While the concert business has not quite returned to pre-pandemic “normal,” it is recently showing serious signs of coming off life support. Fewer tours are being cancelled or postponed and, in turn, the listening public is regaining confidence in purchasing advance tickets or heading out night-of-show.

The pandemic that has so divided us has also, somewhat ironically, heightened our rediscovered joy in togetherness. Because one small silver lining of live music’s lockdown blues is a renewed sense of appreciation for concerts among even (or perhaps especially) the most seasoned fans which, in turn, has infused crowds with a revived sense of community and camaraderie. There’s a palpable sense of how much we’ve missed not just the artists and their music, but also the whole concert ritual and the instinctively human reassurance of being in a room filled with strangers, but strangers with whom we have at least one shared passion.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the traditional music hotbed of Orange County, where venues of all sizes in and around Irvine are enjoying a much-delayed sigh of relief and outpouring of fervor for the visceral and very personal pleasures of live performances.

THE DICKIES

The Observatory, Santa Ana

Friday, July 1 

One of The Dickies’ great charms is the band’s joyously authentic celebration of their comfortable 1970s San Fernando Valley roots. While some first-wave L.A. punkers affected working class or even British personas, this eternally goofy, ultra-caffeinated quintet sang about the waterslides, TV shows, and Disneyland that were their day-to-day realities. Always more pop than punk – and a huge influence on the pop-punk subgenre that emerged concurrently with their 1979 debut, The Incredible Shrinking Dickies – they remain super-talented suburban nerds whose songcraft negates the need for any faux-political posturing or pseudo angst. Founder members Stan Lee (guitar) and eccentric vocalist Leonard Graves Phillips continue as the band’s core, with Phillips losing none of his instantly recognizable, cartoonishly tremulous timbre.

HALSEY

FivePoint Amphitheatre, Irvine

Saturday, July 9

New Jersey songwriter/chanteuse Halsey is following an arc that’s become familiar amongst successful pop artists: reaching a point of utterly intentional commercial comfort where they can afford to start taking risks and putting more of themselves into their music. In Halsey’s case this meant, after her first three pop-EDM albums were huge hits, teaming with Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross on the darker, edgier If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power last year. A concept album exploring the joys and otherwise of pregnancy and motherhood, the almost recklessly ambitious If I Can’t Have Love is not, despite the NiN collab, remotely industrial (unless you count Willy Wonka’s factory). Instead, it’s an eminently listenable collection from an artist who, cognizant of being at a career and creative crossroads, is making a very credible grab for longevity.

Kool & The Gang (Courtesy Pyramid Entertainment Group)

OC FAIR: KOOL & THE GANG, THE FAMILY STONE

Pacific Amphitheatre, Costa Mesa

Friday, July 15

Nearly 60 years into their career and with two original members still aboard, Kool & The Gang’s taut, funk- and jazz-inflected R&B is archetypal county fair fare: sunny, household-name hits like “Celebration,” “Get Down On It,” and “Ladies Night” that most listeners of a certain age can sing along with and are 100% compatible with outdoor summer vibing. At least a dozen strong and still led by bassist Robert “Kool” Bell, Kool & The Gang lives up to its name and, while their heyday was a short-lived collab with Brazilian producer Eumir Deodato at the turn of the 1980s that spawned all of the aforementioned hits, they still bring it, synchronized dance moves ‘n all. The Family Stone is built around founding Sly & The Family Stone saxophonist Jerry Martini and Sly Stone’s daughter Phunne Stone. Their renditions of original Family Stone hits like “Everyday People” and “I Want to Take You Higher” will likely find a receptive audience with OC’s Kool & The Gang fans.

REO Speedwagon (Credit Randee St. Nicholas)

REO SPEEDWAGON, LOVERBOY, STYX

FivePoint Amphitheatre, Irvine

Saturday, July 16

A soft rock, soft-focus fantasy, this triple serving of ultra-anthemic cheese will have phones in the air quicker than a schoolyard brawl. Almost synonymous with guilty-pleasure nostalgia for an entire American generation, the throughline of the night is serious songcraft and virtuoso delivery that formed the soundtrack to millions of fumbling romances, high school ragers, and carefree young lives. REO Speedwagon’s Reagan-era ubiquity is hard to exaggerate, with their Hi Infidelity opus alone spawning cassette classics like “Keep On Loving You” and “Take It On the Run” on its way to becoming the best-selling album of ‘81. Also from Illinois, Styx flirt with more progressive adult-oriented rock, incorporating heftier guitars and the synths that were making themselves heard during the band’s early ‘80s zenith, but always strictly in service to the song. It’s telling that Canada’s Loverboy, a band that has sold more than 20 million albums, is only the opener on this no-filler throwback mega-bill.

ABC

The Coach House Concert Hall, San Juan Capistrano

Saturday, July 16 

Now effectively the solo expression of ultra-suave vocalist Martin Fry, between 1982 and ’85 England’s ABC crafted three of new wave’s most elegantly ambitious and uncompromising albums: The Lexicon of Love, Beauty Stab, and How to Be a … Zillionaire! Polishing the synthesized R&B pop of Roxy Music and David Bowie to a hitherto unimaginable studio sheen, they retained sufficient soul, heart, and sheer melodicism to out-chart and certainly outlast most of their genre-jumping peers. Fry’s wry, sometimes skewering lyricism is sweetened by his deliciously loungey croon, ultra-cultured arrangements, and (at the time) state-of-the-art production. Hailing from a gritty steel city that felt the brunt of Margaret Thatcher’s privatization wrecking ball, he’s a deceptively political artist, too, with Beauty Stab closer “United Kingdom” capturing that grim era with a poignancy that crust punks and protest folkies would kill for.

Maverick City Music (Photo Credit Marah Brown)

MAVERICK CITY MUSIC x KIRK FRANKLIN

FivePoint Amphitheatre, Irvine

Saturday, July 23

In March, award-winning worship collective Maverick City Music and multiple GRAMMY recipient Kirk Franklin teamed up for a collaborative live album called Kingdom Book One. What’s unusual about this new release is its being recorded at a Level 5 security prison in Florida with some 1,300 inmates participating. The idea is to spotlight the injustices, including racial disparities, of mass incarceration in America. Despite only debuting in 2019, Atlanta’s Maverick City Music has already released a string of big-selling albums and EPs, received a GRAMMY nomination, and won a Billboard Music Award for last year’s Maverick City Vol. 3 Part 1. The multi-talented Franklin – a choir director, gospel singer, dancer, songwriter, and author – has won an incredible 16 GRAMMY Awards over the past quarter-century. The ongoing Kingdom Tour has already shattered attendance records for Christian music/Gospel tours, with more than 50,000 fans attending its first four dates.

OC FAIR: THE CURED (tribute to The Cure)

The Hangar, Costa Mesa

Wednesday, July 27

It speaks volumes for The Cure’s popularity and longevity that not only are there acts paying tribute to them the world over, but some of these “clones” have themselves become minor institutions. Take San Diego’s The Cured, who’ve performed hundreds of shows since their 2004 formation, and have even had The Cure’s original drummer, Lol Tolhurst, sit in with them. The Cured stick to their almost-namesake’s 1980s heyday, from the early sparse melodicism of “Boys Don’t Cry” and ultra-atmospheric “A Forest,” to huge later hits like “Lovesong” and “Fascination Street.” They’re a Party City take on their idols, relying on Halloween wigs to achieve a squinting likeness and a little over-the-top on the tortured English accent, but present a musically solid homage. Sadly, this will be the farewell show for founding frontman Zippy, due to the lingering effects of a car accident three years ago. We wish him well.