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‘Lick it up!’

IDL Ballroom’s ‘hair metal’ showcase pours some sugar on rock-hungry Tulsa

Vixen plays at Streets Gone Wild in front of IDL Ballroom in Sept. 2016.

Trent Schoenhals

There is something enduring and unrestrainable about the music of the hard rock bands that flourished in the 1980s before the advent of the grunge era. Bands like Twisted Sister, Ratt, and Tesla—along with their fans—have weathered a mainstream media that mocked and trivialized iconic, driving rock anthems ever since it became more fashionable to be glum and weary than glossy and wired.

To accept the term “hair band” as a valid category in the taxonomy of rock is to link the genre to fashion. Fashion is fleeting, but rock and roll means something. It is a powerful, virulent, transformative force. If “hair metal” is a fair way to describe a band like Dokken’s music, then why isn’t “bell bottom rock” an appropriate term for the spooky, romantic awesomeness of Blue Öyster Cult?

Eddie Trunk, radio personality and host of VH1’s That Metal Show, is ready for the bias against 80s bands to die already.

“I think that the music was heavily, heavily marginalized and ridiculed when the 90s came around, and unfortunately to some degree it still does carry the stigma—which is just ridiculous, but it does,” said Trunk, an outspoken champion of 80s hard rock. “And I think that it’s hopefully starting to erode a little bit. What I think people are really starting to realize about this music is that it has become a new generation’s classic rock.”

In interviews, Trunk has referred to Tulsa as his second home. His first encounter with Tulsa’s devoted rock community came in 2007 when he started hosting the annual Rocklahoma festival, but his connection to Tulsa deepened when he met Doug Burgess. In September of 2016, Burgess was a title sponsor for the Farm Rock: Streets Gone Wild festival, which promised three days of 80s bands in downtown Tulsa. However, on the second day, an unfortunate situation almost brought the music to a grinding halt.

Burgess said it was Eddie Trunk who opened his eyes to a growing concern behind the scenes: The fest promoter had run out of money and skipped town. That’s when Stubwire owner Brad Wickwire, IDL Ballroom owner Tom Green, and production tech Luke Nagel put up their own cash to pay the bands.

The hard, hook-heavy show went on.

Afterwards came talk of collaboration. “Tom and I discussed doing this again in the future,” Burgess said. “But we would do it right, where everybody would get paid. And that’s how this really started.”

Burgess’ promotional company, D.E.B. Concerts, brought Winger in to play the IDL Ballroom in February of 2017. Since then, the list of bands that have played there is a who’s who of epic screamers and shredders who in their heyday packed stadiums with screaming fans—bands whose logos were at one time hand-scrawled in ballpoint pen on countless Trapper Keepers.

Dokken, Tom Kiefer of Cinderella, Lita Ford, Jack Russell’s Great White, Warrant, Firehouse, Slaughter, LA Guns, and Stryper have all rocked the IDL. Trunk, who flies in from New Jersey to host every show, regularly gives on-air shout outs to Tulsa on his radio program, keeping his nationwide audience up to speed about the IDL shows.

“I don’t really see many differences from city to city,” Trunk said. “The one thing that I noticed about Tulsa—and always have since I first started going there—is the passion for the music. They’re genuinely excited that the band is there, and they’re fully engaged in the show. They’re all pushed against the front of the stage watching. That’s something I can say is really nice to see.”

Dokken played the IDL to a pumped, packed crowd in early July. I talked to a devoted Dokken fan who caught the show. She said she’s loved the band since they were in regular rotation on MTV, and that getting to see them live was like a dream come true. “I’d never seen them in person,” she said. “It’s always been a fantasy of mine.”

She described the feeling of seeing Dokken in a smaller venue like the IDL Ballroom. “It was an absolute blast. You could just feel the energy. It felt like seeing a local band, and not . . .  Dokken,” she said with a smile.

It’s one thing to see a rock band outside at a big festival or a state fair, with the music bleeding off into the wind. But real fans crave the opportunity to see the band in a setting that honors the energy of a sound that was smelted, shaped, hammered out, and sharpened in small, dark rock clubs—places like Hollywood rock institutions The Cathouse and the Whisky a Go Go.

“In a way, IDL has become our Whiskey a Go Go,” Scott Squires said. His cover band, Rocket Science, opened up for Dokken during their July show. They’ve been stirring up IDL crowds with songs from bands like Mötley Crüe, Ozzy Osbourne, and Cinderella for more than a year.

“I’m the guy in the back that nobody knows,” said IDL Ballroom’s Stage Manager Billy Bristol, who works on over 200 shows in a given year, splitting his time between Cain’s Ballroom, the BOK Center, and the IDL. From his vantage point, he gets to watch the reason for the concerts: the fans. “To see the audience reaction when the artist comes on the stage . . . it’s an amazing feeling.”

Bristol will be working production of the upcoming shows, including Faster Pussycat on Aug. 18, Sebastian Bach on Oct. 5, and Kix on Nov. 3. Burgess hinted that two more big names—big names that approached him—are being booked and should be announced soon.

Despite the local and national attention, the packed houses, and the killer audiences, Burgess never expects big returns. “I’m doing this out of love of the music, and to support the IDL Ballroom. Tom Green gets revenue from the bar sales, but I’m just having fun,” he said.

Trent Schoenhals—who covers 80s rock and all things heavy on his podcast, Thunder Underground—has gone to most of the IDL shows and has had many of the bands as guests on the show. He’s seen what Burgess’ work has done for fans of the music like himself.

“Doug is doing this because he’s passionate about it,” Schoenhals said. “And it’s a great thing for people who are fans of this music, because you have to be willing to go into it that way and just say, ‘Well, I love Winger enough that if they don’t sell this place out, I’m still okay with the fact that I put on a great show.’”

The passion that keeps organizers going beyond the call of duty to bring rock and roll to the people reflects the passion seen in the crowds, and this seems to have something to do with Tulsa.

“Tulsa is a music town,” Squires said. “We love our music, and we love our hard rock. It’s in our veins.”

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