Joshua Tehee

Is Paul McCartney the most iconic music act to ever play Fresno?

From left, Elton John, Madonna and Mick Jagger’s Rolling Stones all have performed in Fresno.
From left, Elton John, Madonna and Mick Jagger’s Rolling Stones all have performed in Fresno. Fresno Bee file

Save Mart Center deserves a round of applause for the surprise it handed out last week with the announcement that Paul McCartney will kick off his upcoming tour in Fresno.

The arena promised a full-on news conference (with Fresno State’s first lady and the mayor in attendance) and even as I puzzled out what this “Major Entertainment Announcement” might be, McCartney wasn’t on the list.

I wasn’t alone in the surprise. Within minutes of the 8 a.m. announcement, my social media was flooded with posts of a similar tone.

Sir Paul is coming to Fresno!? Really!?

“Holy crap!” one tweet read, followed by the question, “Is this the most iconic musician to come to Fresno?”

There’s strong argument for it, based on the mass of inquiries I got regarding presale ticketing. Also the fact that the English singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist was in The Beatles and is one of the most successful musicians ever, if you go by Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductions (two), Grammy and Academy Awards wins (21 and one, respectively) and album sales (100 million, if you combine his work with the Beatles and as a solo artist).

While some question ticket prices for the show ($250 seems to be the norm, although cheaper seats were available) and wonder whether McCartney still has his vocal chops, they can’t deny the singer remains relevant in ways that others of his era do not. He’s 73 years old and recording singles with Kanye West and Rihanna and playing one-off gigs with Nirvana (or at least the remaining members of the band). The guy headlined the mega-music festival Coachella in 2009, which is no small indication of a musician’s star power.

McCartney may be the most iconic performer in pop music. Period.

Setting that aside, Fresno has had no shortage of mega-popular musicians come through.

The Rolling Stones, who seem closest to matching McCartney’s level of stardom, played Fresno in 2005 (and also in 1965). Elton John (who also is a Sir) played Fresno at least twice at Selland and once at the then-new Save Mart Center in 2003.

Prince played Fresno. So did Tina Turner, whose legs are iconic if nothing else.

Madonna did a two-night stand at Save Mart Center in 2006. Shania Twain also played twice – once in the midst of her popularity and again as part of her reunion/retirement tour last year. Miley Cyrus played Fresno in her Hannah Montana days, pre-“Wrecking Ball,” and sold 12,307 tickets.

Jay-Z and Beyoncé both made tour stops in Fresno, as did Justin Bieber, who returns to Fresno next week.

When he played Fresno the first time, it was total Bieber fever. There were 500 people lined up at 5 a.m. to get tickets, then kids crying when the show sold out and they got turned away.

Gene Simmons flew from the rafters spewing blood with his band Kiss in 2009, and Canadian rock trio Rush seemed to come to Fresno every other year in the 1990s. Van Halen has been playing Fresno (both with David Lee Roth and Sammy Hagar) since 1978 at least, although the band’s last attempt at a Fresno show was a bust and was canceled before tickets even went on sale.

Other rock legends who have played Fresno: The Who, the Eagles and Bon Jovi. Metallica may not have the cachet of McCartney, but it is arguably the biggest and certainly best known metal bands in the world (regardless of what you think of their last five albums). The band, which has played Fresno, should be included on the list.

Keep in mind, this is the tiniest sampling of all the performers who have come through the city and is mostly limited to the pop and rock genres. It’s also based on recent memory – within my concert-going life, at least. You could go back to the 1980s and add bands like Journey, who played to 25,000 at Ratcliffe Stadium, or the Police, who also played the stadium on the last day of the first leg of its 1983 North American tour, according to Wikipedia. Loverboy and Joan Jett & the Blackhearts, who aren’t totally iconic, drew a crowd of 18,000 when they played Ratcliffe in 1983 (as contrast, McCartney will see 16,000 fans at most).

Going further back in time, I’ve heard stories of Janis Joplin playing at Rainbow Ballroom in the 1960s. Ditto the Grateful Dead and the Doors, although none of them was all that iconic at that point. Beyond that, we would have to include performers like Bob Wills, who essentially created Western swing music and outdrew the likes of Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman in the 1940s. And he actually lived in Fresno.

We shouldn’t be shocked that McCartney is coming to town, or wonder if he’s the most iconic to ever play Fresno (he probably is).

Instead, we should be asking what took him so long to get here in the first place. And, of course, who’s coming next?

Let me start a list: U2, Coldplay, Foo Fighters …

Joshua Tehee: 559-441-6479, @joshuatehee