It was an unusually temperate day at the California Mid-State Fair in Central California Thursday, July 18th. The nearly two-week-long annual event usually takes place in temperatures approaching triple digits in the normally toasty mountain town of Paso Robles. But by the time classic rockers Melissa Etheridge and Pat Benatar began their concert on the fairs main stage, eager music fans were putting on jackets and sweaters to ward off cool breezes.
While weekend concert headliners like Hip Hop star Cardi B and country music great Blake Shelton sold out in minutes, there were plenty of tickets available for the mid-week show with two powerhouse female rockers. Weekdays at the fair are much more relaxed with virtually no lines for a seemingly endless assortment of food, drinks, amusement rides, and exhibits. While children ran about looking at attractions like the new rattlesnake exhibit, their parents were enjoying a variety of spirits at the many bars, including the new ice bar. The ice bar featured signature cocktails in a refrigerated trailer complete with a bar carved from solid ice. Live music emanated from several stages around the fair featuring free entertainment. The a cappella country music group Home Free brought Nashville country standards, and country-tinged pop hits to two free shows filled with elated music lovers.
But it was the crowd at the Chumash Grandstand Arena that showed the most excitement waiting for the main event featuring Etheridge and Benatar. Etheridge opened the show just after 7:30, with the setting sun painting the singer-guitarist and her band in an orange glow. The singer hit the stage ready to rock opening with the 1995 hit “Your Little Secret.” That was followed by a mashup of “Let Me Go,” and one of her biggest hits “I Want to Come Over.” Etheridge may be one of the most underrated female rock singer-guitarists in classic rock. The bluesy singer with her trademark raspy vocals is a two-time Grammy Award winner. The singer-songwriter, whose hits include “I’m the Only One” and “Come to My Window,” is also a phenomenal blues-rock guitarist and even plays a mean harmonica. The singer backed by her band of veteran rockers had the early bird crowd of several thousand people on their feet singing and dancing along to the 75-minute set. Etheridge included a few songs from her last album before launching into a guitar drenched finale. The personable performer thanked the fair crowd before closing with 1989’s “Like the Way I Do,” turning it into an extended ear-piercing blues-rock jam that sent a euphoric crowd into a dance frenzy.
As evening fell and a full moon rose over the fairgrounds in the crystal night sky, Pat Benatar and her husband guitarist and songwriter Neil Gerardo took the stage. The duo and their band led the crowd in a sing-along of their greatest hits dating back to the early 80s. The four-time Grammy-winning duo played crowd favorites like “We Belong,” “Hit Me with Your Best Shot,” “Love Is a Battlefield,” and “Hell Is for Children.” The silver-haired couple has been married for 37 years and making hit songs together ever since. Benatar released her first album before they met back in 1979. Her current concert tour is a celebration of the 40th anniversary of her rock music debut. The hard rock queen of the MTV era may have been one of the earliest voices in rock music advocating for feminist rights with her hard-edged and insightful lyrics. The 75-minute set showcased Gerardo’s thundering lead guitar talents and Benatar’s enduring vocal range, despite 40 years of concert touring. The encore featured a fiery delivery of Benatar’s first big hit, “Heartbreaker.” It is hard to believe the song is 40 years old, but an adoring crowd standing on their chairs and bleachers bathed in the full moonlight made it clear that the beloved singer’s sounds will endure for a long time to come.