Smile Politely

Winger and .38 Special play a special summer bash in Gibson City

This is a photo of a rock band performing on stage. The stage is decorated with a large red and gold emblem of a winged eagle with a drum set in front of it. There are four band members visible on stage, each playing a different instrument. The band members are dressed in casual clothing and have long hair. The stage is lit with red and purple lights, creating a dramatic and energetic atmosphere. The audience is not visible in the photo.
Sal Nudo

In the late 1980s, I used to ride in Bill Kirby’s car and listen to bands like the BulletBoys. He and my best friend went to the same Baptist church; that was my connection with Kirby. That and a love of music.

Today, Kirby is the director of employee and community events at Gibson Area Hospital, and he still loves 1980s hair metal. The hospital’s CEO, Rob Schmitt, also digs this type of music, which is fortunate for area residents with similar musical tastes, because it has led to the formation of several fun concerts in Gibson City since the start of the pandemic.

As we waited for Winger to take the stage at the August 19th Summer Bash concert in downtown Gibson City, Kirby told me that Summer Bash was created to thank the hospital’s employees who worked so hard during the pandemic, as well as to give everyone else something to do during those cooped-up early COVID-19 years. Warrant and Night Ranger came to town in 2021 and 2022, respectively. This year it was Winger and .38 Special. Kirby said his team is “pushing for some big names” next year.

“The pandemic shut everything down and we were like everybody else,” Kirby said. “Just because we’re a small town didn’t mean the pandemic didn’t shut us down.”

Kirby said he loves the energy of the hair-metal bands he helps recruit to play Summer Bash shows. He estimated the number of people attending the Winger/.38 Special concert to be more than 4,000, which sounded accurate to me — the space was packed from front to back. Same thing with the lines in the beer tent, the vodka tent, and in front of the food trucks.

This is a photo of a large crowd of people at an outdoor event at night. The crowd is gathered in front of a stage with a white tent. The background consists of a row of buildings and a stop sign. The sky is dark and the lighting is diffused.
Sal Nudo

I scanned the crowd and saw Tammy and Steve Spencer, also memorable friends of mine from back in time. They were sitting in foldable chairs with one of their friends, and I was curious to hear their thoughts about the headliner, .38 Special, as well as Winger.

Tammy told me she’s an “eighties rock girl” — indeed, she seemed more excited to see Winger — but she and Steve like lots of different kinds of rock music, from the Stone Temple Pilots to Breaking Benjamin to Chevelle. She was impressed that the Summer Bash shows are free.

“This is a great thing to do for the community,” said Tammy, a 49-year-old Mahomet resident. “We have a perfect night for it. It’s great to see all these people out here. I’m excited.”

The weather was a comfortable 77 degrees and, except for a smattering of wispy clouds as the sun went down, the sky was nearly clear. Kip Winger noted during Winger’s set, “You couldn’t ask for better weather.”

Winger’s music became strangely unfun and melodramatic following the multiplatinum success of their first two albums, so it was good to see them mostly play their hits and early stuff. The band led off with “Stick the Knife in and Twist” and then, to my surprise, played their most popular song, “Seventeen,” second.

This is a photo of a rock band performing on stage. The stage has a large banner with the band’s name “Winger” written in red and white. The band members are playing various instruments such as guitars, drums, and keyboards. The stage is lit with blue and purple lights. There are amplifiers and other equipment on the stage.
Sal Nudo

Kip Winger can still belt out the lyrics, but his voice became an unbearably strained growl when reaching for a higher pitch on certain songs. His bandmates, however, provided outstanding background vocals on choruses that call to mind the Def Leppard sound on record. Reb Beach is an astounding shredder on guitar and Rod Morgenstein played a drum solo alongside prerecorded music, something I’d never seen before at a concert. Kip Winger mentioned the stability of his band’s lineup — all the original members were on stage — a fact he should indeed be proud of.

The crowd showed more energy for .38 Special, a group with more than two million monthly listeners on Spotify and an impressive string of multiplatinum and gold albums featuring meat-and-potato rock and roll that became progressively more hefty and polished as the late 1970s progressed into the ‘80s. 

Leading off with “Rockin’ Into the Night” from the 1979 album of the same name, the band played all its feel-good hits: “Back Where You Belong”; “Teacher, Teacher”; “If I’d Been the One”; “Caught Up in You” and more. An unexpected highlight, however, was “Radar Rider,” a tune by .38 Special guitarist Jerry Riggs that was on the soundtrack for the 1981 movie Heavy Metal. Lead singer Don Barnes — the only member left from the original .38 Special lineup he helped co-found — promised the crowd a trippy vibe as Riggs took over for a while, and the guitarist didn’t disappoint. At one point it was just Riggs and keyboardist Bobby Capps playing soft, ethereal music that was worlds away from what the wild-eyed Southern boys usually show the world.

Barnes’s voice is still in top-notch shape, and his guitar solos were on par with Riggs’s during the set. This enduring classic-rock music entertained the crowd all night, along with Barnes’ cheerleading throughout.

This is an image of a large outdoor concert at night. The stage is brightly lit with red and yellow lights and there is a large crowd of people in front of it. The stage has a large screen on the left side and a smaller screen on the right side. There is a crane on the left side of the photo. The sky is dark and there are buildings in the background. The photo is taken from the perspective of someone in the crowd, and you can see the back of a person’s head in the foreground.
Sal Nudo

“Oh, man, this looks like the place to be on a Saturday night!” Barnes said at the start of .38 Special’s show. “Oh, man, you all look good out here. You ready to have a good time?”  

This might not be fashionable rock and roll, but Barnes’s sentiments and question resonated with an audience in which people were wearing t-shirts with the names Johnny Cash, Styx, Pink Floyd, and many other wide-ranging bands on them. With that kind of diversity in popular musical tastes, it stands to reason that Winger and .38 Special, a rather odd pairing of bands themselves, are equally timeless in their own ways.

More Articles