Songbird Rising

Live music in Phoenix is there if you want it -- whatever it is you want

The first band I ever went to see in the Valley was Dead Hot Workshop. I could relate to the name. It was last year, on a Friday night in mid-July. I had just moved here from Alaska and promptly discovered that hangovers are even worse when you are dehydrated to begin with. I was staying in a red-light hotel on Van Buren (it's a long story). My hotel mates didn't seem too up on the local music scene, so I flipped through the New Times listings until the words "Dead Hot" grabbed my eyes. I chugged three glasses of tap water (no one had told me yet) and made for Mill Avenue, where I was amazed to see people who weren't homeless actually walking in this city.

Soon I was playing sardine in a sauna at Long Wong's, and Dead Hot was in front of that famous picture window, playing spacious, straight rock 'n' roll with a twang to it. Around here, I soon learned, we call that there music "desert rock" or "the Tempe sound." Everywhere else it's "jangle pop."

Valley bands generally loathe to get tagged with any of those labels, even in cases where it obviously applies. Maybe they don't like being thrown into such critical proximity to the Gin Blossoms--a band that, depending on who's talking, either put the Tempe music scene on the map or poisoned its credibility. Or both.

I don't see the problem. Basically, we're talking about pop rock with a country tinge--which is nothing new around here. Phoenix was a regional hotbed for upbeat country verging on rockabilly throughout the early '50s. Then in 1955, a local country deejay named Lee Hazlewood started looking for ways to blend country music with the blues. He built a studio in his north Phoenix home, founded his own label (Viv Records) and, together with Phoenix guitarist Duane Eddy, perfected a twangy, echo-heavy guitar sound that put a deep dent in the late-'50s pop charts. As far as I'm concerned, there should be statues of Duane Eddy and Lee Hazlewood in Patriots Square.

So if you want to blame someone for the Gin Blossoms, blame Duane Eddy. Or better yet, just shut up. This is Arizona; even the Meat Puppets have a little twangy swagger to their step.

Thankfully, there is much more to live music in the Valley than the Tempe sound--even in Tempe. The greatest strength of the local music scene here is its stylistic breadth. It ranges from reggae and ska to salsa. Jam bands. Industrial bands. Jazz combos that run the gamut from classical to acid. A heavily active blues scene, and a cluster of surprisingly good hip-hop groups that keep perfecting their skills despite selective police actions against hip-hop venues.

Punk rock? Hell, yeah. Phoenix had its punk heyday in the mid- to late '80s, when the city launched such punk notables as the Sun City Girls, JFA and the Harvest. Those bands and their scene are gone, but the Glass Heroes preserve the old-school tradition even as bands like Mandingo represent Phoenix on punk's modern edge.

As for the rest of rock, there's a widely perceived rift between the Tempe and Phoenix music scenes. But that split has become more about metal versus modern rock than home-turf isolationism.

The split may first have been defined by district, but only because certain forms of music once came almost entirely from certain areas of town. Now, the styles are more evenly dispersed. For example--the Valley's punk scene is loosely anchored in Mesa (mainly because Nile Theater is located there), but punk bands come from all over the area. Tempe is nationally known as the home of a tight clique of college-supported jangle-pop bands, but in reality that group is just one subscene among several there.

And while the Valley as a whole remains the land where metal lives because it never died, it's no longer true that all local metal bands come from Phoenix, or that all local bands from Phoenix play metal. And it's better that way, because now we all share the blame for this region's stubborn butt-rock fetish. Ozzy Osbourne still sells out concerts here, and predictably the Valley is a mother lode of local metal. Some of it's tight and loud--good music to amp out to. Most of it's pure cheese puff.

Which brings into play the local music scene's greatest weakness: depth. Lack of it. There are smaller sprawls--Austin, Texas, and Portland, Oregon, for example--with a greater number of outstanding bands than here. One clear difference between those cities and this one is the level of audience support for original, live local music. In Portland it's intense; in Austin it's incredible.

And that presents a chicken/egg question--are the audiences bigger in those cities because the sum of excellent music is greater, or is there more excellent music because a broad, impassioned audience is the catalyst for a stronger scene?

Either way, you win with the first New Times Music Awards. Presented here are 36 of the Valley's best local bands from 11 rough categories (a necessary evil for competition). Profiles of each act follow in this guide. I urge you to support your favorite band, but I likewise urge you to experiment with an act or a style that's more of a stretch for you, and to cultivate an interest in live local music beyond this one-time extravaganza. Because, fundamentally, local music in the Valley lives or dies by one crucial factor: you.

--David Holthouse, New Times music editor

 
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