Hair band heydays

March 29, 2023

– Photo courtesy of Paul Erickson

Hair band heydays

Val-Du-Lakes rocked the summer music scene in the ‘80s and ‘90s

By Allison Scarbrough, Editor

GOLDEN TOWNSHIP — Some of the biggest names in rock music took center stage at the Val-Du-Lakes outdoor amphitheater back in the ‘80s and ‘90s.

Summers sizzled with rowdy crowds gathering on the hill to thrash to heavy metal icons Ozzy Osbourne

The smaller pavilion stage at Val-Du-Lakes.
– Photo courtesy of Paul Erickson

and Metallica. Hair band heavy weights Motley Crue, Aerosmith and Bon Jovi amped up thousands of concert goers on those steamy nights. 

The quiet town of Mears seemingly changed overnight into a major concert destination.

Rock-n-roll masters Guns N’ Roses appeared as Aerosmith’s “special guests” July 30, 1988 just as GnR was spring-boarding to become one of the biggest names in the industry. It was the first hard rock show for the Val-Du-Lakes amphitheater venue, and it was “pushed to the limits,” writes William R. Macklin in The Grand Rapids Press.

An autographed photo of Jason Newsted with his grandparents in Shelby after a Val-Du-Lakes concert. Newsted was the bassist for Metallica.

“Vehicles heading for the heavy metal show formed a slow-moving caravan that extended from the Hart exit on US 31 to the amphitheater located two miles west of Mears. It took some concert goers as long as 90 minutes to travel the 12-mile stretch, causing many to arrive late for the 8 p.m. show.

“When they did arrive, they found a scene occasionally bordering on pandemonium.”

I attended many rock concerts back in the day, and I will never forget that GnR show. Seven of us piled into my parents’ Chevrolet Celebrity station wagon/AKA “Grocery Getter” and headed north from Montague. En route, we ran into gridlock. The car behind us rear-ended the Grocery Getter three or four times — luckily not causing any damage; I ran over my friend’s foot who jumped out briefly to “relieve himself” — fortunately he suffered no injuries because he was wearing steel-toed combat boots; and a concert goer who very closely resembled Guns N’ Roses lead singer Axl Rose jumped on the hood of the Grocery Getter and rode most of the way down Fox Road toward the venue. This must be the reason why when I asked my dad if I could borrow the station wagon again, he said, “Val DON’T!”

“Hundreds of rambunctious fans” trampled a 50-foot section of fence during the energized concert, which drew 14,000 people. Just a few arrests were made, and some minor injuries occurred. But the concert was the start of a wild ride in the little town of Mears that lives on in music history. 

Val-Du boasted Michigan’s second largest outdoor beverage license in the 1980s, said Paul Erickson, one of the Val-Du owners at the time. Tiger Stadium took the top slot.

Erickson, in partnership with two other local men — Merle Johnson and Craig Cihak — developed the 98-acre Val-Du-Lakes property in the early 1980s. It was initially purchased by Johnson,

A photo of the Val-Du-Lakes amphitheater not long before it was torn down.
– Photo courtesy of Ross Field

Cihak and Bob Foster “to become a dune buggy sand drag strip.” But a change in ownership from Foster to Erickson, the vision developed into a softball facility and a concert venue. “We later added Tom Greiner as a limited partner in the investment and improvements to the bar/restaurant, the softball diamonds and the stage.” The partnership lasted 20 years.

“They were heady times,” said Erickson, “lots of limousines, a lot of bars, and a lot of fun.” He said 200 kegs of beer were sold at the Guns N’ Roses show. “It was a hell of a lot of fun.”

“My fondest memory was the Stevie Ray Vaughn show in 1989,” said music fan and freelance writer Ross Field of Shelby. Vaughn died a year later in a tragic helicopter crash. “It was a beautiful August evening on the hill. Towards the end of the show, I went all the way up to the top of the hill to watch the sunset over the lake in the dunes — which Val-Du was named after.”

At the end of the show, Stevie sat on the front of the stage and played “Riviera Paradise” solo. “It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen and heard. It’s in the top five of the greatest shows I’ve seen in my life. That show epitomized for me the beauty and potential of the Val-Du-Lakes amphitheater.”

For those locals who didn’t buy tickets to the shows, they were able to catch a glimpse of the magic inside the venue by hanging around nearby.  

“I remember sitting outside on the hood of a car and listening to the Scorpions.” Although Field spent many hours inside the concert perimeter not only enjoying the performances but also writing about his experiences.

The late Don Dorshimer of Belkin Productions served as concert promoter for Val-Du, repeatedly lining up major artists to perform in Mears. “Val-Du-Lakes’ production company really put together some special shows,” said Field. “That’s where everything changed when Belkin Productions came to town,” said Erickson.

“Not only was it a venue for the touring ‘classic rock’ bands of the day — Beach Boys, Blue Oyster Cult, Foghat, Nazareth, Scorpions, etc. — like so many other ‘sheds’ around the Midwest, it was a venue that pulled in major acts — Metallica, Guns N’ Roses, Aerosmith, Hootie & the Blowfish, etc. — and huge multi-artist tours like the HORDE (Horizons of Rock Developing Everywhere) and Lollapalooza festivals as they toured between Chicago and Detroit,” said Field.

Back when I was a college intern for Oceana’s Herald-Journal newspaper, I was handed the awesome assignment of writing about Metallica bass player Jason Newsted’s local connections. Newsted’s parents both graduated from Hart High School; one set of his grandparents resided in Shelby; and his other grandpa lived in Crystal Valley. Newsted agreed to meet me and my brother Joe the day after their Val-Du concert at his grandparents’ Shelby home. It was a brief meeting, but Newsted was gracious and humble. As huge Metallica fans, it was a killer experience, dudes!

Now, the new young generation has a different Oceana County venue to flock to for music — Electric Forest Festival at the Double JJ Resort in Rothbury, which is a multi-day event.

“When you look at the Val-Du era, and then you look at the Rothbury and subsequent Electric Forest festivals, you see this natural evolution of the rock festival. Val-Du-Lakes had the HORDE festival in June of 1994. That was kind of the predecessor to Lollapalooza. It was an all-day festival. Since then, it’s evolved to where you have a captive audience and a big campground or a resort like the Double JJ, and they go for multiple days. All-day festivals were spectacular, but when you have four all-day festivals in a row, that’s really spectacular.”

Legendary jam band, the Allman Brothers Band, headlined HORDE at Val-Du. “The third act of the day was Cheryl Crow. That’s when she was just blowing up with her first big hit.” Crow’s breakthrough hit, “All I wanna do is have some fun” pervades as Val-Du’s anthem for fun-loving concert goers.

“At that time they called venues like Val-Du ‘sheds,’ and they tended to be smaller amphitheaters and pavilions, and Val-Du-Lakes actually had two of them. They had the big main stage and the smaller pavilion.” 

Val-Du not only offers a vivacious musical history, but the resort also has interesting roots.

“Val-Du-Lakes Resort began when Moses Davis and his wife, both retired black school teachers, bought a 100-acre Oceana County farm back in the 1920s,” states the Val-Du-Lakes website. “On this fertile piece of land, Davis farmed cherries, apples, pears, and vegetables, along with raising livestock.

“The couple’s daughter, Lila, and her husband, David O. Duncan, had many friends who came with their families to spend the lazy summer months at what was called the ‘Val-Du-Lakes Farm Resort,’ named for the valleys, dunes, and lakes that surround it. They enjoyed fishing in spring-fed Hunter Creek, hiking the world’s largest shifting sand dunes, and swimming at the golden beaches of Oceana County. Val-Du-Lakes Hill was Lila’s most cherished possession. Its panoramic view of Silver Lake, the vast dunes, and the great Lake Michigan was — and still is — breathtaking. Many years later, Lila sold the farm to fulfill others’ dream of a place to play ball, listen to music, and relax and enjoy life.” 

The website refers to the concert era as “The Glory Days” with “Big Names, Big Hair, and Big Times.”

“Through the late 1980s and early 1990s, some of the nation’s largest bands found themselves playing for thousands of fans at the Val-Du-Lakes Amphitheatre. 

Today, under current owners Brian and Mary Lowing, Val-Du-Lakes Resort continues to embrace its rich past as both a scenic country resort and west Michigan’s entertainment hot spot. The Val-Du-Lakes Bar & Grill continues to feature live bands and entertainment on the weekends. Vacationers can even stay in the recently restored Val-Du Manor that once belonged to the Davis family.”

Val-Du has served as the location for Hippie Fest in recent years and is scheduled to host it again this year the weekend of Sept. 9 and 10.

Val-Du-Lakes’ exciting history lives on in the memories of us now middle-aged rockers. “They were crazy days, and I miss those days,” said Field. “We were lucky to have it.”

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