Best Of :: Arts & Entertainment
When everyone's favorite pop weirdo stopped by US Airways Center in March, Lady Gaga brought the spectacle that follows her wherever she goes. That was to be expected. The woman who once wore a dress made of meat and showed up to the Grammys in a giant egg has a bizarre legacy to live up to, for sure, but seeing it in person is another story. During the second stop on her Monster Ball tour, the pint-size Gaga made her first appearance in a see-through plastic dress, surrounded by gorgeous male dancers wearing Spanx and bike helmets. You get the impression that Gaga could completely drop the "ringmaster of the circus" act. Her talent is almost wasted on the sideshow surrounding her. Her love for what she does still shines through over-exposed pop hits as she belts lyrics with enough emotion that you'd think she had written them on the spot. Well, maybe if thousands of fans weren't screaming the words right back at her. The lovable deviant act is fun, sure — especially when she tells a crowd mostly comprising 14-year-old girls to "Come on, get your dicks out. Dance, you motherfuckers!" — but this show proved she's more than just a Madonna/Marilyn Manson hybrid. Even if she's using all their old tricks.
There's no glowing neon sign marking the South Phoenix location of the Inner City Youth Center. Nor are there glossy advertisements, slick radio spots, or other primo promotional tactics trumpeting the underground all-ages gigs held at this under-the-radar music venue. Hell, it barely even has an online presence, as its proprietors maintain a cluttered-looking blog announcing upcoming shows. Even then, it takes some hunting to find the joint, as fliers list only a nearby intersection and the instructions to "enter from [the] back alley." The funky directions lead patrons to an even funkier scene inside ICYC, as the warehouse-like venue is a messy milieu of secondhand furniture, empty beer cans, and spray-painted murals covering cinder block walls. Its messy stage regularly hosts punk and hardcore bands, including performances by some internationally notorious acts. (For instance, infamous grindcore band Anal Cunt staged what likely will be its final Phoenix show ever at ICYC in April, a few months before singer Seth Putnam passed away.) Similar in most respects to the iconic NYC punk venue ABC No Rio, ICYC is more than just a music venue, as it's also hosted art shows, fundraisers, and even the occasional community fundraiser. It's a pretty punk rock place, to say the least.
Behind heavy wood doors and down a dark stairwell, Rokerij exudes the quiet air of a secret club. A fireplace burns even in the middle of the summer, but the cool, dark atmosphere of the place is well suited to the subtle blaze. Named for the Dutch word meaning smokehouse, Rokerij features the menu from nearby Dick's Hideaway, making the pairing of a rare steak and glass of neat whiskey a realizable delight. The corners of the dim bar are suited to quiet conversation, and the bar's close seating means you'll end up engaged in interesting conversation with old-school Phoenicians in no time.
Located down a steep flight of well-worn wooden steps, the late, great Monroe's was a classic basement bar in downtown Phoenix. During the day, this cramped cellar was a great place to nosh on pub grub and maybe knock back a few lunchtime beers in a place where the sun (and your boss) could not find you. (Unless your boss happened to be there, too.) By night, Monroe's transformed into a sultry, smoke-filled blues bar — yes, up until 2007, you could actually light up indoors in AZ. Unfortunately, it all came to a crashing halt four years ago, when Monroe's closed suddenly for "renovations" and never re-opened. Now, the building's owners have finally put the space back on the market, leading to a flurry of interest from wanna-be tenants, says the leasing agent, who expects the space to reopen by the end of the year.
All too often, the best-kept secrets stay underground — and so, it appears, will the full story of the Incognito. Legend places the underground bar in the basement of the Safari Hotel, built in Scottsdale by local architect Al Beadle and owned by Bill Ritter and Ernie Uhlmann. The Safari swung its luxury resort doors open in 1956 to crowds who made the long, 14-mile drive from Phoenix — and from all over the country.At the jungle-themed resort's height, all 108 rooms were booked; women were treated in the salons and danced on the ballroom floor while cocktails were poured from a fine-dining lounge for all-star guests including Burt Reynolds and Bing Crosby. But what isn't in the books or blueprints is what a few guests and local old-timers casually remember as a dummy payphone, just outside the resort. Say the secret word into the payphone and an outside door to the underground Incognito would be opened. There would be no mention of the place when Martin Milner and George Maharis filmed a 1961 episode of Route 66 at the Safari, and certainly no hint on the resort's well-known restaurant menu or hotel guide. According to Uhlmann's son, Mark, who's spent years documenting his father's influence in the city, there was no bar called the Incognito on the property — at least not while his father was in charge. The building passed from Uhlmann's hands in 1980 and was razed by the city a decade later to make room for condos. And though we'll always remember what was above ground (and we'll certainly see more transitions in the years to come), we'll always have to wonder about what went on below.
To get to The Big Bang, you literally have to go underground — there's a flight of stairs next to the entrance, leading to what's essentially a basement. The space used to house blues joint BeLo's, and the exposed brick and industrial piping on the ceiling adds to the "speakeasy" feel of the place. Patrons can sit at a table and drink booze from the bar while taking in some great live music, courtesy of the Bang's "dueling pianos." The entertainers here — who include pianist/singer Julie Martinez (who played at the first Big Bang club in Missouri when it opened in 2001) and Ben Murphy (who studied piano at Indiana University) — are immensely talented, able to play off each other, interact with the audience, and fulfill requests, no matter how bizarre. Whether it's a rockin' rendition of the Jackson 5's "I Want You Back," a lounge version of "Gin & Juice" by Snoop Dogg, or even the one song they're really tired of playing (Billy Joel's "Piano Man"), the performers at The Big Bang never cease to entertain.