In some ways, Arizona's first "official unofficial" showcase at South by Southwest last week wasn't a big deal. Other cities, states, and countries have been showing off at the massive music festival in Austin, Texas, for years. Hell, Canada's barbecue was so hopping I couldn't get in even though I was on the list and had a badge that's supposed to get you in anywhere. Seattle's party was even promoted by a flier in the high-value real estate of the official envelope you receive with your badge.
But, for Phoenix, the "I Heart AZ" party was pretty huge. The showcase featured a lot of the best bands in town, acts we write about all the time: Miniature Tigers, Kinch, Back Ted N-Ted, The Stiletto Formal, What Laura Says, Dear and the Headlights, and Reubens Accomplice. Anyone with even a passing interest in the local scene has probably seen at least one of these acts, and it's not so unusual to see some of them playing together. It was, however, exciting to see them playing together at The Jackalope, smack dab in the middle of Sixth Street, the heart of SxSW, with important industry types watching.
It was the highlight of a banner year for Arizona at SxSW, the make-or-break week for a lot of indie bands, when they play for audiences of industry types and tastemakers, hoping to impress the right people and get on the national radar. A half-dozen Phoenix/Tempe bands were part of official (and more prestigious) showcases, and more than 20 Arizona bands made an appearance somewhere in Austin during the week. For Ben Collins, the head of Phoenix-based Modern Art Records and a veteran of the scene who'd been to SxSW four or five times already, it was a long time coming. He says this was, "hands down," the biggest and best showing Phoenix has had at SxSW.
Dear and the Headlights
"I spend a lot of time in New York, spreading the gospel of Phoenix. People just don't know all these bands are from here," he says. "I think it says something, that we're finally ready for something like [that]."
The reason national observers don't associate our local bands with each other is also what Collins sees as one of the scene's greatest strengths. The best Phoenix bands sound wildly different: Back Ted is a lot like MGMT, Miniature Tigers are like Weezer at their softest, The Stiletto Formal is a post-hardcore act like At the Drive-In.
"It's so diverse that we don't probably don't have a signature sound," he says. "But that's good, because when that happens, it immediately puts a shelf life on what's happening, because you reach a point where it's no longer cool."
"I Heart AZ" was produced by local promoter "Psyko" Steve Chilton, who also contributes posts about national music-business news to our blog, Up on the Sun. Like Collins, he says diversity is the Phoenix scene's biggest strength.
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"The ultimate goal was to show a lot of people that all these bands are from Phoenix," he says. "I had people coming up to me saying, "I didn't realize these bands were from Phoenix . . . It's not just one little clique that's doing it, it's across the board, from Miniature Tigers to a band like The Maine.
"When you look at it, we're a lot bigger city than Seattle, but we're a younger music scene. We're not at that level — yet," he says. "But you can just see the momentum of it."
And, at the Jackalope, you could feel the momentum of it, as more than 2,000 people passed through that afternoon, enjoying free beer in tiny cups as they watched bands try unsuccessfully to shoehorn themselves to the venue's tiny stage. Other than the Arizona flag (my contribution) duct-taped above the stage, you wouldn't have known there was anything Arizona-specific about the show. That is, perhaps, the best compliment you can give.
At SxSW, at least, we were finally looking like the fifth-biggest city in America, a city big enough to produce a number of great bands from a number of different scenes. Things like that make a lot of locals very optimistic right now and, I'd say, for good reason. Next thing you know, we'll match up against Seattle. Then, on to Canada.