While canvassing folks about the most memorable moments on that former strip mine in Burgettstown they called the Star Lake Amphitheatre, one industry insider joked, "The first time I saw how bad the traffic was."
That would have been right around 6:30 on the evening of June 17, 1990, when the traffic for the Billy Joel concert, the first national act there, looked like the road to Woodstock.
It seemed like a good idea on paper anyway. The Houston-based PACE Entertainment Group's concept was to get people out of the city, into the spacious countryside -- and save a bundle on the amusement tax. DiCesare-Engler Productions, the dominant promoter here at that time, had a rival plan for a site near Cranberry, which would have made sense, but Pace got the first shovel in the ground.
Through the life of the venue, which opens for the 20th year Saturday, getting there and back for the more popular shows has been an adventure, especially with PennDOT's ongoing mission to work on Route 22/30 virtually every summer for two decades.
Many a traveler has turned back realizing the headliner went on an hour ago. (Quick story: My old Mazda 323 died on 22/30 after two hours in Grateful Dead traffic, and I never made it to the show and never drove the car again -- talk about goin' down the road feelin' bad.)
But let's admit it -- once through the gate, we've all had our good times there, whether it's kicking back with a daiquiri or throwing sod, lighting fires and getting beat up by security.
Burgettstown has been the scene of nearly 700 concerts. It wasn't always just Jimmy Buffett, Dave Matthews, Steve Miller, Toby Keith and the odd pop or post-grunge band. Pace wanted the first show to be Frank Sinatra, but 'Ol Blue Eyes had a scheduling conflict (which probably went something like "A cow pasture in hicksville? Fuggedaboutit!").
In the early years, the Post-Gazette Pavilion played host to such artists Mikhail Baryshnikov, Liza Minnelli, Andrew Dice Clay and Bette Midler before abandoning fine arts and adult contemporary for harder rock fare.
HERE ARE 20 WE'LL NEVER FORGET:
1. Lollapalooza lets loose (Aug. 16, 1992)
The first Lollapalooza blew past Pittsburgh, but the second hit like a tornado. Second on the bill that afternoon was a fledgling Seattle band called Pearl Jam, and when Eddie Vedder and company hit the stage, it looked like a jailbreak with beefy security dudes tackling the dozens of young flannel grunge-rockers leaping over the railings. Security was on alert throughout a tense day with Ministry, Soundgarden, Ice Cube and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Lollapalooza didn't even want to play Pittsburgh, according to former executive director Lance Jones, because there was no alternative radio station here. "We had to jump through hoops to get their attention," he says. The result was a rabid, sold-out house and "it was a little chilling being down there," Jones says, "and realizing it could turn into chaos."
2. Fired up for Skynyrd (Aug. 10, 1991)
The hell-raisers yelling "Free Bird" from the lawn hit upon something they couldn't do at the Arena: set bonfires on the hill! In the heyday of rap and alt-rock, the PG review noted, "nobody throws a better riot than the good old boys in Lynyrd Skynyrd ... While the folks in the good seats contented themselves with tossing chairs in the aisles and punching Star Lake security guards in the face, those on the lawn preferred lighting their beer cups on fire in some sort of bizarre, yet beautiful Southern rock ritual." And then -- monkey see, monkey do -- bonfires would be all the rage in the '90s for Ozzfest, X-Fest and Lollapaloozas.
3. Where is the Love? (July 31, 1995)
Courtney Love, always something of a mess, was even more of a mess after the shotgun suicide of husband Kurt Cobain and her nerves were still frayed when she ventured out the next year on Lollapalooza. Hole played a seething 20 minutes or so at Star Lake before Love freaked and rushed off the stage. What happened? "One singular individual with a very sick mind threw something so offensive onto the stage that it was no longer possible for the band to continue," said the band's statement. There were shotgun shells, allegedly, which turned up in other places on the tour.
4. American idiocy (May 25, 1998)
Long before it set out to be some important band making rock operas, Green Day was just a trio of American idiots. Exhibit A: the band's eye-popping spectacle at X-Fest, during which Billie Joe Armstrong joked "I'm the king of punk and heavy metal all rolled into one." To demonstrate, Green Day barrelled through songs from "Dookie" and "Insomniac," with Armstrong ending up in just his leopard undies, which is more than the singer from Jimmie's Chicken Shack had on when he crashed the stage. It wasn't over till bassist Mike Dirnt toppled his amps and smashed his bass and drummer Tre Cool doused his kit in lighter fluid and torched it. Amid the wreckage, Armstrong sang "hope you had the time of your life."
5. Willie and the boys (Sept. 21, 2002)
The message, in the words of Neil Young, was "good food is grown on farms. Bad food is grown in factories." A wholesome cause, for sure, but even those living on Cheetos and Mountain Dew could get behind the music of the 15th annual Farm Aid, which honored us with its presence and performances by Young, Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp and Dave Matthews, plus some rowdies like the Drive-By Truckers, Kid Rock and Toby Keith, who in his post-9/11 white rage was looking for a behind in which to stick his boot. Keith had one of the highlights of the day with a hilarious song about smoking weed with Willie.
6. Simon and Bobfunkel (July 18, 1999)
A historic pairing of two of the '60s greatest songwriters was a great idea. A duet on "Sounds of Silence"? Not so much. As majestic as Bob Dylan is, he's not the guy you want sitting in for Art Garfunkel. Me, you and Julio could have sounded just as good on "That'll Be the Day" and "The Wanderer." By the way, Dylan played there several times, Jones says, "and I never ran into him at any shows, never saw him in the hallways."
7. Hammer of the gods (June 28-29, 2000)
Classic rock fans got a double shot with back-to-back bills of Jimmy Page with the Black Crowes and The Who. It wasn't a fluke of scheduling. The tour was designed to share production -- different shows but one load in, one load out. Page and Crowes got the Led Out, with singer Chris Robinson adding Southern soul. The next night, The Who, with Zak Starkey on drums, opened with "I Can't Explain," closed with "My Generation" and in between "out-rocked any major act that's been through town in years," according to the PG review. The Who was the No. 1 show of the year, Crowes was No. 4.
8. They come back, Jack (Aug. 14, 1993)
There are certain givens in pop music, one of them being that Steely Dan is NOT a live band. But Donald Fagen and Walter Becker shocked everyone by reuniting and then launching their first tour in 19 years. In terms of charisma, they weren't exactly Springsteen and Jagger -- the PG review noted that "Fagen and Becker resembled a couple of Borscht Belt wiseguys trying to shake off a case of opening-night jitters" -- but the novelty and the musical chops made it worth the trip for the 20,131 fans.
9. Hell freezes over (Aug. 15-16, 1994)
They said it would happen when hell freezes over. Maybe it did in the summer of 1994 -- ask Marilyn Manson -- because after 14 years of takin' it easy, The Eagles reunited and hit Star Lake for two nights. They opened with "Hotel California" and stayed in perfect harmony for three hours. The PG did report, though, that "The Eagles are at the cutting edge of an unfortunate trend." That would be taking ticket prices to a new limit: $110 for Gold Circle, which was unheard of. "It was a record at the time," Jones says, "the first big brush up against the ceiling ticket price because of the high guarantee." More than 23,000 turned out the first night, and 15 years later concert tickets top $200.
10. Seeing the "Dark Side of the Moon" (Sept. 24, 2006)
Roger Waters, the dark genius behind Pink Floyd, arrived with an 11-member ensemble to put a human face on the 1973 masterpiece, beautifully executing the Floyd vision of high spectacle and jaw-dropping musical precision.
11. Genie out of the bottle (Aug. 13, 1999)
"Genie in a Bottle" was released in June 1999 and topped the Billboard singles charts, turning North Allegheny High School grad Christina Aguilera into an overnight sensation. Her coming-out party here wasn't some grand affair, though. Sarah McLachlan, Sheryl Crow and the Dixie Chicks got the main stage. The petite teen singer with the powerful voice got 20 minutes on a makeshift third stage under a little tent at the Lilith Fair, backed only by a keyboardist. In addition to her hit, she sang an Etta James song that portended her future. "I won't be pigeonholed as a teen artist," she told the PG that week, and she wasn't kidding. She returned as a headliner a year later with Destiny's Child.
12. Just gimme a kiss (Aug. 17, 2002)
Joe Perry once said that what separates Aerosmith from a Zeppelin or Stones is that the Boston band is there for you. And it's true. Aerosmith was there in year one with the Black Crowes and also played memorable shows with Kiss (2003) and Cheap Trick (2004), and will be there this summer with ZZ Top. The most historic visit was in 2002 when the Bad Boys from Boston closed the show with Run DMC and Kid Rock on stage for "Walk This Way," the song that broke down the walls between rap and rock.
13. Neil and Neil Jr. (Aug. 26, 1993)
Neil Young had a history of drafting young noise-makers to tour with him, going back to that volatile Arena show with Sonic Youth. This time, the newly crowned Godfather of Grunge brought along J. Mascis and Dinosaur Jr. for a night of distorted guitar heaven. Young's set was a knockout with Booker T & The MG's, and at one point I saw Mascis walk through the crowd and do an air guitar move while Young was playing. Priceless.
14. Mud cocktails at Ozzfest (July 28, 2001)
For years the sod toss was a popular concert pastime for the lawn folks who feel like they're in another county. It went to a whole new level during the Slipknot set at Ozzfest when the restless natives realized they could stuff mud and sod into their empty fish bowl beer containers and launch them into the pavilion. "A man two rows behind us was hit by a fish bowl and began to bleed profusely from his head," one fan wrote to the PG. "His wife cowered in her seat, practically in tears, trying to avoid becoming a target herself; she was hit with a chunk of lawn." This went on through the intermission and the only thing that stopped it was Marilyn Manson distracting people with his eye-popping weirdness. "With the lawn fires and sod throwing," Jones says, "to solve that problem you practically need 1,000 security guards. Sod-tossing seemed to be in vogue for a number of years at those shows and then it seemed to go away as the crowd got older."
15. ADIEU Michael Hutchence (Sept. 27, 1997)
There were only 6,500 people there for Michael Hutchence's final show, a schizo B94 "Summer Stretch" bill with his band INXS, Amy Grant, Savage Garden and 10,000 Maniacs. While on stage, Hutchence actually mocked Christian singer Grant during what was described as a "sensual, funny, engaging set" highlighted by the band's hit "Don't Change." It was the final date of the band's "Elegantly Wasted" tour. Two months later, just before an Australian tour, Hutchence hanged himself in a Ritz Carlton in Sydney.
16. Root makes history (May 13, 1995)
In the history of Pittsburgh music, no local band had even come close to drawing 23,168 people. Just a year or two removed from its Graffiti gigs, Rusted Root packed Star Lake with "blissed-out souls" who chanted "Rooot! Rooot!" and danced in the aisles.
17. Sonic Youth's new singer (Sept. 5, 2000)
When Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon were beset by a family crisis, Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder stepped in to front the veteran New York noise band, leading them through a mini-set that included a cover of The Who's "Naked Eye."
18. Sign of the times (July 17, 2001)
Moms and dads taking little Johnny or Janie to see the popular pop-punk band didn't bargain for Blink-182 hitting the stage with "2001: A Space Odyssey" and a flaming f-word sign lighting up the cool night air of Burgettstown. The "South Park" humor extended to one tender ballad about having sex with your grandpa. "My immediate thought," Jones says, "was looking at the audience and thinking, 'Look at the age group here.' "
19. Fright Night Fights (June 12, 1992)
Most shows these days end promptly at 11. Not so back in the day. WDVE's Friday Night Rocker with Blue Oyster Cult, Leslie West, Molly Hatchet and Jefferson Starship went deep into Saturday morning because, well, the bands all showed up at this radio promotion show wanting to be the headliner. "Each of the bands were squabbling about when they would perform," Jones says. "None of the acts were too gentlemanly backstage. I remember the tour accountant for BOC slamming the wall and demanding we call [the headquarters] in Houston." BOC finally went on at 1:30 a.m. with "Don't Fear the Reaper."
20. The undercard (Aug, 27, 1996)
More than 24,000 people turned up at Star Lake to see Alanis Morissette, which is about 20,000 more than would go there to see her now. The bigger deal was her opening act, which would go on to become the most important band of the past decade. The PG review said Radiohead, touring in "The Bends," "underwhelmed the crowd with cacophony and orange stage lights. At one point Thom Yorke asked some bored fans up front to trade seats with some more excited folks on the lawn. Radiohead returned for a show at Metropol a year later and hasn't been here since.
Of course, there are another 200 things we could have mentioned, like:
• Ozzy slamming at the second stage parking lot.
• Bonnie Raitt telling a rowdy fan to "shut up!"
• Tommy Lee pimping his booby-cam.
• Anti-Flag raging on the Warped Tour.
• The reunions of Fleetwood Mac and the Police.
• David Bowie playing with Nine Inch Nails.
• Sinead O'Connor getting booed after an early exit.
• Our sad farewell to the great Stevie Ray Vaughan.
• All the great shows by the likes of the Allman Brothers, Tom Petty, Phish, the Dave Matthews Band, etc.
And we need one final shout-out to the sailor who has kept this place open, topping all artists with 25 shows there. Jimmy Buffett's first Star Lake performance, on Aug. 10, 1990, drew just 10,713 devoted Parrotheads. By 1993, the party had swelled beyond the hillside and today tickets sell out in 10 minutes. But between the buckets of Corona and pitchers of margaritas, for so many Parrotheads in the Hawaiian shirts, there really are no memories.
Scott Mervis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2576. First Published May 28, 2009 4:00 AM