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The Mason Jar is a metal club. Can't deny it. The Phoenix institution was a metal club when it opened 25 years ago. It really became one under the ownership of Franco Gagliano, a gregarious Italian immigrant whose booking turned the Jar into Spandex central in the '80s and early '90s.
Music has changed since then, but the Mason Jar, with its black lit, fraternity basement ambience, is still a metal club. I mean, it has CDs from such gushy Aqua Net metal bands as Saigon Kick embedded in the glass-topped bar. Literally.
When friends from Boston visited me last March, I took them to the Jar to see the Lynch Mob, a thrash band featuring hulking former Dokken guitarist George Lynch. The crowd inside the tiny gray-stucco freestanding fort on the corner of 23rd Street and Indian School was filled with black jackets, tight jeans, mustaches, mullets and hoop earrings. One of my buddies kept commenting that the Jar, with its low ceiling and lack of ventilation, reminded him of the Station in West Warwick, Rhode Island. You know, the hair-metal haven that Great White's pyrotechnic stupidity turned into a crematorium? My guests had a point. With Lynch standing on stage like a thunder god, you couldn't avoid images of guys in bandanas at the bar with arms around two big-boobed blondes.
Reputations don't come from nowhere, I guess, even if Gagliano wants to tell you Bo Diddley occasionally played the room way back when. Metal, he says, was merely what sold.
"You've got to go with whatever's good," says Gagliano, a self-professed Johnny Cash fan who oversaw the joint for 20 years. "There were more heavy metal bands in those days."
Whatever, Franco. The eyes don't lie.
So with my Lynch Mob experience and others like it since then embedded in my mind, you can imagine how weirded out I was when the Raveonettes and stellastarr* played the Jar on October 4.
Each band's music can be described as "art rock." It takes New Wave and Phil Spector-style R&B and washes it in feedback, keyboard and drum programming -- and a serious dose of pretension. It's heady stuff that doesn't quite "rawk." This music tends to attract pointy-headed intellectuals and the comically-hip -- the "I'm too cool for head banging" shoe gazer types.
One group of fans in the dark, concrete confines of the Jar spoke volumes about this audience of around 150. The dude wore a Le Tigre tee shirt (that's the staunchly feminist indie troupe from the snob-rock town Olympia, Washington). He sat with forearms on knees against a wall of flyers featuring bands with names like Cattle Decapitation. He wore no expression on his clean-shaven face. His two female companions, one in a lady bug-spotted hair barrette, the other in a black denim jacket, were even more unmoved, smoking cigarettes, striking disaffected poses and laughing into the display window of a digital camera. This while Brooklynites stellastarr* bashed through its most rhythmic song of the night.
Yes, these are days of transformation at metal central. Increasingly, thanks in part to a relationship with local promotion house NIPP/AMJ SW, the Jar finds itself hosting an eclectic array of national acts we usually associate with other local venues. Here's how the 300-person-capacity club's outside sun-decorated marquee sign read on October 1:
Starting from the top, that's a one-hit wonder pop-grunge band; art-rockers; jazzy jam band folks; a soul-punk hybrid; and over-the-top shticky stoners for geeks. Never mind that the "5" on that marquee sign was an upside down "2" or that the "2" was a "Z." That's not metal.
"I can't have '80s rock bands coming in here every weekend," says current owner Mick Manfredi, who was Gagliano's stockbroker when he bought the Mason Jar from Franco in 2000 (Gagliano still owns the building, while Manfredi owns the Mason Jar corporation and pays rent).
"I'm in business to sell tickets. So I can't do that on an ongoing basis and be successful."
Last week's bill read more like a smart-boy free-for-all at downtown Phoenix's Modified Arts than anything, or one imported from Tempe. In fact, Twinemen, the outgrowth of Boston avant-rock trio Morphine, were originally scheduled to play the Clubhouse in Tempe. Rather than sending it on to nearby Nita's Highway or the Bash on Ash after personnel changes knocked the show off the Clubhouse schedule, NIPP booking agent Will Anderson re-routed it farther along to the seemingly-incongruent Jar.
"I knew I didn't have to run a soundboard," Anderson says of the switch. "Production-wise, it's just easier to do shows here."
NIPP/AMJ SW, seeking that ease, promoted all five of those Jar shows, and it's scheduled to promote seven more between now and December 1. That string of non-traditional bookings puts reps from other Valley clubs on notice.
"We don't put hardcore bands in here. That's what the Mason Jar is known for," says Maria Vassett, booking agent for Nita's Hideaway. "That's why when you hear things like the Twinemen are playing there, you think that should be a Nita's show."
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