It seems like one has closed every month, lately--Hollywood Alley, Martini Ranch, Rocky Point Cantina--but the Valley is still blessed with enough music venues to make selecting some for each year's Best of Phoenix a little nerve-wracking.
In any case, we did it. Here are the music venues that picked up awards in this year's Best of Phoenix proceedings:
Best Venue for Local Acts: The Sail Inn, Tempe
It's like that old weather joke that people in basically every state think they invented: If you don't like the music at The Sail Inn, wait five days. Actually, one day is usually enough. A given week might see a Grateful Dead tribute show followed up with an album-release party for an early-20-something dance-pop band. And in June, the place pulled off a particularly neat trick, hosting acts named Jah Missionary and Vomit God.
When so much Valley music is segregated by age, group affiliation, and sheer physical distance, that eclecticism is an asset. In other words, it's a good place to lurk if you're looking to slip out of your musical bubble. Updated and revitalized by the original owner when it reopened in 2009, The Sail Inn's calendar is still tilted toward jam and jam-affiliated rock. But Tempe residents for whom six-minute guitar solos are a non-starter still will find plenty to like.
Best Venue for National Acts: Crescent Ballroom
Whichever way your tastes run -- local or national, indie or iconic, hardcore or hip-hop -- it's ultimately impossible to avoid Crescent Ballroom, which means it's a good thing there's no reason to avoid it. By day, it's a bar and lounge, soundtracked by free music and unsolicited burrito recommendations from your friends and acquaintances. At night, it's a remarkably versatile venue, hosting year-old Phoenix outfits and vets like Built to Spill with equal alacrity.
For all-local showcase Los Dias de la Crescent and this year's Du Hot Club de Bizarre, which featured Of Montreal and Devendra Banhart, it even sprouts a second, outdoor stage. Ultimately, it's hard to explain what's great about watching a touring act perform at Crescent Ballroom without sounding like an anti-perspirant commercial; it's small enough for locals, but big enough to house any band that's, say, soundtracking car commercials but not yet appearing in them.
Best Place to See Turntablists: The Monarch Theatre
Neither Sean "Senbad" Badger nor Pete "Supermix" Salaz are particular shy about their love for DJ Qbert. So after the Monarch Theatre co-owners, both of whom are considered ultra-talented DJs in their own right, got word that the renowned turntablist was eager to perform at their joint last November, Badger estimates it took "like two seconds" to book the event. After all, showcasing influential DJs and turntable superstars like Qbert is one of many reasons they opened the Monarch back in 2012.
"Our first reaction was, 'Hell, yeah, we'd love to do that,'" Badger says. "We didn't go looking for the show; they came to us." It's something that happens frequently, as numerous selectors specialized in turntablism (a DJ subgenre from the 1980s where performers manipulate records, decks, and mixers to create a dizzying array of scratching and pimp sounds) have approached Badger and Salaz about potential gigs. Power 98.3's M2 has amazed crowds here with his vinyl trickery, as have fellow Valley scratch gurus Logan "Elecment" Howard, Fresh 85, and Akshen. And NYC's Roli Rho practically melted his wax in April with lightning-quick hands and phenomenal moves. So why do these scratch kings come to Monarch? Its high-end 30,000-watt sound system doesn't hurt. Plus, other club owners tend to shy away from the old-school art form in favor of more trendy DJ sounds, whereas Badger and Salaz are big on keeping the tradition alive. "It brings back that early era of DJs," Badger says, "And exposes old traditions to some younger generations as well." Word.
Best Comeback: Last Exit Live
Confession time: When Brannon Kleinlein announced he was reopening his bygone venue Last Exit, we had a few doubts. Not about the man himself, since the 39-year-old is dialed into the Phoenix music scene, but rather the location he was moving into. Not only is the cozy music venue located along a confusing one-way stretch of Central Avenue, it's also in the heart of a dodgy 'hood south of downtown Phoenix. Both issues seemed to vex patrons during its previous identity as The Ruby Room and probably aided in the rock dive's untimely demise.
None of this mattered to Kleinlein, however. After all, his old Tempe venue -- the original version of Last Exit -- also was off the beaten path, but people always seemed to find it. (In fact, it probably would still be around had he not gotten a bad case of burnout in 2009 and decided to sell the place.) Such has proved to be the case with Last Exit's reincarnation after Kleinlein fixed the joint up, improved parking and security, and began getting the word out via social media. Scenesters and music gourmandizers alike have found their way to shows, especially those involving popular and tastemaking touring and local bands. Crowds have even shown up for concerts in the middle of the workweek, which Kleinlein cites as a good sign things are going well. "Weeknight shows in this town are very tough," he says. "So if you can get 50 people out, then you're definitely doing good."
Best Place to See A Metal Show: Joe's Grotto
Hosting a metal show is a stressful prospect, even if it doesn't come with all the Satanic accouterments parents worried about in the '80s. For one thing, nothing else in rock 'n' roll makes noises quite comparable to metal's guttaral screaming and layered, loud guitars; for another, no other genre has thrown off quite so many warring, not-quite-compatible subgenres. Without the necessary experience, it's a constant battle to keep the bands audible and the diehard fans convinced you know what you're doing. Joe's Grotto has been around long enough to thread that needle, putting on doomcore and neoclassical shows with equal aplomb. It looks like a gritty, authentic venue, but it doesn't sound like a gritty, authentic venue, because it's got a great sound system.
Lots of places periodically play host to Phoenix's metal-hungry music fans, but nobody does it more consistently and thoughtfully.
Best Rock Club: Yucca Tap Room, Tempe
That 99 percent of all the shows going off at the Yucca are free would be nearly enough reason to give this longtime Tempe bar such an honor. But even if owner Rodney Hu charged us a cover, we'd be hard-pressed to find a better all-around place to see music in the Valley, because it seems that just about every night is a party at the Yucca. When gritty local acts of all stripes -- power pop, post-punk, metal, garage rock, country rock -- aren't providing the soundtrack to a typical booze-fueled night at the Yucca, you'll find numerous underground touring bands setting up and throwing down.
With cheap beers, no-hassle entry and exit, respectable bar grub, a dedicated smoking patio, and not-so-elegantly wasted clientele, no other rock bar in the Valley offers a more consistently affordable and memorable night out seeing bands than the Yucca.
Best Hip Hop Club: Club Red/Red Owl, Tempe
Just like 50 Cent, we ain't gonna lie -- Club Red/Red Owl is the go-to venue for hip-hop in the Valley. Fact. Not only for the sheer number of shows it hosts, but also the wide diversity of gifted lyricists and rhyme-spitters slinging game from its mics and stages. The double-sided Tempe club has had live hip-hop on lock in recent years, whether it's intimate performances with underground MCs like Busdriver, showcases loaded with burgeoning local rappers, or gigs headlined by such superstars as E-40 and Talib Kweli.
And one of the reasons promoters, performers, and headz keep coming back to the club -- besides its versatility and ace sound system -- is booker Mattx Bentley. The affable 36-year-old former promoter, who also manages The Insects and runs Valley label 1090 Records, is well versed in hip-hop and respected in the scene. He's also connected with promoters -- ranging from Sean Healy Presents and Universatile Music -- and such hip-hop stars as Jean Gray and Pharoahe Monch, both of whom Bentley's brought to the club, sometimes literally. He has had to play chauffeur for artists, and that's led to a few interesting experiences, like when he had to wander around Sky Harbor last year while picking up Phife Dawg. "His cell battery died, so I had to walk in and look around the crowd for this short guy who has repped himself as 'The Five Footer,'" Bentley says. "That was odd." Hey, whatever it takes to ensure another memorable night of hip-hop at Club Red.
Best Vintage Concert Venue: Celebrity Theatre
When your parents were just gleams in your grandparents' eyes, Phoenix had few venues for popular music concerts. (This was also when pop encompassed just about every genre.) There was the Coliseum, Sun Devil Stadium, the original Compton Terrace (eventually), and, since 1963, Celebrity Theatre, which was -- and still is -- the classy hall with the rotating stage.
The legroom for the 2,650 seats is based on stumpy midcentury Arizonans, but no one's ever more than 70 feet away from the entertainment. Jerry Riopelle still plays the Celebrity every New Year's Eve, a tradition he started in 1974. And you never know what's up next (we also saw Michael Moore there in 2004 and KC & the Sunshine Band a bit before that), but at this point, it's safe to say it'll probably be retro or adult contemporary music, comedy, martial arts, or something on the urban side.
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