– As a giant bonfire burned in the distance and tombstones and zombies lined the stage, it looked like the end of the world was nigh. It was just the end of another Hairball gig, though, in another part of the Upper Midwest not often visited by touring rock bands.

While his fellow vocalist Joe Dandy hollered expletives at the Brainerd International Raceway crowd in a fake British accent (pretending to be Ozzy Osbourne), Bobby “Rockstar Bob” Jensen emerged from the band’s semitrailer wearing Alice Cooper makeup and a real, slithering Burmese python named Bubbles around his neck.

Getting that live reptilia, Jensen claims, was crucial in turning Hairball from a kitschy cover band into one of Minnesota’s most successful rock acts.

“Using a rubber snake was just too silly,” he said.

A former orphan who told people as early as age 5 that he wanted to be a rock star, Jensen proudly beamed, “This is the kind of entertaining rock show people are missing these days.”

The rowdy, multigenerational crowd at the Brainerd raceway two weekends ago certainly seemed thrilled with Hairball’s wig- and pyro-filled, post-race performance. Raceway staff said it was the biggest audience they’d seen in years in the track’s concert ring, around 3,000 strong.

Similar scenes and stories have popped up in recent years from Duluth (where Hairball’s annual July 3 gig at Bayfront Park draws about 7,000 people) to Walker, Minn. (10,000 at the Moondance Jam pre-party), and from Bismarck, N.D., to Waterloo, Iowa (around 3,500 fans in small arenas).

It’s because of numbers like this — plus rising competition from casinos — that the Minnesota State Fair booked Hairball to headline the grandstand on Saturday, a slot typically reserved for the kinds of acts Hairball impersonates.

Renee Alexander, talent booker for the fair grandstand, admitted they weren’t her first choice, but she saw them as a good all-of-the-above option.

“We always try to get at least one classic-rock act, but this year we just couldn’t find one,” Alexander said. “So I figured: ‘Why not book them all?’ That’s sort of what you get with Hairball.”

For a $15 ticket — lowball prices are another Hairball selling point — fairgoers will be treated to short, two- or three-song fixes of Def Leppard, Van Halen, AC/DC, Guns N’ Roses, Mötley Crüe, Judas Priest, Twisted Sister, Kiss, Queen, Poison, Cooper and maybe a few more acts depending on the timing and the humidity. (Weather affects both the pyro and the ability to wear wigs and leather costumes for two-plus hours.)

Hairball’s members, of course, think the fair grandstand booking is long overdue.

“We’ve been wanting to play it for years, but they couldn’t see us as anything more than a local band,” said Jensen, who also performs as Jon Bon Jovi, Bret Michaels of Poison and either Gene Simmons or Paul Stanley of Kiss. He always starts the show as one of the latter two, by the way, because applying their face paint takes too long to do mid-performance.

“We play 120 shows a year and have 20 people on the payroll, so obviously we’re not just local,” Jensen added.

“[The fair] finally recognized we’re not just another tribute band,” added Kris Vox, Hairball’s resident imitator of the singers in Queen, Def Leppard, Judas Priest and Twisted Sister.

Vox also recently added a Prince montage in which he plays a relatively royal “Purple Rain” guitar solo, too — evidence that metalheads were as in awe of the little guy as most other musicheads.

Asked whose shoes are the hardest to fill, though, Vox still points to Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider — and he literally means because of the footwear.

“Jumping around on those nine-inch heels does a lot of muscle damage in here,” he said, pointing to his thigh area.

Welcome to the show

There are two ways to look at Hairball from the outside: a hopelessly cheesy, maybe even desperate band of middle-aged guys who didn’t get the memo that their rock-star aspirations and the glam and decadence of the ’80s are over; or a surprisingly shrewd, hardworking group of fellas who found a way to remain full-time musicians, and to actually make a good living and have a decent amount of fun.

The latter perspective came into clearer view watching Hairball from behind the curtain in Brainerd, where the band rolled in without its usual ringleader.

Guitarist Mike “Happy” Schneider has been fighting esophageal cancer most of the year, a sad fact that makes the grandstand booking bittersweet. “He’ll be back with us soon, though,” Jensen said firmly.

Arriving by tour bus and semitruck from the Martin County Fair a night earlier and the Iowa State Fair the night before that, the band had more than four hours to prep before showtime in Brainerd but was still hard-pressed to be ready.

As the five crew members unloaded music gear, video screens, stage props and a dozen hard-shell boxes of precisely placed pyro — one box of concussion bombs was needed for AC/DC’s “For Those About to Rock” alone — drummer Billy Thommes was busy behind the stage wiping gray residue off his cymbals.

“That pyro ash sticks to everything,” complained Thommes, who joined Hairball at the start of 2018 after years of touring with the likes of Jonny Lang and Rocket Club. He and temporary guitarist Paul Hanna were both recruited anew by bassist Randy “Freaky” Engebritson, a veteran of Flipp and other Twin Cities metal bands.

Daily drum-cleansing aside, Thommes said he’s having a blast.

“I grew up with this music, and so did most of the people we’re playing it for,” he said. “Every night, there’s a high energy level you don’t always get playing with [original] bands, because the crowd already knows all the songs. And they really are fun songs to play.”

Prepping his vast array of costumes and wigs in the semitrailer that doubles as a dressing room, Kris Vox — his head shaved for easier wig application — explained why Hairball’s appeal is more than just people wanting to revisit the music of their youth.

“The ’70s and ’80s really were a fun time in rock ’n’ roll,” he said. “You couldn’t do this kind of show with ’90s rock. It’d be too depressing.”

Rock of ages

A guy who was once in the thick of the original hair-metal scene actually started Hairball in 2000 but is now only involved behind the scenes. And he’s happy to recount how far the band has strayed from his original concept.

“It was more of a comedy act at first, making fun of the music more than it was trying to revive it,” said Mike Findling, better known as Chainsaw Caine, the eyepatch and power-tool-wielding frontman in the locally popular ’80s hair band Slave Raider.

Hairball’s current members visibly cringe at memories of Findling’s original novelty act, but in his defense, the Hairball founder said, “Back then, nobody took this music seriously. But then there was a revival, and people started to appreciate it again.”

With Findling moving behind the curtain and Jensen and Schneider out front, Hairball started legitimizing its act in 2005, coincidentally or not the same year the hair-metal-celebrating musical “Rock of Ages” premiered (later a Broadway hit and a movie starring Tom Cruise).

That’s when the costumes and stage effects started getting more intricate and expensive. Hairball began enlisting some of the same wardrobe designers, prop makers and pyro experts who also work for Kiss and Alice Cooper.

That’s also when Jensen got his first python, which now rides around with the band in his own large black case.

“I didn’t even particularly like snakes,” admitted Jensen, 48, a Minneapolis native who now lives in his late parents’ home where he first arrived as a foster kid. “I only got it for the show.”

And “the show” really is what sets Hairball apart, insisted Jensen, even as he was quick to praise the musicianship of his bandmates and point out how they have actually played backup band to many of the singers they celebrate, including Cooper, Simmons and Judas Priest’s Rob Halford.

“The music really has to kick ass and add to the believability, or we’re just guys up there in wigs,” Jensen said.

However, he added, “I tell people I’m in the entertainment business, not the music business.”

That point was hit home as he strolled out on stage in his Alice Cooper garb to end the Brainerd gig. While singing “No More Mr. Nice Guy” and “School’s Out” with true grit, he also had to juggle his snake, dodge a baby stroller and shoot off a confetti gun like a highly trained circus performer, all while standing in the right place so he didn’t get blown up by any pyro.

“It’s a lot of work,” he said afterward, when his dark Alice makeup was wiped off and his bright smile was back on. “But it’s a dream gig.”