I love summer but the icing on the cake, for me, has always been looking forward to visiting the Stanislaus County Fair. Must-do things on my fair list are checking out the photography exhibits, looking at all the handiwork crafted by FFA and 4-H kids, seeing the farm animals – invariably there is always a big mama pig and her piglets – nesting in sawdust, viewing the putt-putt antique engines and checking out the floriculture and yard exhibits. Occasionally, I will ride rides at the mid-way. And I watch the people, seeing how they act and dress.
I always look forward to some of the music acts on the Budweiser free stage. I’ve been going to the Stanislaus County Fair since the 1970s and remember the days when the really big acts were in the arena and there was an extra charge. I remember seeing Johnny and June Cash, Merle Haggard, Larry Gatlin, Charlie Daniels, Ronnie Milsap, Naomi and Wynona Judd, the Oak Ridge Boys, and Mel Tillis, but I will forever remember my backstage encounters with Dottie West and Roger Miller and my interviews with Glen Campbell, Charlie Pride and Waylon Jennings inside the backstage RV.
The fair did away with the grandstand concert concept, using big name entertainers as a general admission draw on the free stage. That’s good in one sense, but there’s some trade-offs.
The fair has drawn great current groups such as Hoobastank, Mercy Me, Rebecca St. James and others in recent years. Because of its budget it also draws some of the older established groups comprised of hardly original artists from their heyday, such as Foreigner – which played on Saturday – or the Beach Boys that performed in recent years. (A few years ago I caught the REO Speedwagon concert that did consist of now gray-haired men who appeared to be the original members, but my kids had never heard their music.)
Still, it’s usually good music. The downside to the Budweiser Free Stage, to me, is how the seats fill up faster than the line at the all-you-can-eat buffets at dinner time. Because seats are not sold, seating is by a first-come, first-served basis. That means, depending on the popularity of the act, you may be sitting there one to two hours before the show starts. That’s tough to do, especially when you’ll get the urge to get up and walk around and actually see the fair or go buy an ice cream or other food items instead of stake down your place on the bench.
I’ve seen fair materials which states “Concerts free with Fair admission. Sorry no seat-saving.” I know what they are saying here. I have seen one or two people working in tandem with each other who stake out a whole row of benches with blankets and clothing items to defend their beachhead for hours so that their family, friends or church can sit down in front. I understand why they do it, but it’s really not a fair practice since the seat is being saved for somebody unable or unwilling to spend the time to plant their fanny on the bench to guarantee their spot.
As a result, typically what you have is a standing crowd that clogs the area between the food vendor trailers in the front of the arena area, or on the south side where the walkway is located.
The flat stage area can be another drawback, especially if the guy in front of you is 6-foot-2 and you’re a 4-foot-5 grandmother who wants to see all of the Beach Boys bopping around on stage. There are Jumbotron screens in front like at most concerts to allow you to get the up-close look just in case you’re not close enough to see the sweat flying from the entertainers.
It’s still an amazing experience and until the fair ever finds the money – yeah, right – to improve the arena or expand seating, we have to deal with it the best we can.
Since starting on Friday, the fair has seen performances from Sawyer Brown, Foreigner, Kellie Pickler, and the Peking Chinese Acrobats. It’s Wednesday and there are still a lot of good performers to catch. The Wiggles (children’s music group) will be on stage. Uncle Kracker performs on Thursday, Bret Michaels on Friday, and country music star LeAnn Rimes on Saturday. Hispanic sensations Diego Verdaguer and Amanda Miguel are performing on Sunday.
All shows start at 8:30 p.m. — but remember to show up early if you really want to catch the acts.
And remember, no seat saving!
This column is the opinion of Jeff Benziger and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Journal or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.