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Still, that is not to say it all blows. Quite the contrary, really.
With that, I asked three heads from three decidedly established but varied rock 'n' roll bands to yak about what they consider the best and worst venues at which to play their brand o' bash, and why. All three have been gigging in Phoenix for more than just a few years, long enough to at least question a few things.
"We played this place in west Phoenix, and it was the first time a girl ever flashed her boobs at me," chuckles Sugar High singer Adrian Evans, recalling an ill-fated gig at an ill-fated west-side bar called Flannigan's. "That shit never happens in Tempe."
The aesthetic wasteland of west Phoenix may be weighted with more than its share of meth labs, teenage beer runs and dart tournaments, yet music venues in which sprightly rock 'n' roll bands like Sugar High can play no longer exist.
"We played at a place on the northwest side called Paradise Cove, and I kept telling the boys to keep on playing Tom Petty," Evans continues. "Just keep playing Tom Petty in different keys and we'll be just fine. I didn't have the balls to do 'Love in Stereo' for the guys in the bar."
Aside from downtown clubs Cooper'stown and Jackson Hole, there is no reason for a band to venture west of the Mason Jar for gigs. Unless, of course, your band has a steel guitar player or a set list mixing Skynyrd, Clapton, Ozzy with the odd Cars cover.
For all its storied Phoenix history and international rock-dude mythology, the Mason Jar at 23rd Street and Indian School Road stinks in many ways, but hits the mark in others. Really, it ain't much different from any venue of its type and size anywhere else in the country. And considering its longevity and the bewildering booking tendencies of its owner -- one Franco -- it's a miracle the place isn't an outlet for fishing supplies.
"Well, when we've played the Jar -- and I like the Jar; I like places with history -- but it had to do with sound," says Steve Shelton, guitarist for the zippy, über-garage Van Buren Wheels. "When a local rock act doesn't have their own sound man [at the Jar], what do you get? So that's not a slag on the Jar, but our experience there on that particular night was just like shitty."
For a local band playing the Jar, the stage, sound and lights are more than adequate for the club's size. The stage, at least, can give you the illusion of a rock 'n' roll show. And for all the name-calling directed at the diminutive owner, his club's PA and lights are ace, if not always in working order. When the sound is intolerable, it has more to do with the high number of irredeemably dreary bands that pass through each week.
A long-standing Jar credo shared by myriad bands that claim they never get paid after playing the Jar is summed up by Piersons shouter/songwriter Patti Pierson. He asks, "Do you still have to pay 50 bucks to play there? That was always our deal."
Long Wong's in Tempe, with its shut-in confines and lack of stage, is tailor-made for an in-yer-face confrontation, the archaic, big-guitar kind. With no stage, gym-pumped frat guys fueled on many pitchers can get their mugs directly in with the musicians'. And Wong's coughs up 100 percent of the door at the end of the night, a rarity.
"I like playing Long Wong's because they treat you really well," Shelton says. "The crowd and the conditions are conducive to a rock 'n' roll atmosphere. Ya know, it happens there -- that feeling that you should get when you are performing live. And they pay you right. It's just good on all accounts except parking and getting your gear in. That's a nightmare. But there's people dancing two inches away from your pedal and you're waitin' for them to kick it out of there.
"It has to do with elements that make up the club, rather than any particular club in my mind," continues Shelton. "You got the crowd and where are they going. You've got the other bands on the bill; you got the sound man; and what did they do at the door, are they treating you right at the door? So those elements can change for a few months or whatever at any given club, except for maybe Long Wong's or a few others. So maybe the Jar is cool sometimes and then maybe it's not. And anywhere else is generally like that."
The Green Room, like the Jar, is a club-size concert venue with good sound, big stage, bar, all that. And there is an intangible thing that makes it a classic rock 'n' roll club.
Evans agrees: "There is a really cool kinda creepy vibe there. There's just something going on, and I'm attracted to it. People might actually fuck in the bathrooms there. It's good bad, not evil."
"My least favorite is the Arizona Roadhouse in Tempe," he continues, "only because I got kicked out of there one time. I was carrying around a pitcher of beer, but that breaks some law that says one guy can't have a whole pitcher to himself. The lawmakers feel like they are making laws to keep people from not driving drunk, and it makes for a bar owner to feel like he cares, too. I can go and order 50 drinks in a row, but I can't carry around something that holds more than two drinks. You can order the little mini pitchers, but if you get the full-size pitcher you have to be splitting it with somebody. I was just kicking back with a glass and a pitcher, and I was tossed out. You know, I'm a pretty advanced drinker, so I thought there'd be no problem me finishing that and driving home fine. But this big, fat, bald guy in shorts thought otherwise. But with the Arizona Roadhouse, I think the wounds have healed, now that I know the laws."
The Sport Rock in Tempe with its Sizzler-meets-big-screen-every-day-is-Sunday ambiance goes lengths to quell rock 'n' roll, or any, spirit. Even a dart tournament here would have unenduring possibilities.
"The Sport Rock place, that's like probably the nightmare of anyone who has ever picked up the guitar," says Pierson, laughing. "If you are gonna play there, go ahead and drink your tab. Because you are not going to want to remember."
Shelton also has venues he now avoids.
"We played a show or two at Anderson's Fifth Estate with the Pistoleros, and it had this artificiality," he says. "Nothing personal, it just didn't have that feeling like, say, the old Sun Club had, or Mad Gardens 20 years ago almost. You know, you show up and your friends are there and it's all great."
Evans: "The Jar, I just don't even know anymore. I've had some great times there in the past and there has been some fun drama there. I've had a lot more fun as a patron there than as a performer there."
Shelton says it's the people in the club who make the scene a success or not.
"I think a lot of it is . . . musicgoers locally that are into the scene. And wherever they are going, as a principle, is the nice place to play."
Contact Brian Smith at his online address: firstname.lastname@example.org