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Live music in downtown Tempe doesn't get much better than a Phunk Junkeez show at the Bash on Ash. But after one last performance December 27, the veteran rap-rock fusion band will be scrambling for a new place to play.
The Bash on Ash, the 600-person-capacity downtown Tempe club that became a Valley base for rap-rock bands like the Junkeez, underground hip-hop artists and jam bands since it opened in 1997, has announced it is bowing out of the live music business after a final celebration show on January 3. It's a decision its owners say was unavoidable given the slumping local market for live music, not just in Tempe but the Valley as a whole.
It also leaves the Junkeez and other bands stranded.
"If you don't support your local venues, they're going to go away, you know what I mean?" says Joe "Soulman" Valiente, the Phunk Junkeez's front man. "There's not really going to be a lot left. The great thing about the Bash was that it was a 500-seater. Now, all's you're going to have is 1,000-seat venues. That's going to be tough."
On a smaller, more immediate scale, the Bash's decision to transform into Club Bash -- a danceteria featuring light shows, giant projection screens, theme nights, go-go dancers, lounge areas and a stage area for DJs -- threatens to leave downtown Tempe and Mill Avenue with no high-profile music venues, a potentially huge symbolic blow for the Valley. A decade ago, Mill teemed with viable live music venues -- Cannery Row, Gibson's, Six East and Long Wong's. While the proprietors of Wong's, home to the so-called "jangle-pop revolution" of the mid-'90s, have promised to reopen after the owner of the property that houses it tears down the building and rebuilds next year, an expected severe hike in rent makes the future uncertain.
"That's really jarred a lot of people," says Joshua Bartosh, 30-year-old owner of Ziggy's, a second-floor bar and grill on the corner of Fourth Street and Mill, of the news about Wong's and Bash on Ash. "Like, Shit, what's going to happen now?'"
Bartosh isn't waiting to find out. He took it upon himself to organize an open meeting for musicians and club types on December 16 at Ziggy's (formerly the live-friendly Edsel's Attic), which will start offering live music seven nights a week in January. Billing the event as "Save Our Scene," the meeting attracted several dozen attendees, including folk-reggae singer-songwriter Walt Richardson, a neighborhood fixture since 1976; Leslie Barton, booking agent for indie-rock haven Modified Arts in downtown Phoenix; Kevin Daly of rockabilly band Grave Danger and outlaw-country rockers Trophy Husbands; members of the Valley band collective the Shizz; and members of several ambitious local rock bands, including Dimonet and Starfisher.
After brief comments by Bartosh and Richardson, the meeting quickly developed into a networking affair. Bartosh asked folks to sign a guest list as a way to keep everyone informed of his efforts. Richardson promoted his Tuesday night open-mike events across the street at (mostly, in this sense) traditional Irish pub Rula Bula. The Shizz folks plugged a magazine of listings, opinion columns and local reviews they hope to publish sometime next year. The young band members handed out demo CDs and spoke to whoever would listen.
That info swap, Bartosh says, was the whole point of the meeting. He hopes to hold other such events on at least a semi-regular basis.
"Honestly, I was expecting about five people," he says.
Bartosh revealed one piece of news in his opening remarks: Along with Mill dance club Margarita Rocks and another soon-to-open downtown Tempe club called Bananas -- it'll occupy the building that once housed Balboa Cafe -- he hopes to begin sponsoring outdoor shows early next year, either at the nearby Hayden Square Amphitheatre or some other outdoor space, at least twice a month. It's a way, he says, to attract teenagers -- alienated, in his estimation, by the area's redevelopment and by the reluctance of the surviving clubs, including his, to host all-ages shows -- back to Mill.
"We don't have to fence anything off," says Bartosh, who along with Richardson met with executives of the nonprofit business advocacy group Downtown Tempe Community to discuss the idea on December 17. "It's a public, common area so it can be an all-ages venue, something I can't do.
"It wouldn't necessarily be to my benefit. But you'd have people coming down to Mill Avenue again."
The owners of the Bash, though, decided they couldn't wait that long and that now was the time to be proactive.
"We had a good six-and-a-half-year run," says Scott Adams, who co-owns the Bash and McDuffy's Sports Bar, which sits next door on Fifth Street down the block from the head shop Trails. "Our gut feeling is that right now, the music industry and the . . . fan base for live shows have changed so much over the past few years, it's gotten to the point where it was time for a change."
Adams says he had been generating about 60 percent of the business at the door and bar compared to his revenue of five years ago. He, much like other club owners and promoters nowadays, cites a number of factors: younger non-drinking crowds at all-ages shows; higher ticket prices; higher prices for band merchandise ("[Kids] aren't going to buy five bottled waters. They're going to buy tee shirts."); fewer local bands that can attract large audiences; laws that require him to place a fence between drinkers at the back bar and the stage, which after that state mandate in 1999 created one of the most annoying stage views for bar hounds in the area.
Drew Verbis, entertainment director for McDuffy's, adds two more obstacles: a post-September 11 squeeze on discretionary spending and hikes in insurance following the fire that killed 100 people who attended a Great White concert in West Warwick, Rhode Island, last February.
And so, Verbis says, now is the time to focus on the party people. The club will be closed for renovations for most of January, and Verbis says the hope is to open Club Bash's doors by January 31 or February 1.
"We're going to bottle it up into a club," says Verbis, formerly a booking agent for the Rhythm Room blues club in Phoenix. "That's what we're doing. We're going to use our location close to ASU to create a party atmosphere."
McDuffy's opened a dance-oriented club in Peoria, dubbed McDuffy's Peoria/Wide World of Entertainment, early this year, which Adams says proved to be immediately more successful than the Bash. The difference in drinking-age patronage helped convince him the money lay in clubbing, not in staging rock 'n' roll.
"The club owners have to be able to survive," Adams offers. "If they can't pay their bills, it doesn't matter if the Beatles are playing in there."
Rod Keeling, executive director of the Downtown Tempe Community, says he fully understands. Keeling talks about the DTC's board of directors and participating businesses and neighbors as "stakeholders," and says the arts are an important part of what's at stake. That's why he says he is receptive to finding ways to use public space for concerts -- or at least to lending any resources the DTC can offer.
"If the audience is going to clubs that don't offer live music and they're choosing it over live music, then that's a problem," Keeling says. "Somehow, we have to resuscitate the product, the offering."
But Keeling qualifies his suggestion: "I'm not the guy to ask about how to do that."
The onus, he says, is on the artists and promoters, not just on the benevolence of the surrounding businesses.
"We can provide a venue. We can probably help them with sponsors," Keeling says. "Maybe we can create space on a certain night of the week. It's going to be dependent on the ownership of what we do, the artists themselves. They'll have to own it."
Daly says that shouldn't be much of a problem.
"Fuck the buildings," he says. "If people will open the doors, put on the lights and pay the bands, that's half the battle.
"You know as well as I do that when places fill up at $8 a head, somebody's making a lot of money. I'm not saying it's going to happen today or tomorrow, but it's going to happen eventually. It's a gamble. It's not really a good gamble, either, you know? Music's an incredibly crappy business to be in, probably the worst. Drug dealing has much more sensible growth. I sympathize with these club owners."
Verbis and Adams say they'd like to still be able to make that gamble, too. With the business climate the way it is now, however, Adams is betting that beats-per-minute, sweat, flesh and grinding are the real catalysts that'll bring the crowds back to the area.
"It's exciting to me because we're going to have another baby. And I'm really looking forward to it," Adams says.