In the Past Five Years, Phoenix Has Transformed Into the Valley’s Musical Epicenter
Charlie Levy stands in the doorway of his new venue, Valley Bar, wearing a t-shirt for Rebel Lounge, a different venue.
“Do you want to get a drink or see a show?” asks Charlie Levy.
The local concert promoter stands in front of a pair of doors in the landing of Valley Bar, his new basement-level music venue and lounge in downtown Phoenix, as he poses the question. It’s more choose-your-own-adventure than “The Lady or the Tiger?” as far as propositions go, because one door conceals a cocktail lounge while the other leads to a music hall. Both are enticing choices, considering that Valley Bar has been in the works for almost a year. And we’re eager for a peek.
After opting for the former, Levy leads us into what will soon be known as the “Rose Room” (so named for Arizona’s first female governor, Rose Mofford) and starts pointing out the lounge’s amenities, which either already are in place or still under construction.
“All the bones are done and everything else should fall in place pretty easily,” Levy says. “There’s banquette booths over here, and there will be pictures on that wall and some couches going in over there.”
Levy leads us through the lounge and down a hallway-like nook (where dart machines and pinball games soon will reside) to show off Valley Bar’s music hall and its most prominent feature, the 15-by-22-foot stage that will host local and touring bands after the venue opens, which it is scheduled to do this weekend.
“The room’s pretty good,” Levy says. “Once we put the sound baffling in, it’s going to be a warm-sounding room.”
Perhaps it’s due to Valley Bar’s work-in-progress state during our visit, or his unassuming nature, but Levy, who also owns downtown’s Crescent Ballroom and runs local concert promotions company Stateside Presents, sounds a little sheepish when discussing the venue and its potential success.
“I’m excited to see what people think,” he says. “I think they’re going to like it, or I hope they’re going to like it.”
He needn’t worry, given his track record with the ultra-popular Crescent Ballroom and the fact Valley Bar is one of Phoenix’s more eagerly awaited new music venues. That said, Levy will have to share the spotlight with another local promoter opening a much-heralded new venue in Phoenix this week, and it’s someone he’s worked alongside for years. A few miles to the east, Stephen Chilton is putting the finishing the Rebel Lounge, a mid-size spot along Indian School Road and the onetime home of famed Valley rock bar the Mason Jar. Chilton, former director of marketing for Stateside and Crescent Ballroom and a longtime promoter known as “Psyko Steve,” decided to open a joint of his own.
An interior shot of Rebel Lounge
Courtesy of Stephen Chilton
Both venues, which are scheduled to open within a few days of each other, underscore Phoenix’s growing prominence as a live music destination over the past few years, particularly downtown. Since 2011, several well-regarded venues have opened in the area, shifting the spotlight of the local music scene from other parts of the Valley (namely, Tempe, which lost a number of venues in recent years) to downtown. And the shift has brought more musicians and fans to the city’s urban core by offering concerts on a nightly basis. It’s gone hand-in-hand with the ongoing cultural reinvention and redevelopment of downtown. And the proximity of Arizona State University’s downtown campus and its cache of students interested in music and nightlife probably has helped.
“It just seems like the whole cultural center of Phoenix is shifting downtown with venues, restaurants, galleries, and all sorts of other things,” Chilton says. “They’re all related. It’s an across-the-board cultural shift. It’s not just music, but music is a big piece of that.”
Though downtown Phoenix has featured live music for decades — from arena shows to small gigs at galleries, bars, warehouses, dives, and boho hangouts dotting the arts district — it’s had few dedicated music venues or functioned as an interconnected music hub on the level of Tempe’s vaunted Mill Avenue scene of the ’90s. (Downtown flirted with both in the ’00s, however, when now-defunct concert halls Web Theatre and the Old Brickhouse prospered and both Grand Avenue and Roosevelt boasted a burgeoning network of performance-friendly art spots like Paper Heart, The PHiX, OnePlace, and Holgas.)
That started to change in October 2011 when Levy opened Crescent Ballroom. The stylish concert hall and lounge at Second Avenue and Van Buren Street quickly became a focal point for live music in downtown Phoenix and a gathering spot with its distinctive lineup of nightly shows and performances.
Seven months later, local arts nonprofit Jazz in Arizona debuted its combination jazz joint and education center The Nash on Roosevelt Row. Right about the same time, local DJ godfathers Peter Salaz and Sean Badger opened their electronic dance music haven Monarch Theatre next to their popular Washington Street nightclub Bar Smith. Then, in early 2013, local music impresario Brannon Kleinlein turned shuttered dive the Ruby Room just south of downtown into a revival of his Tempe rock bar Last Exit. A year later, the old Madison Events Center on Fourth Avenue was reborn as the Pressroom while the defunct Paisley Violin on Grand Avenue was transformed by entrepreneur Neil Hounchell into ThirdSpace, a quirky wine bar/bistro and retail compound with indie rock and punk shows on its back patio.
Though the origin stories behind these venues vary, the proprietors share a common raison d’être in open their spots downtown: They felt a certain energy developing and wanted to tap into it.
It’s one of the reasons why Levy chose to open Valley Bar in downtown.
“I think it’s obvious that downtown is changing in such a great way and people are moving here and opening businesses and artists are moving here and its just flourishing here,” he says. “And you can feel the energy in the air. And I wanted to be part of it.”
Joel Goldenthal, executive director of Jazz in Arizona, echoes Levy when explaining the genesis of The Nash. The venue came about in part, from the continued growth of the monthly First Friday art walk. Meanwhile, Kleinlein says he chose downtown after seeing the success of Crescent Ballroom and wanting to milk the same energy with an eye toward eventually transforming the area into a live music zone akin to Austin’s Sixth Street or Dallas’ Deep Ellum district.
Brannon Kleinlein of Last Exit Live
“I liked the idea of putting the venue down there among the opportunity for other venues to come and be a part of it,” Kleinlein says. “Looking at other successful cities like Austin, one of the things they had going for them was a lot of music venues in close proximity to one another, and I thought downtown probably the best opportunity to do something like that.”
He certainly wasn’t going to find that in Tempe, which is a far cry from its former role as the Valley’s musical epicenter.
“I definitely was considering Tempe, but what venues that are still there are kinda spread out, and there’s no longer really a scene like on Mill Avenue in the ’90s,” Kleinlein says. “I just felt like there was a better opportunity for me in downtown Phoenix.”
Though Phoenix has a ways to go before emulating Tempe during the Gin Blossoms’ heyday, its influx of new venues has worked in tandem with go-to live music havens and arts district hangouts like Lost Leaf, Trunk Space, FilmBar, and Firehouse Gallery to create something approaching a walkable destination for concertgoers and music junkies. And you have to look no further than the success of Viva PHX, a one-night music festival promoted by Stateside that features shows at more than a dozen downtown spots. (Disclosure: New Times has co-promoted the first two festivals.)
“We couldn’t have done this five years ago,” Levy told New Times before the inaugural Viva PHX in 2014.
The roots of Phoenix’s live music resurgence reach back to the loss of one of its more beloved venues, Modified Arts. For most of the ’00s, the 150-capacity Roosevelt Row gallery was a hotbed for indie rock shows and one of several downtown spots, including outsider artist haven Trunk Space and blues joint the Rhythm Room, where live music flourished. In 2009, however, Modified stopped hosting concerts and reasserted itself as a visual arts gallery.
Coupled with the fact that Tempe offered a larger number of venues, the news caused a degree of hand-wringing among Phoenix’s music scene, inspiring former New Times music editor Martin Cizmar to infamously declare, “Downtown is ovah.”
In hindsight, “ovah” was hardly the case. Modified owner Kimber Lanning says Phoenix still was a viable home to live music and that ceasing shows at the gallery was a necessary step, mostly because it was ill-suited as a dedicated concert venue because of its size and setup. She cites a beyond-capacity gig in 2009 by alt-country artist Will Oldham, when fans spilled out onto sidewalk outside, as an example.
“We had shows at Modified that should have never been at Modified,” she says. “It served a very important purpose, and that is a stepping stone, but I recognized that it was never going to be the type of place that bands deserved and that fans deserved. And that’s not good for Phoenix . . . The right thing was to step aside and say that someone will have to step up and open a bigger venue that’s of a better quality.”
In other words, Crescent Ballroom or any of the venues that followed. Lanning says she wanted to be a catalyst for live music in downtown, which is why she even assisted Levy with finding the perfect spot for the Crescent.
“Without [Modified], that applied pressure, and Charlie and I spent time looking for the right place to open up a venue,” Lanning says. “We didn’t know it was going to be the Crescent, but because we knew the time was right for a larger quality venue to open.”
“It feels like it was bound to happen,” he says. “When Crescent came in, it was a time when downtown was ready for it.”
One of the reasons was the increasing migration of bands, artists, and music fans to Phoenix from elsewhere.
“It used to be, 10 or 15 years ago, everyone had to drive downtown to play at Modified,” Chilton says. “Now, it’s become where a lot more people live downtown and a lot more of the bands are downtown, and a lot of their fans are downtown.”
Steve Chilton takes a picture of the bar inside his soon-to-be-opened venue, Rebel Lounge.
They aren’t the only ones who are coming to Phoenix.
“You’re definitely seeing artists playing Phoenix that may not have played here before,” Chilton says. “Some of it is about having more venues, because if there’s four shows trying to come through on the same night and the one club is booked, there’s other options, so you’re not losing out on those shows.”
Local bands benefit as well, Kleinlein believes.
“Now, you can conceivably play your entire career in downtown. You can go from Lost Leaf and Trunk Space to Last Exit and Valley Bar to Crescent to the Pressroom and then to the Orpheum, whereas five years ago that was impossible,” he says. “And that’s kind of a huge difference: You could put any size show in Phoenix now.”
Lanning sees it as a maturation of Phoenix in general.
“Historically, it takes time to build a music community. So I think that it’s important to note that the smaller venues built the scene up enough that the bigger venues could take risks on these bands,” she says. “And so, today, when you look at the success that’s happening, it’s partly because of the vibrancy and the bodies downtown . . . but also because of the city growing up.”
The Rebel Lounge is scheduled to open Wednesday, May 20, and Valley Bar is scheduled to open in the near future.
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