25 Legendary Tempe Music Venues: Then and Now
Flathead performs at Long Wong's.
Courtesy of Tempe History Museum
Despite rumors to the contrary, April 3, 2004, wasn’t the day that the music died in Tempe. It was, however, when the plug was pulled on fabled Mill Avenue rock club Long Wong’s, a heartbreaking event that may have signaled the end of an era but wasn’t a death knell for the city’s live music scene. Nor were any of the closures that shuttered several prominent Tempe venues a decade later in 2014.
The pulse of live music in the East Valley city has ebbed and flowed considerably over the past 30 years, from the immense popularity of the Mill sound around the time that the Gin Blossoms cracked Billboard’s Hot 100 charts with “Hey Jealousy,” to the fallow period following the shuttering of Wong’s.
And there’s probably no greater example of this than last year’s fantastic “Tempe Sound” retrospective at Tempe History Museum. In case you missed it, the expansive exhibit encapsulated several eras of the city’s musical legacy with an extensive collection of memorabilia, photos, and cultural remnants hewn from more than five decades of history.
Gin Blossoms perform at Sport Rock Cafe.
Courtesy of Tempe History Museum
Besides offering a trip down memory lane, the showcase underscored the fact that live music in Tempe has weathered a lot of change over the years and will ultimately continue doing so. Such is certainly the case in the city, as newer additions like Shady Park and C.A.S.A. Lounge have started to blossom for the past several months and attempt to fill the void left by the loss of The Sail Inn and Long Wong’s at the Firehouse while complementing stalwart venues like Yucca Tap Room.
Will the Tempe music scene ever ascend to the height of the Mill Avenue heyday again? Probably not, but that’s not to say that Tempe music won’t develop a unique verve. Plus, that era left some pretty big shoes to fill.
Local concert promoter Charlie Levy was involved in the scene and remembers its vibrancy and enormity, as well as the sheer number of great venues.
“There was a time in the early ’90s where Mill Avenue was it. You had Balboa [Cafe], you had Chuy’s, you had Gibson’s, you had Hayden Square, you had Edsel’s Attic, you had Cannery Row, you had Long Wong’s. Local bands were playing original music, and all those venues all would be full. And you’d pick two or three and you could go around and see all these bands. It was a constant rotation of people seeing shows,” Levy says. “And then you had all the stuff off Mill, like Hollywood Alley, you had Boston’s, you had Big Fish Pub. That Tempe scene, it was a lot more than the Gin Blossoms. People went out to see live music back then. So much more than today.”
The Refreshments perform at the Yucca Tap Room in 1996.
Courtesy of Mary Cope
As is the norm in any city, venues tend to come and go. Some are felled by progress, while others are victims of the ever-changing whims of patrons or the fickle economy. Of the venues profiled in this article, only two — Marquee Theatre and Yucca Tap Room — have survived the ups and downs. All these outcomes have taken place in the Tempe scene over the past several decades, proving that the true constant is change.
That’s sort of the spirit behind the following look back at 20 music venues that defined live music in Tempe the last few decades. It illustrates many of the tumultuous changes to venues that have occurred and also provides a current glimpse at what became of many famed spots.
(Editor’s note: We’d like to thank Josh Roffler, curator of collections at Tempe History Museum, for allowing New Times access to photos from its archives and the “Tempe Sound” exhibit.)
Dooley's/After the Gold Rush/Electric Ballroom
Long before its current status as an arts charter school for talented teenagers, this uniquely shaped structure along Apache Boulevard served as a popular venue that hosted a who's who of the music world. In the '70s and into the '80s, the 700-capacity establishment was known as Dooley's and reportedly hosted iconic performers from the era, including Devo, Tom Petty, Elvis Costello, The Kinks, Muddy Waters, and Blondie.
And many of those shows were booked by renowned promoter Danny Zelisko, as he spent his embryonic years in the concert business bringing in acts to the venue shortly after launching his now-defunct Evening Star Productions in the mid-1970s. “I ended up getting some real phenomenal people in there,” he says. Namely, performers like country-rock legends The Outlaws (who sold out the joint), Chuck Berry (ditto), and Argentinian jazz saxophonist Gato Barbieri (double ditto). Joe Jackson also came in after "I'm the Man" hit it big, and Pat Benatar reportedly played her first-ever show in Arizona at Dooley's.
Zelisko continued to book shows at the venue after it changed owners and names twice over the following two decades, becoming After the Gold Rush in the early '80s and the Electric Ballroom in the early '90s. Each hosted notable acts. After the Gold Rush, for instance, bridged the heyday of hard rock and hair metal (Cinderella, King's X, Ace Frehley, and Faster Pussycat) into the rise of grunge and alternative (Nirvana, Mr. Bungle, Widespread Panic, Rage Against the Machine). Electric Ballroom, however, was all over the place in terms of the genres it hosted, with shows running the gamut from The Cramps, L7, and Social Distortion to Bloodhound Gang and Blur.
The property's lengthy stint as a concert hall ended in the late '90s, due in part to a sexual assault alleged to have been perpetrated by members of rap group Onyx. The incident led to the club's liquor license getting pulled by the State of Arizona. In the early Aughts, the New School for the Arts and Academics wound up purchasing the property and transforming it into an institution of learning.
Jesus Lizard's David Yow once dropped his pants and dove into the rowdy crowd during his band's show at Boston's. Then there was the time Man or Astro-man? performed with a ginormous functioning Tesla coil that buzzed with electricity, or that one Fishbone gig that saw lead singer Angelo Moore climbing the walls inside while a massive thunderstorm brewed outside.
Such spectacles are just some of the memorable theatrics that occurred at the well-remembered Tempe bar, which reigned from 1991 until 2002 and was a hub for rock, punk, alternative, metal, ska, and indie. Search the web and you'll see an enviable list of touring acts that hit up Boston's, including The Specials, Napalm Death, Rocket From the Crypt, Flogging Molly, Weezer, Slipknot, Mike Ness, and Jello Biafra.
Described by former New Times scribes as an "East Valley rock mecca," Boston's was a shabby rock dive with plenty of verve. It was owned by Al Nichols, who ran the place with his three sons, Corey, Keith, and Jeff. Shows took place on both its indoor and outdoor stage and included a great deal of local bands getting their start.
Following Boston's closure, the joint became a Latin dance spot called Club Macarena for a bit, only to eventually go vacant again. In 2009, it reopened at 910 Live, a combination nightclub/music venue that once again had live music in the mix along with DJs, including Skrillex, who performed there in 2011 just before his breakthrough. By 2013, more changes had taken place, as the main room was transformed into a gentleman's club (known as Elite Cabaret at 910 Live), while the expansive back patio continues to offer rock concerts during the cooler months, which sorta keeps the old spirit of the place alive.
Hayden Square Amphitheater
At one time, the area of downtown Tempe known as Hayden Square was a small nexus of music venues that had a symbiotic relationship and shared groove with the rest of the Mill Avenue scene. Situated in a cul-de-sac where Fourth Street dead-ended just off Tempe’s main drag, it offered access to a cluster of now-deceased bars that acted as the stomping grounds for now-legendary local music figures. The bars included Balboa Cafe (currently Blasted Barley), Chuy’s (which later became Gibson’s and now hosts Moonshine Whiskey Bar), and Edcel’s Attic (the future site of Ziggy’s and now the B.A.C. Lounge).
At the center of Hayden Square was a modest amphitheater that regularly functioned as an outdoor venue, hosting several performances throughout the 1990s, from alternative bands (Soul Asylum, Garbage, They Might Be Giants) to hard rock acts (Stabbing Westward, Deftones). Zelisko remembers a memorable show by Phish in 1994 at the amphitheater.
“That was a really happening area,” Zelisko says. “We had a lot of great shows in Hayden Square in those days.” Today, the area is referred to as “Hayden Station” (because of its proximity to a light-rail stop) and doesn’t regularly host a lot of public gatherings, save for weekend nightlife crowds going to or coming from Blasted Barley or Moonshine Whiskey Bar. It’s still used for occasional performances, like when the Gin Blossoms returned to their roots and played the amphitheater during the Tempe New Year’s Eve Block Party in 2014.
It’s been more than two years since Hollywood Alley held its final shows and closed forever, and its countless regulars still mourn its passing. Over the course of 25 years, the “ultra-chic pissant hip dive bar” located on the border of Tempe and Mesa was run by the affable Wincek family and became a much-beloved bar, restaurant, music venue, and second home to its clientele and many Valley musicians.
Within its well-worn walls — which were famously covered in peeling movie posters, old LPs, and other bits of ephemera — an impressive variety of talents both local and touring did their thing to the delight of crowds both large and small. After being stripped by its proprietors and regulars for memorabilia shortly after its closure, the space was gutted and refurbished by the property owners of the Baseline Road strip
mall where it resided. Fittingly enough, the location still contains a collection of quaint and quirky items, as it’s now home to the Twice Upon a Time thrift store.
A decade before Marquee Theatre opened for business in 2003 at the corner of Mill Avenue and Washington Street, the cavernous building was the domain of country crooners and down-home sounds. In 1993, the venue debuted as the Red River Opry, a family-oriented place with auditorium seating and home to a theatrical-style revue called the “Arizona’s Country Music Show,” which we described at the time as a “scripted blend of family-friendly crossover country and pop, punctuated with a bit of comedy.” Yee-haw. A decade later, long after the Red River Opry headed for the last roundup, it became the concert venue we all know today, sans the seating and heaping helpings of cornpone.
Yucca Tap Room
The Yucca has been around for several decades, dating back to when the Hu family purchased the bar, as well as the entire plaza where it’s located, in the early ’70s. But as times and tastes have changed, the Yucca Tap Room has essentially stayed the same. While a 2009 expansion added a second room with craft beer/whiskey bar, the main room at the Yucca looks just like it did way back when (more or less), right
down to its wood-paneled walls. And if those walls could talk, its babblings would include many tales of Tempe’s music past.
After featuring a few different house bands on the weekends, such as Phoenix-born country band Coyote, the Hu family started presenting local live music in 1989, including many of the famed acts that put Tempe on the map. Current owner Rodney Hu can rattle off a rundown of some of the more well-remembered bands that played there, such as Dead Hot Workshop, Flathead, Spinning Jennies, The Pistoleros, Satellite, and The Refreshments. And as new groups were born, the Yucca Tap offered up its stage to each, ranging from Grave Danger, Ghetto Cowgirl, and The Black Moods to the Format (who once performed a memorable acoustic set in 2005).
Devil House/Club Rio
There will always be big-time party spots in Tempe, especially in the area surrounding ASU, no matter the year. And in the ’80s and ’90s, this spot along Scottsdale Road just north of the Salt River was one of the biggest rage havens for college kids and 20-somethings. It debuted in 1981 as the Devil House, and later
became Club Rio, offering a variety of theme events (like its famous Saturday foam parties) and DJ nights throughout its 23-year lifespan, with the music being spun ranging from reggae and hip-hop to techno and Latin. Club Rio’s party-hardy infamy was due in no small part to its cheap and plentiful drinks, which likely
led to both good times and bad decisions over the years. (Onetime Arizona Cardinals quarterback Jake Plummer got in big trouble back in 1997 for allegedly fondling four women inside the club.)
Besides serving as a notorious nightspot, Club Rio was a popular venue for concerts of the rock and alternative variety, especially during the 1990s and into the new millennium. Countless popular acts from that era gigged at Club Rio, including Bad Religion, Porno for Pyros, Green Day, Jesus Jones, Ben Folds Five, Korn, System of a Down, and Soulfly. After later becoming the Arizona Beach Club for a spell, the club was torn down in the mid-aughts, and the 10-acre property was supposedly slated to become a multimillion-dollar condo development. Due to a number of circumstances, said deal never happened and it’s been a vacant eyesore ever since. Given Tempe’s development boom, especially around Town Lake, we’re willing to bet it won’t stay that way forever.
Tony's New Yorker
This property along Broadway Road just off Mill Avenue started out as a church, then became a nightclub before its noteworthy stint in the late ’80s and most of the ’90s as Tony’s New Yorker. The Italian restaurant and its attached lounge was a regular stomping ground for many legends of the Tempe music scene, including bands like the Piersons, bluesman Hans Olson, and the late Doug Hopkins. In fact, the troubled Gin Blossoms songwriter and guitarist reportedly played his final gig at Tony’s alongside Olson in late 1993 shortly before he took his own life.
These days, music still echoes through the building, both of the live and pre-recorded variety, as it now functions as American Legion Post 138. Musicians and bands occasionally perform inside the large and lively bar located on the premises, which is a favorite of neighborhood folk, former servicemen, and a variety of biker types. Like with any American Legion Post, however, membership
Although the squat cobblestone structure located just east of McClintock Drive on Apache Boulevard doesn't have the distinction of being the oldest existing building in Tempe, it does happen to be the oldest one that's currently operating as a thriving music venue. In 1919, almost a century before it began hosting everything from punk and death metal to hip-hop, the building was the E.M. White Dairy Barn. It later was transformed into a commercial establishment in 1930 and later became a series of restaurants and bars.
Before it was Tempe Tavern, the property was known as the the Oxbow in the 1940s and the New Oxbow Tavern in the 1970s, and it offered up many a pint as Murphy's Irish Pub throughout most of the '90s before closing in 2001. A decade later, its current proprietors refurbished and remodeled the joint in 2011 into its current look.
The Sail Inn
In 1990, Sail Inn owner Gina Lombardi and her business partners turned what was originally a ramshackle dive known as the Last Chance Saloon into a thriving music destination. It spent the better part of the next 24 years as one of Tempe’s favorite places to drink or catch a show. Local musicians and bands were big fans of the place during its lifespan, be it blues musicians in the early ’90s, the members of Mill’s storied
jangle-pop era, or more modern acts like Dry River Yacht Club, Japhy’s Descent, The Sugar Thieves, and Mergence.
The good times came to an end in 2014 when the property was sold to developers and transformed into the new home for Chef Aaron May’s Sasquatch-themed restaurant/bar The Lodge. Sail Inn regulars,
however, will be pleased to know that the establishment retains some structural elements of its former identity, including the property’s outdoor amphitheater, which serves as the backdrop for the patio.
Though not technically a music venue, the original location of Eastside Records at University Drive and Ash Avenue was the epicenter and meeting ground for the local music scene for close to 20 years and also hosted more than a few shows in its day, both inside the store and in the parking lot. These include a rowdy performance by Man or Astro-Man? in 1995 that forced the landlord to ban future gigs for a lengthy period of time. And though it wasn't as uproarious, the final night at Eastside's original home prior to its closure in 2010 featured Grave Danger and other locals.
After its closure, neighboring smoke shop Headquarters (itself renowned to Tempe cats) expanded into the space. Meanwhile, Eastside co-owner Michael Pawlicki opened pop-up versions of his store at various spots around the city before becoming of the many boutiques involved with the Double Nickels Collective, a few doors down from the Yucca Tap Room and 51 West.
This iconic Tempe water park is nothing if not historic. Having opened in 1969, it not only is the longest-running attraction of its kind in Arizona but also features the first-ever wave pool built in the United States. Generations of swimmers and sun-worshipers have flocked to Big Surf to take a dip or ride the waves. And in the 1970s, people turned out in droves for a number of outdoor concerts by important bands from rock 'n' roll history.
According to the park's proprietors, as well as a several websites, classic rock and pop legends like Deep Purple, Steely Dan, Boz Scaggs, and Foghat all performed amid the palm trees and Polynesian kitsch of the park. (Sometimes the outdoor setting proved to be a bit hazardous, like when Pink Floyd reportedly pulled the plug midway through its September 1972 set due to rain.) Other renowned names who visited Big Surf for shows over the decades include Elton John, Stevie Wonder, Blue Öyster Cult, Sting, Rod Stewart, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Fast-forward to the the present, and the water park still is giving up space for massive music events, albeit of the electronic dance music variety. Local promoter Steve Levine Entertainment put on a three separate editions of its Soundwave music festivals in 2011 and 2012 at Big Surf, while the annual Wet Electric has brought is such noteworthy DJs as Dillon Francis, Diplo, Sultan and Ned Shepard, and Flux Pavillion.
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