If you had asked me a month or two ago whether Tempe had any chance of re-establishing itself as the center of the local music scene, I would have said no.
Actually, I probably would have said, "Hell no, dude. Are you fucking serious?"
But that was before huge news about the two most important concert clubs in town — one in Phoenix, one in Tempe.
Turns out Yucca Tap Room is adding an all-ages venue that will finally allow the Tempe watering hole to compete with other small venues. Rodney Hu, whose family has owned the bar and the plaza it's in for two generations, finally got the city's permission to expand into the club's neighboring space and will do so in December, making a huge move toward taking the club, which came to prominence as the home base for The Refreshments during Mill Ave's heyday, to the next level.
By coincidence, Modified Arts, the heart of the CenPho music scene, is "going gallery" around the same time. Kimber Lanning, the Stinkweeds Records proprietor who owns the building and ran the venue, has become more involved in community-development projects and is turning the venue over to a husband-and-wife team who plan to make the space a little fancier.
"The big indie-rock shows you've come to know and love at Modified will have to find another home," Lanning said in a news release.
Until a few weeks ago, it seemed all the momentum in local music was pushing to downtown Phoenix. Modified, the heart, was pumping energy toward Trunk Space on Grand Avenue, which is becoming a miniature version of L.A.'s The Smell, and toward the Rhythm Room, which has had many more great shows than the only venue it has to compete with, the Clubhouse in Tempe.
What will happen? Well, you can read a balanced discussion on the matter, including posts from Kimber, me, and half of Phoenix, at our music blog (www.phxmusic.com) or you can accept what I say here. And that is this:
Downtown is ovah. Sure, Roosevelt Row is cool if you're a too-hip-for-Scottsdale oldster looking to buy expensive art for the loft you furnished at CB2, but if you wanna be in on the ground floor, head to Tempe.
Now, obviously, a lot can happen quickly regarding such matters — it just did! — but it's hard to imagine someone opening an alternative in Phoenix when all the people I talk to say all the damned speculators are still speculating, keeping real estate out of the hands of the sort of people who'd open a cool indie-rock venue. Meanwhile, by happenstance, Tempe just got such a venue.
True, Modified still will have smaller "experimental" shows. Adam Murray, who will be running the gallery with his wife, Kim Larkin, was opaque about his plans when I chatted with him on Friday. In an e-mail, he said, "Thank you for the interest in what Kim and I are planning for Modified Arts next year. What I would like to do is revisit this topic at a later date, when we have fully fleshed out the first quarter of 2010, so I can let the calendar do the talking."
What does that mean? I dunno. Maybe it'll be awesome, but I'm not holding my breath.
From what I've observed, music venues tend to operate best with synergy. Drop one cool venue someplace and more will follow. Remove the heart? I'll answer that question with a question: How many shows have you seen on Mill since Long Wong's closed?
Now, I know Kimber Lanning has faith in downtown's Wolverine-like healing powers or she wouldn't make this move. And, true, Lanning knows a shit-load about urban planning and I do not. But I've read Richard Florida's The Rise of the Creative Class and I've lived a few places. From what I'm seeing, it looks as if it's Tempe Time — for local and indie music, at least.
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Here's the canary in the coalmine: Downtown Phoenix is now losing its marquee record label and the bands on it. Modern Art records' house producer, Ryan Breen, who records as Back Ted N-Ted, has moved to New York. Breen was, in my opinion, the most talented man in local music, so this is a huge blow. The rest of the crew, including Miniature Tigers, is following. Here's a status update on label owner Ben Collins' Facebook page: "Ben Collins will be residing in Brooklyn, NY as of Nov. 1st!"
Yeah, he said Brooklyn, not Tempe. Point is, Phoenix is the loser. It's sad, but the downtown scene just didn't mature fast enough to keep guys like Collins around.
Now it's Tempe's turn to try.