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Two new Tempe clubs bolster a scene; watching war at halftime.

Tempe sucks a little less now.

Two new clubs opened in the non-smoking-mandated, increasingly regulated, fashionably cynical college town this month, filling gaps in the local music scene for concertgoers and bands. The Clubhouse, formerly Eugene's Rock Cafe, opened for business on March 7, tucked next to the Horse & Hound at Broadway and Dorsey. Booked by prolific artist manager Maria Vassett, it immediately promised to become an attractive port for baby bands and packed local blowouts.

"There wasn't a whole lot of people in there, but the sound was good," says Eric Huffaker of punk band Fourbanger, which played the Clubhouse on March 13. "You could pack a bunch of kids in there for some nice gigging."

Then, on the larger scale, three and a half miles down the road came the Marquee Theatre two weeks later. Formerly the Red River Music Hall, the 1,000-seat venue owned by promotional house Nobody in Particular Presents launched with a show by Mexicali ensemble Ozomatli last Friday.

"We're not looking to piss anybody off by doing our own thing," says Tom LaPenna, director of operations for NIPP's Southwestern division, which has hooks in nearly every major venue in the area. "Do I think we fill a need in the community? I do."

The new venues give the Tempe scene something it's been lacking for quite some time: options. Now, up-and-coming bands can work to land shows at the Clubhouse, which has attracted anywhere from 40 to 150 people but can hold up to 250. Or they can approach the cavernous Nita's Hideaway, which, according to owner Mark Covert, has finally equipped itself to hold smaller shows in its back room. Or they can approach Nita's en masse and use the bigger stage for a 600-person bonanza -- Tickertape Parade, the Go Reflex, Fourbanger and others did just that last week.

Prominent national country, rock, punk and electronic acts also find themselves with better pickings. In the past, their Tempe menu consisted of the old Nita's, a great roadhouse that was woefully inadequate for the caliber of performer it attracted; and the Bash on Ash, a huge, dark, open hole with bad acoustics. Now, with the big Nita's on South Price and the Marquee, they have two viable, well-designed rooms. Despite the local show-hopper's natural inclination to bitch about anything (some of the barflies out there would moan and groan about the line outside the Pearly Gates), the addition of venues can only help lift all boats, says Covert. "What happens for us all is that it makes Phoenix and this part of Tempe a more recognizable place. We're going to get a lot more attention from acts that may have not put this in their traveling plans before."

In other words, there might not be so many Eastern bands and festival shows skipping Phoenix for Tucson. For now, that's of little concern to the Clubhouse's Vassett, who is keeping her focus on building an audience, and landing better shows. She's also working to fill a hole in the heart of the local scene that broke when old Nita's tight quarters disappeared, leaving locals with half-filled substitutes -- "[Nita's] was pimpin', dude, that's all I can say," says Huffaker.

So far, Vassett's coolest booking on the horizon is a May 3 show featuring the soon-to-be-defunct Truckers on Speed, the Pistoleros, Haggis, and Gloritone.

"I've only had two people say [the club] is too clean and it's not rock enough," she says. "I said, Put up your stickers and let's go!' But I want the owner to be able to have some kind of a profit before I start draining him."

Like Covert, Vassett is positively Pollyanna about the near future -- even if she is tucked in an ugly-ass strip mall. "All of Arizona is in a strip mall!" she points out.

As I said, at least it'll all suck less.


War broke out during halftime of a game between the Phoenix Suns and the Utah Jazz. I watched President Bush declare that "coalition forces are in the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq" on a Jumbotron screen at America West Arena. This was odd.

Odder yet, however, was the reaction of most of the 15,196 people who attended the game. When Bush concluded his speech, an overwhelming majority of the crowd gave the president a standing ovation -- with stunning exuberance. Seconds later came the musical moment of the year for me so far. Country jingle man Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the U.S.A." ("I'm proud to be an American") played over the public-address system. People sang along. One older woman swayed with her hands raised.

I did not stand. Neither did my friends, visiting from New York and Boston. We felt like the only ones who stayed in our seats. I lived in New York on September 11, 2001. I worked only a few blocks from the World Trade Center. I walked seven miles home that day, hoping everyone I knew was safe, knowing my family feared I might be dead. For weeks, I existed in a hazy war zone patrolled by soldiers and military Hummers. Saddam Hussein obviously must go, but this unprecedented action by our country deserves a reserved response. It does not deserve Lee Greenwood.

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