The Mason Jar is a metal club. Can't deny it. The Phoenix institution was a metal club when it opened 25 years ago. It really became one under the ownership of Franco Gagliano, a gregarious Italian immigrant whose booking turned the Jar into Spandex central in the '80s and early '90s.
Music has changed since then, but the Mason Jar, with its black lit, fraternity basement ambience, is still a metal club. I mean, it has CDs from such gushy Aqua Net metal bands as Saigon Kick embedded in the glass-topped bar. Literally.
When friends from Boston visited me last March, I took them to the Jar to see the Lynch Mob, a thrash band featuring hulking former Dokken guitarist George Lynch. The crowd inside the tiny gray-stucco freestanding fort on the corner of 23rd Street and Indian School was filled with black jackets, tight jeans, mustaches, mullets and hoop earrings. One of my buddies kept commenting that the Jar, with its low ceiling and lack of ventilation, reminded him of the Station in West Warwick, Rhode Island. You know, the hair-metal haven that Great White's pyrotechnic stupidity turned into a crematorium? My guests had a point. With Lynch standing on stage like a thunder god, you couldn't avoid images of guys in bandanas at the bar with arms around two big-boobed blondes.
Reputations don't come from nowhere, I guess, even if Gagliano wants to tell you Bo Diddley occasionally played the room way back when. Metal, he says, was merely what sold.
"You've got to go with whatever's good," says Gagliano, a self-professed Johnny Cash fan who oversaw the joint for 20 years. "There were more heavy metal bands in those days."
Whatever, Franco. The eyes don't lie.
So with my Lynch Mob experience and others like it since then embedded in my mind, you can imagine how weirded out I was when the Raveonettes and stellastarr* played the Jar on October 4.
Each band's music can be described as "art rock." It takes New Wave and Phil Spector-style R&B and washes it in feedback, keyboard and drum programming -- and a serious dose of pretension. It's heady stuff that doesn't quite "rawk." This music tends to attract pointy-headed intellectuals and the comically-hip -- the "I'm too cool for head banging" shoe gazer types.
One group of fans in the dark, concrete confines of the Jar spoke volumes about this audience of around 150. The dude wore a Le Tigre tee shirt (that's the staunchly feminist indie troupe from the snob-rock town Olympia, Washington). He sat with forearms on knees against a wall of flyers featuring bands with names like Cattle Decapitation. He wore no expression on his clean-shaven face. His two female companions, one in a lady bug-spotted hair barrette, the other in a black denim jacket, were even more unmoved, smoking cigarettes, striking disaffected poses and laughing into the display window of a digital camera. This while Brooklynites stellastarr* bashed through its most rhythmic song of the night.
Yes, these are days of transformation at metal central. Increasingly, thanks in part to a relationship with local promotion house NIPP/AMJ SW, the Jar finds itself hosting an eclectic array of national acts we usually associate with other local venues. Here's how the 300-person-capacity club's outside sun-decorated marquee sign read on October 1:
Oct 5 Local H
Oct 4 Raveonettes
Oct 3 Twinemen
Oct 2 Bellrays
Oct 1 Turbonegro
Starting from the top, that's a one-hit wonder pop-grunge band; art-rockers; jazzy jam band folks; a soul-punk hybrid; and over-the-top shticky stoners for geeks. Never mind that the "5" on that marquee sign was an upside down "2" or that the "2" was a "Z." That's not metal.
"I can't have '80s rock bands coming in here every weekend," says current owner Mick Manfredi, who was Gagliano's stockbroker when he bought the Mason Jar from Franco in 2000 (Gagliano still owns the building, while Manfredi owns the Mason Jar corporation and pays rent).
"I'm in business to sell tickets. So I can't do that on an ongoing basis and be successful."
Last week's bill read more like a smart-boy free-for-all at downtown Phoenix's Modified Arts than anything, or one imported from Tempe. In fact, Twinemen, the outgrowth of Boston avant-rock trio Morphine, were originally scheduled to play the Clubhouse in Tempe. Rather than sending it on to nearby Nita's Highway or the Bash on Ash after personnel changes knocked the show off the Clubhouse schedule, NIPP booking agent Will Anderson re-routed it farther along to the seemingly-incongruent Jar.
"I knew I didn't have to run a soundboard," Anderson says of the switch. "Production-wise, it's just easier to do shows here."
NIPP/AMJ SW, seeking that ease, promoted all five of those Jar shows, and it's scheduled to promote seven more between now and December 1. That string of non-traditional bookings puts reps from other Valley clubs on notice.
"We don't put hardcore bands in here. That's what the Mason Jar is known for," says Maria Vassett, booking agent for Nita's Hideaway. "That's why when you hear things like the Twinemen are playing there, you think that should be a Nita's show."
Vassett and Bash on Ash booker Jill Calkins each pointed to the Jar's upgrades in sound over the past two years for its surge into the market for indie-rock. Manfredi says he installed $100,000 worth of bowel-shaking P/A equipment that may be more appropriate for an amphitheatre after concluding the old system was, in his words, "tired, man."
"We have way more power than we need for this size of a room," Manfredi says, and indeed, the sound there can spark a headache that feels more like an aneurysm.
There's also the Jar's willingness to host all-ages shows. With the market for live music growing smaller thanks to the foul economy and growth of at-home entertainment like video games, thrity-somethings don't venture out as much as they used to. That leaves some club owners fearing a loss of bar business if they let teenagers into shows. And promoters, who generally keep the money made at the door, want those teenagers. That's why AMJ Concerts, Anderson's company, first approached Manfredi about doing shows in 2000; the comfortable beneficiary of the late '90s stock-market boom makes no qualms about his desire to put on good music over making a buck. When AMJ merged with NIPP SW early this year, which boosted the number of shows Anderson could direct toward the Jar.
Still, that all doesn't mean the Jar will likely lose its metal identity anytime soon. The wall outside the front door during the Communique was decorated with white-and-black flyers advertising "Metal Night" on October 18, featuring a bill of local hopefuls. The club hosts a Goth night on most Tuesdays, which invites full-scale black-mascara brooding and industrial drum clanging.
And Manfredi says anytime George Lynch wants to play the Jar, he won't be turning down the call.
"What am I going to do? Say no, because you're going to ruin my image?" he says.
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Manfredi may have a good point, but we can still revel in the little bit of irony he's created. In between sets at the Raveonettes/setllastarr* show, the Jar management played rock 'n' roll oldies over the speakers. A few of the tunes were cool, like the Kinks' "Picture Book." Most were ridiculous, like "My Boyfriend's Back." That pop nugget sparked an enthusiastic response from the hipster in front of me. The young man wore an old gray suit and tennis shoes. He feathered his hair for that depraved CBGB look. But he clearly dug the kitsch, taking time to show off a twist and flap his arms a little.
When the Raveonettes took the stage and began roaring through their guitar noise, however, the guy resumed his life as an oak tree, hardly moving a muscle the rest of the night.
Try spilling a beer for once in your life, pal.
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