Eddie Sanchez had just played an arena, but he had not prepared to give any autographs.

On Friday night, just 15 minutes after he stood stage right with The Love Language, working the strings of his electric bass for an hour-long set, Sanchez did not appear ready to stick around. Clutching a few small cases of gear, his eyes fixed on the loading dock door and his jaw clenched tight, Sanchez breezed beyond the modest passel of people assembled around his band’s merchandise table, like an employee sneaking out of work a few minutes before the day is done. But a man wearing a tie-dye shirt and gym shorts and tearing at the edge of the plastic wrap lining a Love Language album cover interrupted Sanchez’s beeline.

“Are you going to be signing anything?” he asked, standing still in his spot as if worried the space would soon be rushed by others with the same question.

Surprised by the ask, Sanchez, the band’s newest member, broke his stride for a moment, spinning right and pausing briefly as he pondered the answer; it was clear this was not part of his Love Language routine.

“Sure,” he said, “I’ll find the rest of the band and send them over.”

Sanchez headed for the door.

The unexpected encounter came at the close of The Love Language’s headlining performance on the ninth night of the North Carolina State Fair, 20 minutes before a fusillade of fireworks boomed overhead outside. In the spaceship-suggestive Dorton Arena, arranged for the fair’s run to hold 3,300 people, the Chapel Hill band and their Merge Records label mates Spider Bags had played for a crowd of several hundred, not so different from an area gig at the Cat’s Cradle or the Lincoln Theatre.

But as band leader Stu McLamb said before the show, marveling at the time-capsule construction of the 1951 building as the sunset cast an amber glow through an array of columnar windows, this show felt different, like a point of pride. From nearby Cary, McLamb had been coming to the fair almost annually for his entire life; every member of the quintet, save Sanchez, is a North Carolina native with similar memories.

“I’ve had daydreams of it being packed out and of shooting a turkey-leg cannon into the crowd. But I’ll feel good about anything, even if it’s 50 people. I’m just into the view,” said McLamb, turning to his left to glance at an old room where Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix and the Raleigh IceCaps have all played. “I doubt a majority of the people here have any clue who we are, but at least a few of them will see us. And that feels like tapping into the main vein of the state.”

Indeed, The Love Language was one of 86 North Carolina acts to play one of three state fair stages this year, following a system-wide overhaul of the event’s approach to entertainment. Rather than allocate a budget of more than $350,000 to recruit acts from across the country inside Dorton Arena alone, the state fair opted to hire the local company Deep South Entertainment to spread about $200,000 of talent and production costs across the fairgrounds.

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Spider Bags have finished their soundcheck early.

The sound engineer thankfully announces the news over Dorton Arena’s PA. This feat makes them the first act at the year’s fair to be ready for the show before the doors opened. They holler at the news like kids in a classroom, being let out to recess.

Outside, the band’s drummer, Rock Forbes, leans against a Volkswagen and begins to share his memories of Dorton. Forbes grew up in Alamance County and attended Graham High School. He and his friends would drive the hour west to see big acts that might not have stopped in nearby Greensboro. He remembers Aerosmith, Heart and even a fair appearance by the brazen guitarist Jerry Reed.

Backlit by a neon Ferris wheel only 50 feet behind him, he speaks of seeing Kiss here, too, and how he was already old enough to harbor rock star ambitions.

“I always thought I might play somewhere like this. I did hope I might,” Forbes says, laughing. “This isn’t quite fulfilling the fantasy like I imagined, but it’s close enough. It’s good enough being out here, seeing the lights and smelling the food.”

Later that night, onstage, lead Spider Bag Dan McGee echoes the sentiment.

“We’ve been living under the floorboards for quite some time,” he tells the crowd, largely sitting in straight-back chairs that squarely face the tall, wide stage. “It’s nice to be let out finally and in the same space that held Dusty Rhodes, Ric Flair and Jimmy Page.”

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