Best Of :: Arts & Entertainment
Imagine an autumn evening at an outdoor cafe. As you sip a perfectly executed cappuccino, wisps of exotic languages drift through the evening mist of the nearby lake. Seated at the concert grand piano just inside the open glass doors is world-class pianist Jian Liu, playing as if his life, and yours, depends upon his perfect execution of an intricate Chopin passage.
As the music swells, all languages are silenced, and just beneath the pounding crescendo you can sense -- could it be, the fetal heartbeat of a world-class city?
Nice fantasy, isn't it?
But on Friday and Saturday evenings from 8 to 11, Charlie's Espresso turns fantasy into reality. Just up the street from Tempe's Town Lake, a weekly array of talent featuring international stars such as Liu, who won third place at the 1999 Vladimir Horowitz piano competition in Moscow, appears on Charlie's shaded courtyard.
Tango/flamenco dancers, French horn virtuosos, lute and violin soloists and operatic vocalists also perform for the culturally enlightened and fiscally frugal. There is no cover charge for Charlie's fete to high-end culture. Just bring an open mind, a taste for really great coffee and an imaginative heart.
Charlie's is open from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays, 7 a.m. to midnight Fridays and Saturdays.
In a business known for short-lived triumphs, few would've thought local impresario Charles Levy could've captured lightning twice. After the original Nita's was sold, restyled as a hard-core club called the Heat, then reverted back to its old name without success, it seemed unlikely that even Levy's Midas touch could galvanize the club's sagging fortunes. But sure enough, under his control, Nita's Hideaway has once again risen to the top of the local music heap. The new Nita's boasts a solid foundation of weekly shows ranging from the hip-hop of the Funky Cornbread crew to the patchouli-inspired sounds of hippie jam bands like the Noodles. But where Nita's has defined itself is in bringing the Valley the cutting edge of the rock and pop worlds. From electrifying outdoor sets by the Flaming Lips and Modest Mouse to indoor bows from Delta 72 and Calexico, the tiny club has solidified its reputation as one of the few places willing and able to take a chance on progressive acts. Meanwhile, big-name Valley groups like the Peacemakers and Jimmy Eat World have played to the thousands, and the club continues to anchor the local scene. Add to that a stellar ambience and a wait staff that is nothing if not engaging, and you have hands-down the best place to enjoy rock in the Valley.
Readers' Choice: Nita's Hideaway
Readers' Choice for Best Venue for Local Acts: Nita's Hideaway
Without the clink of glasses, the click of pool balls or the clatter of conversation, the alcohol- and game-free Modified has proved itself as the most unique and hospitable place for watching live entertainment. Whether it's obscure indie bands, performance artists or even the occasional straight-ahead rocker, anyone who performs here raves about the rapt attention Modified patrons lavish on the talent.
With nothing on the menu aside from bottled water and soda and nothing surrounding the downtown performance space, there is little to distract from the work of those on stage. Aside from that, Modified is staffed by genial indie-rock volunteers, instead of a phalanx of surly pituitary freaks who man the doors at most Valley venues. Modified doubles as an art gallery, as well; the paintings and sculptures prove far more classy accouterments (if not nearly as raunchy) than the empty condom machines one normally finds in the typical rock club.
A purist's haven, it's no wonder, then, that Modified's acquired a national reputation since opening just 18 months ago.
Readers' Choice: Modified
Grunge, neo-punk reggae and rock-rap have done nothing to propagate the species once known as "guitar hero." In an age where you can flip an audience the bird to tumultuous applause, it's no wonder new musicians don't get better acquainted with their instruments.
That's why Big Blue Couch's science-fiction band bio, which claims the group was cryogenically frozen in 1969 and exhumed last year, seems to ring true. Axman Chris Doyle harks back to the days when rock stars didn't play their guitars so much as wrestle them to wring every last screech or sigh. In a local music scene when the best guitarists seem to be roots-based traditionalists, Doyle's white-rock influences range from the fabled (Live at Leeds-era Townshend, Mick Ronson) to the forgotten (spacey Robin Trower, Fred "Sonic" Smith) to the far-fetched (Bruce Cockburn on acoustic numbers).
Propelled by an ace rhythm section and an energetic front man, Doyle takes extended instrumental flights of fancy that continue to make other local guitarists put down their beers and sweat bullets. Despite frequent gigs, the bulk of the band's dates have been thankless opening-slot gigs or last-minute replacement shows. Those who've ventured out early have witnessed a combo capable of being as arty as King Crimson and as belligerent as the Stooges, largely because of Doyle's extended vocabulary of sounds and showmanship. With Big Blue Couch's much-delayed debut CD finally mixed and ready for public consumption, this talent won't remain in the shadows of the local music scene for much longer.
Think of a "guitar hero" and the image usually involves the over-the-top wankings of some limey with six-string phallus in hand, offering up trite "ROCK 'N' ROLL FOREVER!" proclamations. But the Valley's premier axman, Greg Simmons, has taken the road less extroverted to the top. A shy, sensitive sort offstage, Simmons becomes a reluctant firebrand when he straps on his trademark Telecaster.
Although Simmons' fretwork is front and center as part of his regular alterna-pop troupe, the Royal Normans, his most impressive playing has come during the loose-knit sets from roots-rock collective Los Guys. Simmons manages titanic blues runs, subtle country picking and fierce freeform jamming, all delivered with an "aw shucks" attitude -- one of those rare guitar slingers definitely not from the face-grimacing-smugly-smirking school of hard licks.
It must be 10 years and holding for Carvin Jones and his familiar visage, ever grinning back at us from the local club ads. Ten years of wearing that black gaucho hat. Ten years with that heavy, solid-body Stratocaster slung over his back. Whew, just think of the pattern baldness and irreparable spinal damage this pose would cause someone who tried this at home for a decade solid.
But if you spy the real Carvin in the flesh, there isn't that much of a difference between the way he looks today and his appearance in the old 1990 8x10. Which makes us suspect some kind of Faustian bargain going on -- perhaps something to do with eternal youth and recycled Hendrix riffs.
We just don't get it. It can't be because of healthy living -- Jones sings in smoky clubs several nights a week. And if we read The Picture of Dorian Gray correctly, shouldn't his club ad be rapidly aging like bad cheese right about now?
Some sound guys have been doing it so long that they've completely fried their main asset -- those things hanging from both sides of their head that used to be for listening. You tell them what you want and think they understand, but they just nod up and down like that for everyone. Congratulations, you and your band are on your way to being butchered. Your only recourse is to tell people that the screeching feedback that mars your first six songs was intentional.
Thank goodness for guys like Jamal Ruhe, Nita's trusty sound man in its early incarnation and back again this year. Since we've conducted actual conversations with him, we know his woofers are working fine. Ruhe knows every inch of this room intimately, he's played there a kazillion times and retains uncanny information about every band that's done likewise. Performing is nerve-racking enough without having to worry about having an adversary behind the mixing board. Jamal is your friend, not your funeral director.
The corporate side of the music world biz ain't all bad. If you doubt it, check out Virgin Megastore, located in the Arizona Mills mall. With its sweeping space, angular racks, neon accents, in-store coffee house and multiple listening stations, you can spend hours browsing nearly anything ever heard or seen on any music chart anywhere in the world.
In addition to an encyclopedic stock of CDs, Virgin boasts a book section worthy of the music/pop culture collection of any chain. Another plus? The rows of boxed sets running the gamut from Sammy Davis Jr. to Ted Nugent, as well as hundreds of just-released current and vintage VHS and DVD movies and video games.
Admittedly, a trip to Virgin means schlepping through the mall, and it's hardly the cheapest disc depot in town, either. Still, where else can you find spankin' new titles like the Kinks import reissue of We Are the Village Green Preservation Society, the Mary Martin version of The Sound of Music or anything by Big Sandy and His Fly-Rite Boys -- all under one roof?
Readers' Choice: Best Buy
What do country singer Lefty Frizzell, jazzman Bill Evans and octogenarian crooner Perry Como all have in common? They have obscenely oversize multi-CD boxed sets dedicated to their work! Furthermore, all of them -- along with those of hundreds of others -- can be found for a reasonable price at the Valley's best outlet for new and used discs, CDGB's.
The store's topnotch selection doesn't end with mammoth-size retrospectives, but extends equally to its single CD offerings as well. Having difficulty finding that out-of-print Tapper Zukie long-player, the Japanese version of your favorite Genesis opus or even a much-hyped "live import"? Look no further than this north Phoenix disc-o-theque. What about obscurities and curios from the likes of Sloan, the Real Kids or Porter Wagoner? Never heard of the Shoes? Well, you can get to know them intimately since CDGB's stocks seemingly every offering from this obscure Illinois power-pop quartet -- both new and used!
As an added bonus, the store boasts sections neatly divided into a number of well-defined categories and subcategories (Americana, Rockabilly, Punk, Surf, Guitar Greats, etc.) and a staff well-versed in the needs of those seeking the hard-to-find. If it's new, used, old, fresh, in- or out-of-print and digital, then C-D-G-B are the only letters you need to know.
Only once in rock history did a drummer have the gall to insist on having his riser 10 feet in front of the rest of the band, and that was Gary Lewis, a guy who didn't sneeze in a recording studio without a session drummer wiping his nose.
If ever a trapsman truly merited an unobstructed view from the stands, it's Pollen's Bob Hoag, who plays with more force and funny bone than Jerry Lewis and his progeny forced to share the same stool. Even before Pollen began opening up big-time rock shows, Hoag bashed his skins as if 60,000 were ogling him anyway, a happy affliction he still carries over to scaled-down local club appearances.
If his hilarious self-mocking song intros weren't enough to command attention, there's always Fmeat, Pollen's offensive primal punk side project, in which Hoag gets to step off the riser and exercise all his Lead Singer Disease symptoms in one glorious epileptic fit.
Don't believe those who tell you that used record stores are a thing of the past because of online auctions. Your computer might offer the most convenient shopping hours (24/7), but nothing replicates the fun of searching through bins, trying out a rare album and buying it -- all on the same day! Without shipping charges or the need to give positive feedback to "ozarklou." New used titles regularly flow into Tracks in Wax from people who don't feel like packing off bits of their collections to someone in Taiwan. Far better to get some TIW store credit toward a minty fresh Julie London record or that creepy Anthony Perkins Sings album you're just dying to hear. Most titles remain in the reasonable $4.99 to $12.99 range, and you aren't likely to pay more than $4 for any of the 45s, which are listed in four three-ring binders at the counter. Tracks in Wax does have a registered domain now with a new Web site (www.primenet.com/~tracks/). Otherwise, it's still stuck in the past you love.
Readers' Choice for Best Place to Buy Used CDs: Zia Record Exchange
Readers' Choice for Best Vinyl Record Store: Zia Record Exchange
The masters are here -- Monk. Armstrong. Holiday. Young. Ellington. Davis. Mingus. Rollins. Basie. Fitzgerald.
So are all the "new" kids on the block -- Osby. Redman. Moran. Wilson. Hunter. Medeski. Lovano. Scofield. Marsalis. Watts.
You'll find a ton of stuff by these giants of jazz at this superstore, and at a competitive price. So what if they spell tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon's name three different ways (Gorden, Garden and Dextor)? They've got a bunch of his records on the racks, and that's what counts.