Marquee de Sad
About 15 minutes into their set at the new Marquee Theatre in Tempe last Tuesday, Idaho guitar ambassadors Built to Spill blasted into "The Plan," a bombastic, subtly melodic rocker. As 700 fans or so looked on, lead singer and ax man Doug Martsch sang the lyric, "The plan means nothing stays the same/But the plan won't accomplish anything/If it's not implemented."
Martsch's words very well could be applied to the Marquee itself. The venue, opened in March in the old Red River Music Hall, is clearly a work in progress, one that promises a better concert-going future for the Phoenix area but in the meantime can be annoying as hell.
"We really opened this thing fast, and we sort of bootstrapped it to a certain extent," says Chris Swank, one of the four partners in Denver's Nobody in Particular Presents, the concert promotion house that owns the Marquee.
NIPP, which owns four concert venues in Denver, probably opened the thing too fast. It bought the old North Mill venue in late February and opened it just weeks later. "We had all these shows we were booking, and we saw that we could either book them in our own place or book them in other places around town," explains Jesse Morreale, one of Swank's partners. He also says NIPP's plans for the place are quite ambitious: They're hoping to book 200 shows a year in the venue.
Despite the quality of shows the place is already attracting (Jaguares and Molotov for lovers of Mexican rock, Taking Back Sunday and The Datsuns for the power-poppers), there are nagging problems that NIPP hopes to resolve over the next six months.
First and foremost, there's the parking. The Marquee is a singular building, rounded and large, sitting all by itself at the intersection of Mill and Washington. There's nothing else around, and seemingly nowhere else to park but in the facility's own parking lot. However, concertgoers find that they have to pay $5 each to enter the friggin' thing. While NIPP maintains that there's free parking elsewhere in the area (none is allowed on the streets), the main alternative is a lot tucked underneath Mill Avenue Bridge and barely detectable. Accessing it is even tougher than spotting it. (Non-Tempe resident that I am, I've failed in numerous attempts.) The dejected are forced to shell out beer money just to leave their cars -- sometimes in makeshift spots pinned against railings and bumper-to-bumper between two other cars.
"Generally, they don't like to pay for parking. On the flip side, venues are really expensive to operate," defends Swank, saying it'll eventually cost nearly $1 million to make mass renovations and upgrades to the Marquee, such as replacing the ventilation system. The choice, he says, was to close for six months or to operate while waiting for the upgrades in the meantime. Swank, aware of the gripes, says the company is working to make the free lots more accessible.
The promoters are also experimenting with ways to make the Marquee a one-size-fits-all venture, when, for now, it is not. Swank says sales of between 500 and 1,500 tickets are the goal per show, so the theater's willing to take a chance on middling acts like British folk-rock veteran Richard Thompson and world-beat-savvy Thievery Corporation. Doing so, however, leaves pools of space in the cavernous concert area, compromising their intimacy, not to mention their sound quality. We heard from one fan, Amy Bianco of Scottsdale, who complained that the volume was ear-splittingly loud and completely distracting at Thompson's show. And if the promoters underestimate the number of tickets they can sell, which they have several times, then they're effectively wasting rent money on dud acts.
Then there's the small stuff. Small, yes, but the kind of thing that an outfit like NIPP should pay better attention to. Like, how does a place named Marquee Theatre not have its own marquee? The old Red River signage is still up, and folks driving on Mill are likely to pass by having no idea the place is -- or should be -- one of the most significant new music clubs in town.
Swank says NIPP is still working on creating and setting up a stylish sign of its own to make the nomenclature official. Zoning officials in Tempe, however, say the promoters so far have not submitted an application for a sign permit, which means that if the city determines NIPP needs to apply for variances, it could be several more months before we see the Marquee really look like the Marquee.
And a minor point: While the lobby is decorated with cool posters in all colors and sizes of shows featuring the Melvins, Iggy Pop and others, most of them were generated from shows NIPP hosted in Denver venues. It reeks of absentee landlordism. They need to get their own promo art on the walls -- and soon.
To its credit, the Marquee is making strides. It made its most endearing change last week, raising its official capacity from 999 to 1,001. Doesn't sound like much, but it's actually a big change. That two-person increase, according to Tempe law, means that the venue will no longer have to separate the drinkers from the teetotalers at all-ages shows. That frees the beer lovers to get a view of the stage -- and it is a music stage, not some improved bar set up like the other joints in town -- instead of hovering in a fenced-off area at the lobby bar. Swank says it'll help even more once the Marquee gets a full liquor license and can move beyond beer and wine.
Tyree Michael Carter appreciates the value of risk. The manager of rapper Pokafase, whose major-label debut Mastermind is due in August, is banking on the notion that he can help expand Phoenix hip-hop.
For years a dominant hip-hop promoter in the Valley before his managerial duties took precedence, Carter is inching his way back into the local live scene. His company TMC Entertainment began hosting monthly showcases for local rap acts at the Bash on Ash in Tempe earlier this month. The Bash shows, Carter says, are modeled after the national shows he still hosts from time to time -- like for Zion I or Prince Paul or GZA. The locals get a weekend spotlight, promotional fliers with photos and the full-on sound system treatment. The first show earlier this month featured the veteran groups Cutthroat Logic and Realizm, and, to Carter's surprise, attracted more than 400 people (though by the looks of things, with the fly dress and demonstrative partying evident there that night, a healthy portion may have been other rappers and their extended crews).
Carter's next monthly Bash soiree, featuring rap-rock bands Bionic Jive and Illegal Substance, is scheduled for this Friday, May 30, at a cost of $6 a ticket; after that comes a June 14 show with Level X, Denial Da Danksta, and Deep Water Merchants.
Carter says he's partly motivated by making hip-hop not only more visible, but also less fractious and divisive. "That's the ultimate goal -- to kill all the hate in the streets," says Carter. If all of the area's disparate elements can come together and enjoy a show featuring several different artists, Carter theorizes, then that can only help to win over label A&R types who happen to wander into the building.
That may or may not be a realistic goal, but with national hip-hop shows approaching a ridiculous $40 a ticket and with other local efforts struggling to make the scene, we'll take a cheap, grand production where we can get one.
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