Located just about 100 miles north of Los Angeles and largely devoid of what Angelenos would describe as “sites of cultural significance,” Bakersfield is not the typical Friday night destination.
As we pulled into town at sunset, we passed windowless buildings, chainlink fences, and oil wells. The air was dry and filled with particulate matter. While it’s population makes it the 52nd largest city in America, in 2015, Bakersfield earned the distinction of being the 2nd most polluted city in the country. We parked along the side of the road to avoid paying and joined the throng of Bakersfieldians making their way toward the large ferris wheel silhouetted by orange sky. The sound of mariachi music and arcade games became increasingly loud, and the breeze began to smell of fried dough. After a 2.5 hour drive and a ten minute walk, we had arrived at The Kern County Fair.
How, you might be wondering, did three good-looking, intelligent millennials with a car end up in Bakersfield on a Friday night? While the rest of our peers were heading out to bars and movies and art museums (or staying home and pulling up The Office on their parents’ Netflix accounts), we were on our way to see Smash Mouth, the one-hit wonder whose song All Star had spawned countless Shrek-themed memes.
I’d had to select my companions for this adventure with great care. It’s not just anyone who will drop everything, duck out of work early, and spend hours commuting at rush hour to one of the least exciting cities in California in order to see a band they don’t care about. Jared and Katie were temperamentally well-suited for this idiotic mission–good-natured people who are routinely kind to those around them. Katie’s the kind of person who’s up for pretty much anything out of the ordinary and has a good time no matter what. Jared DJs in his spare time and engages with music as a craft. He’d been ready to turn down my invitation until he learned that the concert was free with the price of admission to the fair ($10). In particular, I worried he would regret the decision to come.
Unlike Jared and Katie, I am as close to an un-ironic lover of Smash Mouth as a millennial can be. In early September, when I heard the lead singer, Steve Harwell (a Guy Fieri look-alike), had suffered from some kind of heart episode and had had to cancel shows, I knew I needed to act fast or risk never seeing Smash Mouth perform live. While in the early 2000s, the zenith of the band’s popularity, they’d won a Kid’s Choice Award, featured prominently in the Shrek opening credits, and filled stadiums, in 2017, they were mostly performing at county and state fairs. The Kern County Fair was the only place they’d be performing in California during the month of September, so it was either make the pilgrimage to Bakersfield, or gamble on Steve’s heart lasting into October.
We had some time to kill before Smash Mouth was scheduled to perform at the Budweiser Pavilion, so we headed for the second most exciting entertainment option listed in the fair’s program, The Great American Duck Race.
Robert Duck (who claimed that this was his actual last name), served as MC. He introduced us to his ducks who have won The Great American Duck Race hosted annually in Deming, New Mexico twelve times. He selected volunteers from the audience to come up and hold the ducks. When the whistle blew, the lucky duck-holders would drop their ducks into channels with water (like lanes in a pool), and the ducks would swim to the other side. The person with the fastest duck would move on to the finals.
No matter how many times I raised my hand, I was never chosen. This may have had something to do with the fact that I was competing with 6-year-olds for Robert’s attention. The first round of racing ducks had names like Michael Phelps, Simone Manuel, and Katie Le-ducky. The next heat was filled with ducks named after NASCAR drivers. The third heat was a Duck Dynasty round. I was very impressed by Robert’s ability to tell all the seemingly identical mallards apart (how could he distinguish Michael from Simone every time?), until he let each kid name their own duck in the finals and I realized they were randomly assigned jokes. In the finals, most of the competitors selected duck puns for names, except for the two littlest kids who named their ducks Lucy and Jake. After a short but intense race, Jake proved victorious, and his temporary owner was crowned with a duck mask. After the ceremony, Robert said he wished he could give everyone a chance to race the ducks, but there just wasn’t time. However, for only $5.00, we could buy the right to race a duck. This $5.00 purchase included a complementary duck whistle. A tempting offer, but Jared, Katie, and I had places to be.
After purchasing the most expensive, least satisfying burrito bowl of my life (for $9.50 it only included meat, rice, and beans. Everything beyond that was an “add-on,” including salsa), we got in line to enter the pavilion. Jared and Katie were shocked by how many people had come to see the has-been band. Nearly all of the pavilion’s 3,000 seats were full. There was even a VIP section cordoned off with rope. Who these VIPers were and what exactly they were hoping to get from this experience remains a mystery. The band was scheduled to go on at 8pm. When 8:30pm came and went, and there was still no sign of the performers, the audience began to chant “Smash Mouth.” Logan, the eight-year-old in front of us, informed Katie that Smash Mouth was a fake band that did not actually exist.
Just as I began to despair that Steve had actually suffered the fatal heart attack, the man himself walked on stage, red solo cup in hand. The band launched into their first song, “Can’t Get Enough of You, Baby,” and the crowd went nuts (several people were wearing Shrek masks). I’ve been to a number of concerts for bands I actually admit to liking, but this was the first concert where I knew the majority of songs on the setlist. I was embarrassed and proud at the same time. Up on stage, Steve didn’t seem to know how to interact with the audience. While he sang, he paced back and forth between the bassist and the guitarist. He’d encroach on their bubble of space, placing an arm on their shoulder and singing directly to them. At one point, he kicked the guitarist on the butt. I wondered if there were women out there who fantasized about being romantically involved with Steve.
Logan turned again to Katie and told her that the man on stage was not the real Steve Harwell. He pulled up images of Steve on his iPhone as evidence. It was hard to say from such a distance if the man on stage was really Steve. He’d lost weight since the band’s early years and was now bleached blond. He didn’t sound like the recordings, but then again, neither does Katy Perry.
As the performance wore on, the anticipation built. There was one song everyone there had come to hear, and it wasn’t Walkin’ on the Sun, Holiday in my Head, Pacific Coast Party, Road Man, or even their cover of I’m a Believer. The couple behind me started chanting “All Star” every time a song ended. What’s it like to be a band and know that the thing you’ve created far surpasses you in terms of significance?
All Star was the very last song of the night, and it was glorious. The people in the Shrek masks jumped up and down in time with the beat. The crowd lit up with cellphone screens as people recorded the moment for their Instagram accounts. 3,000 voices joined Steve’s for the chorus that has scored this milenium. The concert ended with Steve softly repeating, like a mantra or a prayer, the words “only shooting stars break the mold.”
“That was awesome,” Jared commented as we walked back to the car in the dark. Katie nodded in agreement. I felt inspired, rejuvenated, a part of something much larger than myself (like a generation or a social media platform or something). I looked up at the night sky, searching for a sign, maybe a shooting star. There were none to be found, of course. The air in the 2nd most polluted city in the USA does not lend itself to stargazing.