antics.
The rock legend changed into a towering leather top hat and ripped leather tailcoat and pants, wrapping a snake live around one shoulder for "Welcome to My Nightmare," then donned a blood-spattered white lab coat for "Feed My Frankenstein" and a straitjacket for "Ballad of Dwight Fry" and "Killer." (A couple of masked goons and a sinister nurse helped him with the latter costume change.)
Per tradition, Cooper met his end onstage via guillotine.
Then the freshly resurrected Cooper returned in a white top hat and studded tailcoat to perform "School's Out," declaring, "It's party time!" As his ersatz executioners tossed large, colorful beach balls into the crowd, he segued into "We don't need no education" from Pink Floyd's "The Wall."
"School's out, California!" Cooper declared. "Thank you! Paso Robles rocks!"
With Cooper's set over at 11:25 p.m., we settled in to wait for Mötley Crüe.
A half-hour later, the lights dimmed and Mötley Crüe lead singer Vince Neil launched into a crowd pleaser, "Girls, Girls, Girls," accompanied by drummer Tommy Lee, guitarist Mick Mars and bassist Nikki Sixx.
"Make some (expletive) noise tonight!" Neil exhorted the audience. "You're awfully (expletive) quiet. Thanks for waiting around for us."
Clad in the same stage apparel they’ve sported for decades, the members of Mötley Crüe looked their age and sounded a bit rusty, especially compared to the slender, spry Cooper.
Of course, the fault might have been the late hour or a malfunctioning sound system that rendered most of Neil’s lyrics into incoherent mumbling. But even backed by two energetic dancer-singers in sleek black bodysuits and boots, the band initially struggled to find their groove through songs such as "Same Ol' Situation."
But by the time Mötley Crüe launched into the unmistakeable intro to "Smokin' in the Boys Room,” the crowd was singing, stomping and clapping along. Flashing red and purple lights illuminated the stage as the band landed a string of strong numbers, including "Looks That Kill" and "Shout at the Devil."
However, the magical mood couldn’t last forever.
An audience exodus began during an extended guitar solo by the mummy-like Mars, leading into "Saints of Los Angeles."
As we watched exhausted rock fans trickle out of the arena, Chris and I turned to each other and decided we, too, had had enough.
"I want my fair experience to be over. I'm done," my husband said. I agreed.
We peeled out of the dirt parking lot a quarter-hour before 1 a.m., the strains of yet another Mötley Crüe song hovering in the summer air as we bid a hasty farewell to the original bad boys of rock.