Best Of :: Arts & Entertainment
If the saying "wherever you hang your hat is home" means anything, at least a hundred cowboys with names like Buck and Billy have hung, dated and donated their head coverings to the rafters of this country and western institution, which has been here in north Scottsdale since the barren days of 1966. Back then, it was called Wild Bill's and provided singer Waylon Jennings with yet another home away from home (his widow Jessi Colter and Handlebar-J owner's son Ray Herndon will soon be performing an "Outlaw Connection" tribute here). Since then, it's been a visiting spot of luminaries like Loretta Lynn, Lyle Lovett and Toby Keith. And unlike other now-you-see-'em country bars that book an occasional rock band or karaoke night, Handlebar-J hosts live C&W seven nights a week. Plus, it has been a safe haven for porterhouse carnivores and protectors of the two-step at a time when country music seems to have lost its cultural identity to cosmopolitan cowpokin' and records that aren't even worth their weight in tobacco spit.
Readers' Choice: Handlebar-J
We probably shouldn't admit this, but we were in hot pursuit of a vinyl LP by the Love Generation, a 1960s pseudo-psychedelic rock band no one's ever heard of -- including most of the local record dealers we visited. (One of them tried to sell us a Love album; if we want Arthur Lee, we'll ask for him!) Finally, we headed for Memory Lane, all the while humming that musical question, "Why didn't we start there in the first place?" The Lane's specialty has long been out-of-print records, tapes and compact discs, but we hadn't wandered its aisles in a while -- a mistake we won't be making anytime soon. Not only did we leave with three Love Gen LPs (the forgotten band's entire output), but the clerk tipped us off to a non-LP 45 by the group and recommended a couple of other similarly obscure ensembles. But not before we'd browsed nearly 120,000 LPs and singles, lingering for almost an hour over the colossal jazz vocalists section, where we scored a still-sealed Art Tatum platter that hasn't left our turntable since. Shame on us for having briefly forgotten Memory Lane; we won't be doing that again.
Readers' Choice: Zia Record Exchange
Lindy-hoppers and East Coast swing dancers have never had a Valley nightclub to call their own seven nights a week. In other words, they don't drink enough of the hard stuff and they demand too much real estate on the dance floor to make them attractive to bar owners.
But MacAlpine's old-fashioned soda shop, a local landmark since 1928, at least makes every Friday night all right for swingers. Using a neighboring former antiques shop for its ballroom, this retro-for-real restaurant offers a sublime dinner and dancing package for anyone who truly wants to swing back in time. For $15, guests can enjoy a burger and a malt while twirling on authentic soda counter stools, then do some twirling of their own on the dance floor. Dance lessons led by members of the Arizona Swing Network -- and all the frothy milk shakes you can consume for the rest of the night -- are included.
Readers' Choice: The Bash on Ash
At some point before the millennium, it was decided by the under-25 independent recording community that it was all right to say the word "rock" again in interviews and in the same sentence with "vital." Those bold semantic steps explain why the foremost venue for all-ages shows in Phoenix should be the one to wear the rock crown proudly, even if it books more bands on the obscure Kill Rock Stars roster than any other local club. The kind of rock you should be out investigating nightly is the stuff that doesn't make it through the media stranglehold, and Modified brings the steadiest stream of young notables working their way cross-country in a Dodge wagon. In past months, co-owners Kimber Lanning and Leslie Barton have brought you the all-girl emo amalgamation Sweet Catastrophe, the power punk of Plain White T's, and the rock and, yes, roll of The Plot to Blow Up the Eiffel Tower. Some might miss the distractions of other rock bars, like pool tables and alcohol. But the gallery environment puts the emphasis on the music while also make sneaking cigarettes and beer in the parking lot feel subversive again.
Readers' Choice: Nita's Hideaway
You'll never hear Ted Tucker's voice on KCDX -- or any other DJ's, for that matter. But for the past 18 months, this shy former pharmacist has simply been playing his favorite couple thousand old album tracks, totally commercial-free, from a 2,700-watt tower located somewhere between Superior and Globe -- and in the process creating a delicious radio mystery that's had the whole East Valley talking. Whatever Tucker's doing, and why he's doing it, he's already etching himself a place in Phoenix's colorful broadcast history right alongside William Edward Compton and Johnny D., characters defined more by the daring of their experiments than by anything they actually said on the air.
If, as its faithful devotees seem to believe, the blues is a religion, then the Rhythm Room, at least for Phoenicians, is church. And this church, as club owner and gifted harmonica player Bob Corritore would have it, knows no limit to its worship. In July, the club hosted a live recording session featuring Robert Lockwood Jr., who at 88 is the last living Delta bluesman of note and, with his history as a Chicago session man in the 1950s, finger-picking style and love for 12-string guitar, is perhaps the most influential blues guitarist of the 20th century. The club's warm, full acoustics lent an added layer of gravitas to the proceedings, as did the presence of singer Jessi Colter -- Waylon Jennings' widow -- local blues guitarist Paris James, storied jazz drummer Chico Chism and local standouts like the Rocket 88s' Bill Tarsha in the audience. It was the most extreme recent example of what is on display constantly at the Room -- a love for the music, the Valley's most diverse crowd and the gleeful Corritore, who in his tastefully loud shirts and slicked black pompadour is an impossibly cool cat.
Readers' Choice: Rhythm Room
Zia, a long-standing Valley institution, caters increasingly to buyers of new CDs, as its stores feature listening kiosks for new material and displays new discs along its back walls. But never fear -- this is still the prime spot to find bargain used CDs at prices from $8.99 and up. The selection is wide-ranging -- local jewels like the Gin Blossoms' New Miserable Experience, classic rock from the likes of Fleetwood Mac, already-discarded new releases from the Linkin Parks and Evanescences of the pop globe, and under-the-radar indie releases from Adam Green, the Gossip and others no one will care about in five years. Zia also keeps its shopping experience music-geek acceptable, merely stacking CDs on old shelves, loosely alphabetizing them and mixing the used in with the new to supply their customers with a little work ethic in making their purchase.
Readers' Choice: Zia Record Exchange
Bruce Connole of Tempe bluegrass band Busted Hearts is cooler than you. His polished white-and-black wingtips are the kind you generally see only in early photos of Elvis the aspiring hillbilly singer. They can blind you with the glare, even in a dark barroom full of blurry drunks. They're beautiful, and in this case, they seem to define the man -- a casually mesmerizing anachronism and veteran of Valley music wars. Once you see this hepcat time machine, you'll want to run to the nearest vintage clothing store to buy your own wingtips.
The digital age has given classical and chamber music its best-ever recording quality and fidelity, yet the masters are still getting the short shrift by technology. With LED display push-button car stereos and receivers tuning in whatever signals aren't putting up too much of a struggle, it's near impossible to find a station in Phoenix that gives a flyin' fugue. The only way we found listener-supported classical KBAQ-FM 89.5 (or "K-Bach") was to get a cheap portable radio with a turn dial that sweeps across the airwaves like an old broom that knows where all the corners are. And we had to scan counterclockwise from right to left -- the other direction got us stuck in a frequency that merged a Tejano station with Bible-thumping evangelists. But were we ever delighted to catch Gabriel Fauré's "Requiem Opus 48" in its entirety at a late morning hour where you'd be lucky to hear the long version of "Light My Fire. " And we heard Schubert, Dvorák and Chopin, all without radio edits. As for specialty programming, the noon lunch hour offers a daily Mozart Buffet, 5 p.m. drive time is occupied by NPR's Performance Today, and live symphony simulcasts at the stroke of 7.
Classic rock in the commercially viable sense is deader than the Soviet Union. With hip-hop, drum machines and jailbait starlets on the front burner, it ain't coming back, either. But, like a good mummy, classic rock is a well-preserved music, as radio stations all across the country honor thy Crosby Stills & Nash and keep the coked-out sounds of the '60s and '70s alive.
We're especially blessed in the Valley to have a classic rock station that appreciates the serenity of the mad-ass car bop to the nth degree. KSLX is heavy on the big chunky-butt riff and on the weirdness that is psychedelia. For instance, there can't possibly be another station on Earth that plays more Eric Burden and the Animals or Electric Light Orchestra than our very own baby-boom-honoring programmers at KSLX. If you catch the DJs at their most tender (or perhaps most bored) moments -- say at 3 a.m. or 2:15 p.m. -- you might hear something truly double-take-inducing -- 10-minute prog-rock opuses by Traffic or even Elton John, or perhaps album cuts that almost never get airtime (think the totality of Fleetwood Mac's Rumours).
Readers' Choice for Best Radio Station -- Rock: KUPD-FM 97.9
Since blues music by design doesn't pack many surprises -- you know, 12 bars, repeated first line, misery and horndog sentiments -- it's up to the clubgoer to come up with the variations. With an assortment of blues establishments and institutions in place in Phoenix for decades, it's hard to find a new blues hangout that's underground enough to spotlight new talents and yet doesn't feel like a beer palace that changes into a sports bar at the clang of a bell.
Monroe's has the underground part worked out -- can you recall the last club in the Valley that's a walk-down? We can't, either. Using this subterranean advantage, it's possible to slip in at happy hour and feel you're in a blues cellar in St. Louis where the 115-degree sun can't catch you crying in your beer. Monroe's has played host to bands like Hot Ice and Morgan City General, a blues duo from Iowa that plays there every Wednesday night, but to anyone whose introduction to the blues was the Robert Johnson boxed set, it's the romantic notion of a musician with one hell-hounded trail that brings people to Monroe's modest suds cellar.
Located in a two-building strip mall next to a family-owned convenience store, the Rogue modestly sits south of ostentatious downtown Scottsdale. When the Rogue replaced the Blue Ox last year, a diminutive, wall-mounted jukebox set the new hole apart from its predecessor. Selections from the Stooges, Misfits, Suicidal Tendencies, the Descendents, the Dead Kennedys and early Social Distortion -- what hard-core jukebox would be complete without the anthem "Mommy's Little Monster"? -- make this 'box the champ. Rockabilly and psychobilly complete the 'box's selection.
Naturally, the rad jukebox portends the occasional live act that graces the bar. A small corner stage presents bands that delve in anything from retro-psychedelia to old-school fist-pumping "gabba gabba hey" punk.