Reflecting on the legendary “Heavy Metal Sunday” of the US Festival, taking place on May 29, 1983, in San Bernardino, California, Triumph guitarist Rik Emmett recalled Van Halen performing at the event and not leaving the best impression. Speaking to Ultimate Guitar in a recent interview, Emmett didn’t mean any disrespect but called the performance “not one of their better moments.”
The talk came up when Rik was asked whether it’s true what some people are saying to this day, that Triumph “stole the show” that day. The bill included a bunch of incredible names on that day — Mötley Crüe, Ozzy Osbourne, Judas Priest, Quiet Riot, and Van Halen, apart from Triumph. So “stealing the show” and impressing the audience with such a lineup would have been quite an achievement.
“I saw a little bit of the band in front of us – that was Judas Priest,” Emmett recalled. “And they sounded OK to me. It was a really hot day, and it was really dusty, and they were in their leather and studs and rode their Harley up on stage.”
“I remember thinking, ‘Man. Hot day for them. Glad I don’t necessarily have to be dressed up in all that stuff.’ But they sounded OK to me.”
The exact place where the festival took place was Glen Helen Regional Park in San Bernardino, so the dust wasn’t that much of a surprise. And playing on a hot day dressed in leather sure does sound like a challenge in these settings.
“And the Scorpions were after us,” continued Rik. “I saw them, and I thought they sounded really good. They sounded really tight, and they played really well. I’d never seen them before, and I even thought their harmony singing was good, and the twin guitars were killer.”
But did Triumph really steal the show? Well, although big at the time, Triumph was different on this bill. He explained:
“We were the outlier band. All these other bands were, like, really heavy. Mötley Crüe was on the rise up and they were definitely a kind of ‘live-for-today party band.’ And there was kind of a heavy quality to everybody – including the headliner, Van Halen.”
Now, as Van Halen goes, they were scoring major success back in the late 1970s and the early 1980s. However, on this particular night, Rik says that they weren’t all that great, adding that it was the “consensus” among everyone there.
“I think the consensus was they didn’t have a great day because maybe there had been too much partying over the course of the long day – back in their pavilion and their enclave. So, by the time they got out late at night, that was not necessarily one of their better moments.”
Reflecting on his band’s performance, Emmett sad that Triumph did fairly well, especially considering the fact that they had quite a busy schedule at the time:
“For Triumph, we had played the day before in Orlando, Florida with ZZ Top. Climbed on a plane, flew across the country, had a little nap, got up, got in the helicopter, got to the gig, and got ourselves sort of ‘stage ready.'”
“The other guys in the band didn’t like gigs where we were playing without necessarily having our lights and our special effects and stuff. But I kind of relished it. I was like, ‘Hey, this is going to be easy. Seventy minutes in the broad daylight. Just go out there and play and sing the best you can. It will be fine.'”
“Now, I will say I had a fairly good day that day – my voice was in good shape, and I think I played pretty good on that Akkerman [his Framus Akkerman guitar]. And there were cameras that were capturing everything and filming it. So, it was kind of like, ‘Now my good day is going to live on in infamy.'”
Eventually, Triumph released this performance as the “Live at the US Festival” release, featuring both video and audio footage. Speaking of Triumph’s set that day, he added:
“I think all those things contribute to the fact that people look back on it and go, ‘Wow. Here’s this outlier Canadian band that we didn’t really expect.’ But there was always that thing.”
Coming from Canada to California with such a wild lineup has another rough aspect — critics and reviewers will not always be all that kind. But that’s how things went back in the day. Rik recalled:
“And especially with a certain level of American critics and writers…here’s the thing – after I’d left Triumph, Guitar Player Magazine did a show at I think the Warfield Theater in San Francisco, which was a celebration of their 25th anniversary or something.”
“And the review that I think even ran in the magazine after the fact said, ‘Surprisingly, Rik Emmett played kind of a tasty thing.’ And I went, ‘Surprisingly?!’ So, I would be ‘surprisingly tasty’ because it was not necessarily what people expected – that there was a musician lurking behind that guitar. A writer lurking behind being in a rock band.”
Photo: Public domain (Vanhalen 1981)