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From Irvine Meadows to FivePoint Amphitheatre

When Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre was demolished in 2017, the city lost a landmark that had been a musical, cultural and social hub for generations of locals. The wrecking ball also ushered in determined efforts by both local music fans and venue operators Live Nation to retain a major outdoor music venue in the area. These are currently evidenced by a nearby interim replacement for the Meadows, FivePoint Amphitheatre, which was swiftly erected adjacent to the Orange County Great Park.

Photo by Dennis Guerrero for DSG

In the decade between Irvine being formally incorporated in 1971 and the opening of the 16,000-capacity Irvine Meadows in September of 1981, the city’s population skyrocketed 800 percent, and that of surrounding Orange County grew by more than a third. O.C. was coming out of the shadow of nearby Los Angeles, and the top-tier concert tours and music festivals hosted at the Meadows were one more affirmation that the area had “arrived.”

“Irvine Meadows defined Orange County and the music scene,” said Long Beach producer/musician Billy Mohler, who grew up in Laguna Beach. “It showed what was possible and brought renowned artists to our backyard. Whether you lived in Laguna, Irvine or San Clemente, everyone felt Irvine Meadows was their venue.”

When the Meadows’ land lease expired in 2017, owners the Irvine Company did not renew, instead opting to build apartments on the site. The last shows at the venue, on October 29 and 30, 2016 were appropriately headlined by Anaheim’s Gwen Stefani, with Irvine band Young the Giant as support. The following month the storied amphitheater, O.C.’s first major venue, was unceremoniously flattened.

“[Irvine Meadows] was so much fun and close to home,” recalled Christine Kleile Martin, a Pet Care Rep who lived in Irvine from 1977-2010. “I enjoyed it being outside and if you didn’t want to pay for the more expensive seats … you could sit on the lawn.”

Yet all was not lost for area music fans. An upsurge of enthusiasm to retain a substantial music venue in the area coagulated into the Save Live Music Irvine community group which, with the backing of former Irvine Meadows operators Live Nation, was able to convince the city of Irvine to erect FivePoint Amphitheatre on 44 acres of privately-owned land less than two miles from the site of the old venue. Not even a year after Stefani’s tremulous final notes faded from Irvine Meadows, FivePoint Amphitheatre opened on October 5, 2017 (with Young the Giant this time headlining proceedings). The idea was for Live Nation to operate the amphitheatre through 2020, while plans for a permanent venue within the Great Park solidify.

Photo by Dennis Guerrero for DSG

“It was incumbent on us at Live Nation to come up with a plan that would keep live music thriving in Irvine,” explained Brad Locker, vice president of marketing for Live Nation L.A., who began his career in 1995 as a marketing intern at Irvine Meadows.

Locker says that Live Nation gave “a little backbone” to Save Live Music Irvine after noticing the organic groundswell of community support for retaining a major concert venue in the area.

“That kind of became a voice for people who wanted to, like us, make sure that there was a plan going forward to ensure that they would still be able to come out and see world-class talent in a market that has a sizeable population – and, frankly, demands it,” Locker continued.

In many ways, the more intimate and flexible 12,000-seat FivePoint Amphitheatre – named for its developers, FivePoint, which has designed mixed-use, master-planned communities up and down the California coast – is a superior venue to the old Irvine Meadows (which was known as Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre, 2000-2014). Yet the semi-rural, hill-hugging layout of Irvine Meadows, while not entirely practical, is nonetheless hard to replicate.

“You were surrounded by nature. … That in itself made the venue unique,” recalled Mohler, who saw everyone from Anthrax and Ice Cube to Ziggy Marley and The Jesus and Mary Jane at Irvine Meadows. “The unique seating arrangement was awesome! Seats cascading down the hillside, with a large general-admission grassy knoll at the very top.”

Mohler is not alone in having tales of local teens, who were familiar with the surrounding terrain, sneaking into the venue through its upper knoll, their price of admission paid only in poison oak.

“If Irvine Meadows was not there, I definitely would not have seen as many concerts,” said Kleile Martin, who saw the likes of Bon Jovi, the Grateful Dead, Metallica and Iron Maiden at the venue. “I have been to the L.A. Forum, L.A. Coliseum and Long Beach Arena, but always enjoyed the concerts at Irvine Meadows better.”

Photo by Dennis Guerrero for DSG

What FivePoint Amphitheatre lacks in brick-and-mortar solidity and natural charm is compensated for by its smaller size and thoughtful layout. The furthest of its bleacher-style seats from the stage are significantly closer to the action than those of Irvine Meadows, and its flexible design allows it to be tailored to individual artists and their fans.

“For some shows at FivePoint Amphitheatre we recognize that we have kind of a more active, wants-to-dance, party kind of crowd, so we can do the entire front section as general admission,” said Locker. “Sometimes we might have a show that lends itself more to being seated, and we can do the entire thing seated. We can find a middle ground, where part of it is seated and part of it is general admission.”

By contrast, Irvine Meadows offered only a very modest general-admission pit area, holding around 200 fans, regardless of who was performing. Nonetheless, the venue drew in people from all over SoCal who might otherwise have never visited Irvine, attracting as it did even tours that skipped Los Angeles – a function that any new permanent venue will hopefully continue.

“When I was young, the Meadows weren’t bad, because I wasn’t drinking and didn’t have to worry about the lines,” remembered Preston Foster, a hard rock aficionado from Sylmar who attended KROQ Weenie Roasts and Pantera, Foo Fighters and Sepultura concerts at the old venue, and has seen Slayer at FivePoint Amphitheatre. “But as an adult, the restroom situation was not accommodating to a sold-out show. … By the time you got back to your area in the hill you’d have to piss [again]!”

Foster recalls impatient Meadows patrons simply urinating through its back fence. By contrast, FivePoint Amphitheatre boasts relatively convenient (albeit portable) restrooms on both sides of its concession circle. Additionally, those concessions are unusually in-touch and imaginative, last year boasting Tackle Box Tacos from Top Chef alum Brian Huskey, noodles and dumplings from Ms. Chi Café (Shirley Chung/Top Chef), plus creations from chef Freddy Vargas (Scarpetta/The Ponte) and a rotation of O.C.’s best food trucks.

“[FivePoint Amphitheatre] also has a very unique space: The back lawn and the concourse area there is vast and allows us to entertain the fans in a different way,” Locker explained. “We have a bunch of party games. … Sometimes we’ll bring out a dance floor and a deejay. [It] allows people to spread out and sit down and relax before a show, in almost like a field setting.”

As well as top-notch programming – which this summer includes Fishfest, Beck and Cage the Elephant, and two nights of the Zac Brown Band – Locker said that Live Nation has endeavored to carry-over Irvine Meadows’ welcoming aura into FivePoint Amphitheatre “in terms of being friendly to our fans and making sure that our staff is knowledgeable and able to direct people in a way that enhances the experience.”

In the longer term, Locker expresses an enthusiasm for Live Nation serving O.C. music fans which bodes well for the enduring presence of a major outdoor venue in the Irvine area.

“We have identified that Orange County is a tremendous concert market, where people tend to support and go out to more events than in other markets nationally,” he concluded. We are at work on a separate permitting process to build a permanent amphitheatre in Irvine, likely near the site of FivePoint Amphitheatre. We hope to share more news about that soon.”