Considering the breakthrough year Little Big Town is having, it's hard to believe the country group would be anyone's second choice to headline a charity function.
But that was the case with Fight for Life, the annual cancer fundraiser that -- with its elaborate ice sculptures, sanctioned boxing matches, scantily clad dancers and general over-the-top-Vegas-ness -- has become one of the hottest tickets on the city's social calendar.
The first choice of event organizers was genre-bending bad boy Kid Rock. But there was the small matter of his not-so-small fee.
"He was pricey," said Fight for Life volunteer Casey Orsburn.
"After a very long process of offers and counteroffers, he declined. (Little Big Town) was a second option, but a good option. In fact, we couldn't have played it better."
Karma, indeed, was on the side of the organizers, for while the cocky Kid from Detroit was pulling the rock star routine, Little Big Town was tearing up the charts with "Pontoon," the catchiest song of the summer. Just last week the quartet took home two Country Music Association awards, for single and vocal group of the year.
"And they're playing for below their normal fee," Orsburn said.
That's no small consideration for event mastermind and fundraiser extraordinaire Leslie Knox, who owns Advanced Industrial Services, an oilfield services company. In the four years since the inception of Fight for Life, Knox and her team have raised more than $1 million, said AIS spokesman Robert Rice, who is Knox's brother.
And things are getting really interesting this year: Comprehensive Blood and Cancer Center of Bakersfield has vowed to match Saturday's haul dollar for dollar, up to $1 million. The proceeds will go toward the recently launched Kern County Cancer Fund, as opposed to the American Cancer Society, the previous beneficiary, which has faced criticism that not enough of the funds raised here remain here.
"We did everything for the American Cancer Society -- Relay for Life and all that," said Orsburn. "So this year, we pulled away from that to keep everything local, and that's what the Kern County Cancer Fund is, all local."
Bouts, beauties, big hearts
The concert, which starts at 10 p.m., may be the main event, but it's just one part of the night's real selling point: sheer spectacle.
"I would say there's nothing like this in all of Kern County and probably California," Orsburn said. "It's like going to Vegas, but it's tax deductible."
Good cause or not, the general admission price of $350 (which includes food) is a bit of a shock until you consider what you get for your money:
The five-bout "A Night at the Fights," featuring World Boxing Council Super Welterweight champion Mia St. John of Los Angeles vs. Tiffany Junot of New Orleans.
Cirque-style aerial entertainers flying overhead.
DJs and three dance floors.
Pool tables and "flair bartenders," who entertain with nothing but a smile and a cocktail shaker.
Girls, girls, girls. As in dancing girls, girls in skimpy western outfits armed with cap guns -- this year's theme is "Coyote Ugly" -- and girls demonstrating their agility on the mechanical bull (the bull rides are open only to professionals, if mechanical bull-riding counts as a profession.)
A 30,000-square-foot elevated VIP section is a perk for the really high rollers -- as in $1,500 per ticket. For what amounts to a mortgage payment, you get a front-row seat to all the action in a roped-off area.
But the coolest feature -- literally -- is the ice, and they don't mean those cubes clinking around in your vodka.
"Everything in the lounge is made out of ice" by a Los Angeles-based company, said Rice, including walls, couches, tables, the bar, the cups.
"We'll have the Wall Street bull carved out of ice, and it's massive -- 16 feet in length and 10 feet tall. There will be a hollowed-out area, so you can throw donations into the bull."
But by the time your lips start to turn blue, there's still plenty to see beyond the sub-zero section, which takes up only a fraction of the 104,000-square-foot building -- once a big-box home store -- whose use was donated by the owner.
"It's fancy," Rice said. "The owner said, 'Whatever you need to do,' so we painted all the walls inside, cleaned the floors a million times, painted some dance floors. It's a western theme, but it will probably be more of a leopardy look when we get done. That's how it was last year."
Chris Branson, who owns Trinity Safety Company and is a business associate of Knox's, has attended every one of the Fight for Life events. Though he said the night "gets pretty crazy," it's the quieter moments that stay with him long after the ice sculptures melt.
"Just the testimonies of families that have gone through cancer or are going through cancer, in the midst of everybody having fun," said Branson, referring to the videotaped segments that precede the fights.
"It's kind of heartfelt, having a family of my own. People are suffering and people need help, and it's a good thing for Kern County that Leslie has made it so that help is on the way."
If, unlike Branson, you're one of the thousands of Kern residents wondering how such an extravaganza could have escaped your notice for four years, Rice said that's not a surprise.
Though the boxing matches have always been a part of the evening, the rest of the entertainment was a far more humble affair when he and his sister started out. Largely through word of mouth, attendance has grown to match the grand scale of the event. By the time Little Big Town was booked for this year, Rice knew it was time to launch an all-out publicity campaign.
Last year's event drew about 2,000 people on the strength of platinum-selling rock band Switchfoot, which headlined. About 1,500 tickets have been sold so far this year, and organizers are hoping for a crowd of about 3,500 to 5,000 people.
"Dress to impress," Rice advised. "Just bring yourself and have a good time. Oh, and bring your wallet."