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Getting Ovah It: CenPho Scenesters on Why Downtown Phoenix Is Still the Hub for Valley Music

Music editor Martin Cizmar wearing an "ovah" shirt (identity obscured for security reasons).
Jonathan McNamara

I was, by happenstance, in Tempe when the shit-storm started: Sitting in one of those outdoor booths at Casey Moore's drinking with some friends and playing with my phone only to discover a bunch of angry @martincizmar messages from tweeps pissed about my latest column.

It raged on from there. Before the weekend was over, I'd heard reports of some dude from a local band screaming "Fuck Martin Cizmar, fuck New Times!" from the stage at a CenPho music showcase.

The actual title of the piece that inspired such fervor matters little now. I'll just yield to popular opinion and call it the "Downtown is Ovah" column. It's a phrase I coined in arguing that Tempe, not Phoenix, will be the center for live music in the coming years now that Modified Arts, the heart of the downtown scene, has decided to be a lot more like a regular art gallery than an underpowered concert club.

That phrase has since taken on a life of its own — it's even a URL, downtownisovah.com, where you can buy the shirt.

Yes, there's a shirt.

I've thought long and hard about what to follow up with, but sitting down to write a response after a guy who was in The Format printed T-shirts with my phrase on it seems pretty pointless. Time will tell who is right, and I'd be happy to be proved wrong. So, in the interest of promoting a real dialogue on the matter, I've turned over this week's column to four downtownies who think I'm wrong. Here's why they have hope for downtown Phoenix, music and otherwise.

Lou Kummerer, musician

"Downtown is Ovah." Hours after Martin Cizmar published those now-infamous words, a goddamn war of opinions erupted, with the who's who of the Phoenix and Tempe music community calling for Cizmar's head on a fucking platter. But Martin missed the point: This isn't a question of Phoenix versus Tempe. The closing of Modified and [Modern Art Records head] Ben Collins' move to New York is a change that will propel Phoenix and Tempe's music scene to even greater heights.

I've been involved in the local music community in both Phoenix and Tempe for over 10 years. I played bass for The Loveblisters (a "Tempe" band), and we played Modified frequently. I also played for Miniature Tigers (a "Phoenix" band), and we played Tempe venues all the time.

Music happens, has happened, and always will happen in both cities.

Right now, Phoenix is without a venue. So what? Modified has already proved that a music venue in Phoenix can draw a crowd. Something else will inevitably pop up. And if you've got the scratch to put together a venue in downtown, you'd be an idiot not to at this juncture. Meanwhile, we have Tempe. And when this Phoenix venue opens, crowds will readily return to Phoenix.

In my years as a musician and a fan, I've seen countless venues come and go. Remember Nita's Hideaway? Boston's? Neckbeards? The Green Room? They were all, at one time, the epicenter of a disjointed music scene, and their closings were seen as huge blows.

There is a lot to be said for what Modified has done for the music scene in the metro area. But the stage was too small, the P.A. only half-worked, the A/C was shoddy, at best, and the lighting was straight-up creepy.

We now have a close-knit and determined music scene that crosses city lines, as well as talented musicians, promoters, and fans who will carry the baton to the next relay point without thinking twice. The bar has been raised. Downtown ain't ovah. It's just getting started.

Lou Kummerer is a "too-hip-for-Scottsdale oldster looking to buy expensive art for the loft he furnished at CB2." He was also a founding member of The Loveblisters and spent a year as the bass player for the Miniature Tigers. He lives downtown.

Jacqui Johnson, CenPho.TV host

It can be discouraging to walk around downtown and see all the empty condos, and hear stories of CityScape and other [developments] scaling back. After all, weren't they supposed to fill up downtown and provide everything anyone could need in just a few city blocks? But if you ask me, those were never going to do the trick.

You can't build some pretty towers, point to them, and say, "This is the cool spot." If it doesn't happen organically, it never will. It takes people who are here for the long haul, who are committed, motivated, and involved, and I meet people like that everywhere I go downtown. So what gives me hope for downtown Phoenix are the people who are already here and making it better every day. Some have been here for years, and more keep trickling in. We're here because we love it, and it's where we found our home. I don't just hope downtown will thrive, I know it will, because I see it happening right in front of my eyes — slowly maybe, but I'm not going anywhere, and I've got a lot of patience.

 

Jacqui Johnson, 35, is the host of CenPho.TV. She is an accountant by day and lives downtown.

Shane Kennedy, DJ and musician

New Times music editor Martin Cizmar certainly proved his mastery of reverse psychology, in speculating that Phoenix's downtown music scene was "ovah." By doing so, he created a rallying cry for the community he was dismissing, and it lit a fire under our asses. The hubbub arose from Kimber Lanning's announcement that she was turning over Modified Arts (the business, not the building) to husband-and-wife team Adam Murray and Kim Larkin. While the downtown music community prized Modified as a live-music spot, it seems the reality was the revenue that actually kept Modified afloat came from the art hanging on the walls. Oh, yeah, Modified Arts!

We in the music community often ignored the fact that Modified Arts was, indeed, also a gallery. Modified Arts is going to be transformed into primarily a visual arts gallery, with some great but "different" music. I keep going back to the idea of an Italian restaurant closing, and a month later, a great Mexican restaurant opens in its place. Some of the old customers go there and have dinner and complain about what lousy Italian food it is. Well, the new Modified Arts, I anticipate, is gonna be great, just different.

The new owners give me hope: Kim's background is in the arts, and that is her passion. I've met her; she's great. Adam is an audio engineer. I've met him; he's great. They've made a point to reach out and get to know people they view as being vital to continue the presentation of high-quality art at Modified Arts. They ask questions, they take names, they follow through, and they are committed to keeping the high standards that Kimber set in motion when she took over the space over 10 years ago. Am I saddened about the loss of Modified Arts, the venue with some great art on the wall? Sure, but the sadness is balanced out by the excitement of possibilities.

Indie-rock shows will find a new home, and I do hope they find a better one, and that someone with some money opens up a great little rock club, as opposed to what Modified was. Our standards in Phoenix have been systematically lowered over the years, to the point where we thought Modified was an awesome music venue. It wasn't. It was a room with a P.A. that had great people involved with it.

I congratulate Martin on getting us talking. It spawned a lot of conversation, and that conversation has brought forth action, and brought quite a few people together to get to work on some exciting projects. Downtown "ovah"? Nah, we're just getting started. I choose to believe that Martin knew what he was doing all along.

Shane Kennedy is a local DJ with regular gigs at Bikini Lounge and the Roosevelt. He is a member of several notable bands including Turn Back O Man and TOWNCRAFT. He is a longtime downtown resident trying desperately to enjoy every last crumb of his 30s. He can be found at myspace.com/shaneathon.

Stephen Chilton, promoter

There is a real and profound cultural phenomenon developing in downtown Phoenix.

When I started promoting events downtown almost a decade ago, it felt like we were able to do things downtown and get away with it because no one else was playing attention. Bands that could not get booked in the larger venues in Tempe and Scottsdale were able to come to and play small spaces and develop because no one else was looking. This is what enabled a lot of people the freedom to do something interesting and new, and I can remember many of the national acts that are selling out large venues in the suburbs today playing to intimate crowds downtown years earlier.

Whether it is avant-garde theater or independent film or visual arts or fine culinary dining or designing new green architecture, the creative people are working and living downtown. With all these hard-working creative people converging in one area, it is only a matter of time before we hit a critical mass. The people who will create the works that define our city in the next decade are in a large part doing it from downtown.

Today, it feels as though not only are people looking at what is going on, they are also appreciating it and, more than ever, starting to support it. Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon has been known to tweet about local bands that would never make the radar of his peers in other Valley cities. With all the increased support and appreciation given to the creative communities downtown we are just now starting to see the real economic investment in the infrastructure, like venues, that will allow creative people the room to grow to the next level.

 

Stephen Chilton, 26, is an Arizona native, downtown resident, and community activist who has spent the past nine years producing events across the state as Psyko Steve Presents.


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