The 10 Best Concerts We've Seen at Crescent Ballroom

The Crescent Ballroom has been around for five years now.EXPAND
The Crescent Ballroom has been around for five years now.
Benjamin Leatherman

Crescent Ballroom celebrates its fifth anniversary today. It's hard to imagine what downtown would look like without the venue, which in terms of influence seems older than it is. But back in 2011, owner Charlie Levy just wanted to create a venue with character.

"Strip it down to the bare bones," he told us five years ago. "Make it nice, but not too nice. I want it to still be rock 'n' roll."

It's worked. In five short years, the venue has become the epicenter of the downtown music scene, the place where local musicians can realistically aspire to headline and a place where some of the most talented names in all of music have played. The ballroom itself fits about 550 people, and there isn't a bad vantage point in the house. The sound is always great and the drinks are reasonably priced. 

In honor of the venue's fifth birthday, we thought we'd look back at the best concerts we've seen there. Here are the 10 best concerts we've seen at Crescent Ballroom. The venue will be celebrating its anniversary tonight with a performance by Phoenix Afrobeat Orchestra as well as a speaking event featuring Rita Indiana and Calexico. 

Phantogram
Phantogram
Melissa Fossum

Phantogram - 11/5/2011
Crescent Ballroom quickly earned its reputation as a venue to see the next big thing, providing a rare glimpse into bands performing in an intimate space before they become extremely popular. Phantogram performed at the venue a little over a month after it opened, in what was arguably the venue’s first spectacular show. The show was a few days after the trip-hop duo released its Nightlife EP, an album that was still new and unfamiliar for much of the sold-out crowd. The band performed the majority of its Eyelid Movies record, which resulted in a nearly incessant dance party for the audience, which crammed in as close as possible to the stage.  In Crescent Ballroom’s infancy, there was a bit of an adjustment period. Bands like Phantogram were expected to perform at venues like The Clubhouse or The Rhythm Room. Phantogram was the first of many concerts that showed that Crescent Ballroom was something special, thanks to beautiful aesthetics, a killer sound system, and Phantogram’s seizure-inducing strobe effects. 

The show was particularly memorable thanks to Phantogram’s relatively minimalist setup. It was amazing to see how much sound could come out of Sarah Barthel’s synthesizer and Josh Carter’s guitar. The visual effects turned the simplicity on its head for an unforgettable show. MELISSA FOSSUM

M83
M83
Melissa Fossum

M83 - 11/7/2011
The timing of this show could not have been better. The French electronic band released its smash hit album, Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming a month prior, and Crescent Ballroom subsequently felt like too small a space for the band. The stage was packed full of instrumentalists, something that has only since been rivaled by groups like Marchfourth Marching Band.

M83 was like an explosion sounding off in a small space. The music was so loud that the audience was shaken to its core. But it wasn’t unsettling, it was beautiful. The band wowed the crowd with highlights from Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, including “Midnight City,” and “Wait,” but the highlights came from the band’s prior material, which were amplified into what seemed like a cosmic event.

The show felt like the audience was tagging along for M83’s space adventure, thanks to colorful strobes and lighting effects that imitated a night sky. This made songs like “Teen Angst” and “We Own the Sky” feel larger than life. The band concluded with the lengthy “Couleurs,” where every note was necessary and could have easily carried on for another 20 minutes without feeling boring.

Neil deGrasse Tyson would have been proud.  MELISSA FOSSUM

Tycho
Tycho
Troy Farah

Tycho - 9/2/2012
Tycho’s first-ever Phoenix gig was not only at Crescent Ballroom, it was also a sold-out show. Are there really that many lyricless chillwave fans in the Valley? Apparently. The spectacular ambient night involved “Rainbow pyramids launched off into space, burrowing into fractals, interspersed with crystal stalagmites shooting through the sky and blowing into pure light.” At least, that’s what if might have felt like if you were on a drug like 25I-NBOMe, which I was when I caught the show. But the LSD-like vibes weren’t all in my head, because when Tycho returned on November 11, 2013 (also a sold-out show), I went completely, 100 percent sober — not even a puff of pot — and frontman Scott Hansen’s performance was just as mind-blowing. Like the ocean-swept dawns speckling his album artwork and draping the stage, the music burst and swelled with tidal energy and the audience wildly ate it up. Hansen performed old favorites and previewed a few tracks from his then-unreleased album Awake. Now, Tycho just headlined the Marquee on October 2, which is almost like watching your kids grow up and go to college. But even with a bigger stage — not to mention a bigger audience — Tycho’s music will always be intimate, dream-like, and very, very colorful. TROY FARAH

Billy Bragg
Billy Bragg
Melissa Fossum

Billy Bragg - 3/26/2013
For someone who’d never played Phoenix before, the British folk-punk rabble-rouser definitely knew enough about the area’s politics to call out Sheriff Joe during the closing notes of “All You Fascists Are Bound to Lose.”

On a tour to promote his 10th album, Tooth & Nail, Bragg played a set that spanned his entire 30-year career, working out the new tunes with his hotshot new band (all essentially a generation younger than the now white- and ginger-bearded Bragg) before playing a mini solo set on electric guitar mid-show. “The Milkman of Human Kindness,” “To Have and to Have Not,” and “Levi Stubbs’ Tears” showcased the deft lyrical touch that’s existed in Bragg’s songs from the beginning, a sharp-witted blend of the political and the personal.

Other highlights included Bragg’s 1991 gay-rights anthem “Sexuality” (coincidentally on the day the U.S. Supreme Court began hearing arguments on marriage equality), his somber cover of Woody Guthrie’s “I Ain’t Got No Home,” and his typical set closer, “Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards,” a bit of occasionally re-written political poetry that stamped the show’s end with an optimistic exclamation mark.

“Engagement to me is the real antidote to cynicism,” Bragg told New Times before the show, a point the provocative singer-songwriter emphasized in song after song after taking his place, finally, front and center on stage in Phoenix. ERIC SWEDLUND

Man or Astro-Man? - 5/9/2013
It took 13 trips around the sun for Man or Astro-Man? to blast its way back to the Valley for a gig – possibly due to some rare astrological phenomena, but more likely because the acclaimed sci-fi surf rockers fell into a metaphorical black hole during a decade-long hiatus in the '00s. Whatever the cause, when the band finally touched down in Phoenix in 2013, jumpsuits and all, for some close encounters of the nerd kind with a packed house, it turned out to be quite the space odyssey.

With a towering array of screens displaying mind-warping visual streams of stars, supernovas, and fractals, it felt like Crescent’s concert hall had become a space capsule rocketing through the cosmos at light speed. And Man or Astro-Man? was there to provide a spacey soundtrack of instrumental surf rock, including many tracks for their ample discography, to carry us along as we rode the solar flares to Alpha Centauri and beyond. The guitars of axe men Brian "Boirdstuff" Teasley and Brian "Star Crunch" Causey were in overdrive as powerful waves of growling distortion and fuzz from the band’s epic soundscapes of surf filled the room and put the work of more modern acts like Best Coast and Thee Oh Sees to shame.

And like any good Man or Astro-Man? performance, there was some show-stopping theatrics involved, specifically when instrumentalist Robert del Bueno (a.k.a. Coco the Electronic Monkey) lit a theremin on fire near the end of the night and continued to use the instrument. It definitely brought the house down. BENJAMIN LEATHERMAN

 

Sleigh Bells
Sleigh Bells
Melissa Fossum

Sleigh Bells - 4/9/2014
If you were to trace out how energy flows between a crowd and the performers, it would look like this: Crowd cheers loudly for musicians. Musicians get pumped up on the energy and become more confident in their body language and stage banter. Crowd reacts to increased level of showmanship coming from stage by cheering louder. Musicians, fueled by the applause, perform even better, and so on and so forth. Those moments when the musicians and the crowd feed each other's intensity like that often produce the most special concerts, and when Sleigh Bells performed at Crescent Ballroom in 2014, this idea was in full effect. Alexis Krauss and her band practically exploded onto the stage that night, and from the first song had the crowd in the palm of her hand. The packed crowd hung on to her every word and every lyrical phrase, and Sleigh Bells accomplished that night what so few bands have achieved at Crescent: getting the entire crowd of hipsters to pocket their cell phones and dance. DAVID ACCOMAZZO

Peter Murphy
Peter Murphy
Tom Carlson

Peter Murphy - 7/13/2013
Smack dab in the middle of July 2013, the sweaty heart of the Phoenix summer, Peter Murphy hopped off a flight from his home in Turkey and onto the stage of the Crescent Ballroom. The granddad of goth has had an incredibly successful solo career, but this night was devoted to playing the music of Bauhaus, the gloriously gloomy, post-punk band that he fronted, which formed back in the late '70s.

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The pre-show chatter was nothing but words of anticipation and excitement; the impatient crowd was loaded with hardcore fans. When he finally hit the stage, there were some faces streaked with runny eyeliner, and it wasn’t just from waiting below the warm lights or the summer season. Those were some emo tears, as Murphy ripped through Bauhaus classics, from the extra-dark and haunting like “King Volcano,” and “The Spy in the Cab,” to the beautiful, like “Silent Hedges,” right into relentlessly driving favorites like “Dark Entries.” 

Even though it was just Murphy and not the rest of the original lineup (who have all reunited over the years for short tours), it was still pretty magical to hear him bellowing out those essential classics in such an intimate setting. AMY YOUNG

Here's what happened when twenty one pilots performed at a much larger venue.EXPAND
Here's what happened when twenty one pilots performed at a much larger venue.
Melissa Fossum

twenty one pilots - 11/12/2013
Now a platinum-selling band known for their crowd drumming  and hamster-ball stunts, twenty one pilots wasn’t always playing at 18,000-seat venues like Talking Stick Resort Arena. Once upon a time, on November 12, 2013, the indie-rock duo Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun walked into Crescent Ballroom sporting red and blue ski masks.

Before “Car Radio” hit car radios, before “Blurryface” was released and before songs like “Ride” and “Stressed Out” dominated playlists, the band put on a big show in the small space.

The band’s light shows, introspective lyrics, and stage tricks look almost unreal in a big venue, but in Crescent, that show was just as exciting and had a more intimate feel to it. Throughout the night, the duo turned off the mics and Joseph pulled out his signature ukulele, playing songs like Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling In Love.” Yet they still retained their energy, diving into the crowd with flashing lights.

It was the kind of show that will likely never happen again the band’s history, but will still stand as one of the best performances to hit Crescent Ballroom. MEGAN JANETSKY

Highly Suspect
Highly Suspect
Shervin Lainez

Highly Suspect - 4/15/2016
For the pace at which rock trio Highly Suspect took over the internet with controversial music videos and raw, honest Pink Floyd-esque songwriting, Crescent Ballroom’s atmosphere was ideal to see the band, which has been nominated for two Grammys. Not too crowded, more than enough room to dance, heavy with dry ice and lavender lighting.

Highly Suspect sauntered on stage like they weren’t quite sure why they were there. The mix of hipsters, college students, Rastafarians, metal heads, DJs, and middle-aged couples made it clear that the connection to the music isn’t unwarranted. Blood, sweat, and tears; beautiful audacity; cigarettes and leather ... hope for the future of rock 'n' roll.

Highly Suspect inundated the crowd with the true feeling of rock and nostalgia for the devastating nuances of musicians giving all their energy to the people. Yes, the self-destruction of Highly Suspect is likely — the venues will get bigger, the fame larger.

The trio's instruments were like extensions of themselves, and singer Johnny Stevens thrashed the microphone while belting out his desperate, carnal vocals. Instrumentals weaved with the latter in a hypnotic, head-on collision-type manner. The band let songs like “Bloodfeather,” “Serotonia,” and “Lydia” showcase their talent, somehow appealing to underground and radio fans alike, with their only interaction being a “thank you,” and Stevens toasting the crowd: “Let’s all get fucked up together.” Just the way rock 'n' roll should be. LAUREN WISE

Vince StaplesEXPAND
Vince Staples
Tse Daniel for The Come Up Show/CC-BY-2.0

Vince Staples - 5/13/2016
God bless Crescent for letting us see spectacular artists in an intimate setting "before they get big," as the Vince Staples show I saw this May certainly felt like the last time the up-and-coming rapper would perform for such a small crowd in Phoenix. In fact, maybe a little too small, as we were packed like sardines in the sold-out venue. But when Vince took the stage, all 550 of us moved as one, bouncing and swaying to the pulse of the beat, whether we wanted to or not. The rapper's autobiographical, socially conscious debut album Summertime '06 translated into a set of bangers that Vince could deliver with overwhelming conviction and passion.

Some of the other artists on this list might have gotten here thanks to a particular gimmick or memorable happenstance, but Vince Staples didn't have any special lighting display, any costumes, any stunts, anything but himself and his music. It was this purity of performance, the amount of fun I had throwing myself into the shoulders of those around me while shouting along "Bitch you thirsty, please grab a Sprite" at the top of my lungs, that gave me a feeling of serendipitous connection to the other attendees and to the artist that only a handful of concerts ever have. This was one of those shows that made me realize anew what I love about live music, not to mention what I love about Crescent Ballroom. STEVE JOZEF

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Crescent Ballroom

308 N. 2nd Ave.
Phoenix, AZ 85003

602-716-2222

www.crescentphx.com


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