The Top 10 Concerts of All Time at SDSU

SDSU historian Seth Mallios ranks the best shows on campus and he's ready to defend his picks.

Friday, June 23, 2023
SDSU has hosted thousands of live popular music shows since the first concert by Bill Rossi in 1931. But which landed in the top spot in the ranking? (Courtesy photos)
SDSU has hosted thousands of live popular music shows since the first concert by Bill Rossi in 1931. But which landed in the top spot in the ranking? (Courtesy photos)
This story was published in the Summer 2023 Issue of SDSU Magazine.
So moved by the musical genius of Peter Gabriel at his summer 1983 concert at San Diego State University, one audience member stole the sock right off Gabriel’s foot as the singer crowd-surfed — ironically to the song “Lay Your Hands on Me.”   When hard-rocking fans at the 1995 Ozzy Osbourne show got an invitation from the Godfather of Heavy Metal himself to — “Come down here, and get crazy with me! Whoever gets on stage, gets backstage!” — they happily accepted. What ensued was chaos unrivaled in campus history. The concert turned riot was only four songs in. Fearing for their safety, event staff members at the Open Air Theatre frantically shed their neon yellow jackets to avoid being assaulted.   There are hundreds of stories like these — known and unknown — in large part because SDSU has hosted more live popular music shows than virtually any other university in the nation. As of June, the university’s tally of billed musical performances numbered more than 3,000 since the first show by Bill Rossi in 1931. But which shows were the best? Glad you asked.   Since few things evoke a more passionate response from alumni and current college students than musical preference, only one as foolish as I would dare present the following ranked list of the top 10 concerts of all time at SDSU. (See the methodology.)
10. Mike Watt, Foo Fighters, Hovercraft May 20, 1995 Montezuma Hall (Score: 96.5/100)
Though total chaos typified some of the most memorable SDSU concerts of the 1990s (think a broken water pipe and trash fights at Lollapalooza in the Aztec Bowl in 1994), it's hard to put into words the many nuances and subplots of this particular show. Homegrown opening act Hovercraft featured band members with bizarre aliases and various rock stars, including Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder and Dave Grohl formerly of Nirvana, disguised in drag. The second act was none other than future Rock & Roll Hall of Famers the Foo Fighters (and Grohl sans drag), who were unsigned and had yet to release an album; and bass legend Mike Watt headlined this masterful yet mysterious show in the last stop on his tour.
9. Bob Marley July 24, 1978 OAT (Score: 97/100)
As reggae’s most iconic figure of all time, Bob Marley exhilarated the sold-out crowd during his first and only San Diego State show in support of the landmark albums, “Exodus” (1977) and “Kaya” (1978). This concert cemented reggae’s place at SDSU: Annual Reggae Sunsplash festivals were held on campus throughout the 1980s and ’90s following this unforgettable performance.
8. Jack Tempchin, Tom Waits Nov. 3, 1973 The Backdoor (Score: 97/100)
Perhaps no show better exemplified the brilliance of The Backdoor than local talent Jack Tempchin and Tom Waits. While both artists would achieve stunning success later in their careers — Tempchin was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2019, and Waits was enshrined in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2011 — the friends cut their teeth together in and around San Diego. They intermittently worked behind the scenes at The Backdoor, played unbilled open-mike Hoot Nites at the club, wrote songs on campus (in fact, Tempchin co-wrote the hit single “Already Gone” at The Backdoor!) and most of all, in the words of Tempchin, “learned [how] to communicate with an audience.”
7. Madonna, Beastie Boys April 19–20, 1985 OAT (Score: 97/100)
Promoting the ultra-successful album “Like a Virgin,” a slew of MTV videos and an additional chart-topping single from the movie Vision Quest, Madonna was well on her way to becoming one of the world’s most influential entertainers when she made her first and only stop at SDSU as part of her first North American tour. Part of the Material Girl’s legend at SDSU is that the OAT’s dressing room is called “The Madonna Room” because it was allegedly built at her request before she performed.
6. Patti Smith Feb. 3–4, 1976 The Backdoor (Score: 97.5/100)
When burgeoning punk-rock icon Patti Smith performed four shows in two nights, all of which were sold out, she introduced San Diego to something entirely new: concerts that were loud, fast and vulgar. Smith impressed, thrilled and, at times, accosted concertgoers by lulling them into a false sense of intimacy with a poetry reading that was then followed by a punk-rock fury of “hostility and resentment,” according to The Daily Aztec. The acts culminated with her ripping the strings out of her guitar, spitting on the crowd and shouting obscenities.
5. Beyoncé Aug. 26, 2007 Cox Arena (Score: 97.5/100)
Historical lists rarely spotlight events from the 21st century, but Beyoncé’s “flawless” performance, as The Daily Aztec deemed it, was undoubtedly one of SDSU’s finest concerts of all time. Her appearance at State, just as she was evolving from entertainment megastar to international icon, included the longest set list for an individual performer in university history (37 songs!) and an inspired blend of the singer’s original works with tributes to other performers and her previous band, Destiny’s Child.
4. Canned Heat, Grateful Dead, Santana May 11, 1969 Aztec Bowl (Score: 98.5/100)
Three months before Woodstock in the summer of 1969, SDSU hosted an outdoor music and art festival with many of the same bands, including headliner Canned Heat, the Grateful Dead and Santana (in his first San Diego performance). The Daily Aztec reported that more than 10,000 people attended the “rock and roll day of fun and sun” that featured a Renaissance fair atmosphere of diversity and goodwill, booths ranging from arts and crafts to the Black Panthers, and an unforgettable, spontaneous jam session between Santana (who had yet to record an album!) and the Grateful Dead.
3. Jimmy Buffett and the Coral Reefer Band Sept. 3–4, 1975 The Backdoor (Score: 98.5/100)
Despite having his name misspelled on the flyers promoting his first shows at SDSU at The Backdoor, Jimmy Buffett — not “Buffet” — quickly established himself as a burgeoning star. For generations, fans raved about his music, wit (he reminded his student audience, “You might as well enjoy life: God grades on a curve”) and the fact that he first performed “Come Monday” at SDSU.
2. The Police, Oingo Boingo, Madness Sept. 5, 1983 Aztec Bowl (Score: 98.5/100)
Touring in support of “Synchronicity,” The Police played their one and only SDSU show to a crowd of more than 21,000, a record-setting number that paved the way for future large-scale concerts. Sting — still with orange hair and tattered sci-fi garb from the recent filming of Dune — led the mega-popular British trio in a 21-song, two-hour set. Madness, who opened the show clad in giant sombreros they had just acquired in Tijuana, had just released the single “Our House,” and campus favorites Oingo Boingo played a sterling second set.
1. Ella Fitzgerald Oct. 1, 1961 Peterson Gym (Score: 99/100)
When Ella Fitzgerald — also known as the Queen of Jazz and America’s First Lady of Song — played at San Diego State, she was one of the biggest musical stars in the nation. Fans in The Daily Aztec gushed that her sold-out show was “perfection.” But even more consequential for race relations in highly segregated 1960s San Diego was the fact that Fitzgerald — three years before the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act — mandated in her contract that if she witnessed any racial segregation at the show, the college would forfeit its deposit and there would be no concert.
The Method Behind the Madness
Before you crush me for being a Gen X homer who dives into the murky waters of musical conjecture, here are my explicit criteria (each on a scale of 1–20 and a top cumulative score of 100).
  • The show had to be by artists at or just before their musical apex.
  • It had to have either exclusively positive or positively vile reviews (beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but evoking passion is a must).
  • The concert had to have some sort of impact beyond the music itself.
  • It had to include something distinctive to SDSU.
  • The performance had to have created such a buzz that it led to ample embellishment by fans, who may or may not have actually attended the show (but insisted to me that they did).
    Seth Mallios, San Diego State University history curator, anthropology professor and author of 11 books — including the five-volume set, Let It Rock — welcomes your feedback on his top 10. Email him at [email protected] with your rationale as to why other concerts at SDSU were more significant, mind-blowing or impressive.
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