Devil's Triangle

A guided tour through the world of barflies, club crawlers, and other creatures of the night

We keep hearing rumblings that Phoenix has emerged as a major metropolis. Some inhabitants even take pride in the smog they inhale, viewing it as confirmation that we're in the big leagues. But Phoenix still struggles to find its own identity and forfeit facsimile. Serving as one of many sketchbooks, our nightlife may help the Valley draw its own cultural cues.

And there's a reason. Beneath the surface, nightlife holds one implicit question: "What's goin' on?" The answers to that question are worth exploring. . . .

Now that Swingers has been seen by everyone at least twice, recent promotions seem to reflect the cool, but no longer fresh, ideals embraced within the cult classic. The corporate-sponsored "Desert Jam '99, The Rat Pack Revisited--A Night of Swing 'n' Spirits" serves as a perfect example. With typical misunderstanding, lounge and swing elements are forced together, and fliers promoting the event contain printed jive like, "Oh yeah, cat, you gotta be 21," along with rampant use of the word "baby."

All this cheesy, ersatz Frank and Dino slang fills up space while neglecting to announce the fact that neo-swing pioneers Royal Crown Revue will be headlining the event. Luckily, RCR is later announced on radio, and tons of free tickets are distributed to bartenders, various businesses or anyone else who happens to be paying attention.

Most who travel to north Scottsdale's Rawhide on Saturday, April 24, part with half a tank of gas to arrive at this alcoholopalooza. At least 12 bars pouring Kendall Jackson, Guinness, and, of course, martinis surround the concrete pavilion. Undoubtedly, charitable contributions to City of Hope helped organizers secure the necessary permits for this highly spirited event. Like St. Patrick's Day or New Year's Eve, the party has an "amateur night" feel as hundreds of people wash away their inhibitions. As you might have guessed, the Valley's core swing crowd is virtually missing in action.

For some inexplicable reason, RCR's latest CD is actually being played through the PA before the live performance. Scott Steen, RCR trumpeter, walks comfortably amongst the waiting crowd just before the band finally hits the stage around 10 p.m. As usual, its loose but flawless performance is a spectacle. The band, which recently finished recording a new album, previews a few upcoming selections with its usual honed precision. About halfway through the set, people start wandering off as if it is now past their bedtimes (opening acts started as early as 5 p.m.). Perhaps it is the fact that RCR has already played "Hey Pachuco."

Later, at Scottsdale's Meqca, RCR vocalist Eddie Nichols and guitarist James Achor make an appearance just before last call. Not everyone understands house music, and Achor is one of the unconverted. Without a taste for the repetitive and inorganic techno, he quickly finds the "discotheque" half of the establishment to be far too crowded and heads for the bar in the quieter Noci. Accompanying him is the actress best known as Victoria Newman on The Young and the Restless.

Back on Mill Avenue--land of khakis, sushi and neon-lit theaters--nightlife slows to a crawl. As a longtime host to garage-band music, "dollar drinks" and microbrews, Mill is best enjoyed by tourists. The more progressive crowd seems to have settled in just a mile east of Mill at Fuel Lounge, one corner of a triangle that includes Bojo's and Acme Roadhouse. Since all three are within stumbling distance of each other, a party spills into the parking lot at 1 a.m. Cleverly, the pizza place next door stays open.

As if to support the notion that our economy will eventually adopt a four-day work week, this Thursday night scene has all the energy of a weekend night. Fuel combines comfy couches and velvet with industrial strength sheet metal. Just imagine a touch of Scottsdale amenity in a rectangular Tempe strip-mall location.

There's also a touch of beauty. The guys and dolls lining up for Fuel are very club-genic. Cute but cunning girls wiggle their way to the front of the line, while bouncers sort through all the guys who claim to know the owner or DJ. Inside, the music is loud enough to rattle the ice cubes in your drinks, which, by the way, are fair-size (Fuel also sells a martini large enough for four people). DJ Randy is the featured spinster, and his formula shakes the butts of the beautiful. With modesty he says,"I spin some cutting-edge house, a little hip-hop and some old-school flashbacks. I'm merely rocking a party in a comfortable atmosphere."

"I come here every week." says Michelle Franco, a dark-haired Fuelster who loves to dance. "I like DJ Randy. I like the crowd. Lately, they've been going to Scottsdale, but I like that they're coming here."

Indeed, the capacity crowd has its share of hipsters and clubbers often seen in less collegiate circles. When Randy drops Pure Sugar's "Delicious" with yet another seamless mix, the crowded dance floor actually swells. Ladies sing along to each other. The chorus is sweet as confection: "Everybody's wonderful, everybody's beautiful." For this crowd, such declarations may well be true. . . .

Free tickets are given away for Lenny Kravitz's Desert Sky performance, and needless to say, the pavilion is beyond packed. Rest-room-line movement? Fifteen minutes. And that figure is clocked for males. As this is the place to be, tumbleweeds are seen rolling through some popular Tuesday night spots.

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