The First Times We Realized We Loved the Phoenix Music Scene

AJJEXPAND
AJJ
Photo by Erica Lauren

The Phoenix music scene may never be that of New York or Los Angeles, but the truth of the matter is that the city coughs up hundreds of talented bands that put out fantastic music each year. (To illustrate: We had 25 entries on our Best Local Albums of 2015 list).

The problem is that for most, local music is an outside-in scene. Unless our parents are musicians, the music we grow up with is not something that was made in town but by bands known around the country. To discover the community of artists creating music takes a first step, a defining moment where we realize that, yes — there are creative people locally capable of writing songs on par with anyone from outside the state.

So with that in mind, theNew Times music writers decided to tap our memories and share when we first realized potency of the local music scene.

Andrew Jackson Jihad - David Accomazzo
All I knew about Andrew Jackson Jihad (these days shortened to AJJ) before I saw the band in August 2014 was that people whose taste I respected loved them. That was enough for me to want to see for myself. I was new to the city and new to a job that required a deep knowledge of the local music scene, and I had already seen dozens of local bands by that point. But it didn't take long at the Andrew Jackson Jihad show at Crescent Ballroom to realize something was different. The entire ballroom contained an electric buzz; peoples' grins were a little wider than I was used to seeing. When the band took the stage, the crowd went nuts. From the first note, the audience gyrated and thrashed to singer Sean Bonnette's nasal, high-pitched warble. People of all ages, including a sizable number of scenesters who looked to be under 18, sang along to lyrics of songs that were five years old. I'd never seen a Phoenix crowd react so emotionally to a local act before. We'd even published a screed on how Phoenix audiences need to dance more just a few months before the show. But there was something special about the way Andrew Jackson Jihad interacted with the crowd that night, the way the band weaved together new songs and old while maintaining a punk rock edge. Ninety minutes later, I left Crescent with a deep appreciation of what the downtown music scene can spawn. I've been a believer ever since.

Stephen Steinbrink
Stephen Steinbrink
Nick Coultas

Stephen Steinbrink - Jason P. Woodbury
I don’t know how many house shows I saw at the Palace of No Malice in Tempe. They blur: the fury of Soft Shoulder, booming folk from Empire of the Bear, that time Sean Bonnette of AJJ (née Andrew Jackson Jihad) led a crowd of us through a kitchen sing-along of the Mountain Goats’ “This Year.” Similarly, I don’t know how many times I’ve heard The Who’s “Baba O’Riley,” but I know I never heard it the way I did the night Stephen Steinbrink — performing under the name French Quarter — performed it one night at the Palace. Surrounded by art punks and misfits, Steinbrink plucked an acoustic guitar, singing his own originals, “Little Mascara,” and then the Townshend epic. I sat on the couch, light from the porch overlooking 13th and Wilson streets streaming in through the window. That night he sang “I don’t need to be forgiven,” and all the Boomer grandiosity of the original faded away, revealing a song about the struggle to thrive. It took on special weight even in a room full of kids uninterested in heading to the Clubhouse or bars, before the light rail could take us downtown, gathered in this makeshift space as Steinbrink sang, “Let’s get together/before we get much older.”

Kongo Shock, back in the day.
Kongo Shock, back in the day.
Courtesy of Kongo Shock

Kongo Shock at Boston’s in Tempe - Benjamin Leatherman
Before it became a staple of alt-rock radio and MTV, albeit for a year or two, in the late '90s, ska was a bit of a lesser-known commodity enjoyed by those in the know. Specifically, the ska-punk hybridization of its third wave practiced by such bands as Less Than Jake, Mustard Plug, Goldfinger, Hepcat, and Mad Caddies, just to name a few. All of this was pretty much unknown to the wide-eyed 18-year-old who walked into bygone Tempe rock bar Boston’s in October 1994 for a gig by Skankin’ Pickle. And while the Bay Area-based ska band was quite good, the array of opening bands that evening, including local pop-punkers Plinko, were even better. That includes Kongo Shock, one of the Valley’s better ska acts, which was in its prime in those days and put on a great set. It had a tremendous effect on this particular writer, and acted as a gateway drug of sorts to Arizona’s vibrant ska and punk scenes of that era, opening his eyes and expanding his music horizons.

The First Times We Realized We Loved the Phoenix Music Scene
Benjamin Leatherman

Greenwich - Mandi Kimes
I was very much a church kid in high school. If I was going to a show, it was either some big arena show like Fall Out Boy or a low-key church related show like David Crowder Band. I didn’t get a glimpse into the local music scene until a guy I went to church with invited me to his shows in a band he played in called Greenwich. He was in that band with the worship pastor of our church, but they didn’t sing worship songs, which I thought was cool. They used to play at the Sets and some comedy clubs and house shows around Mesa and Tempe. But I didn’t venture into Phoenix until February 2009, when my mom drove me and my friend, Austin, to see Greenwich perform at this awkward diagonal venue on Grand Avenue called The Trunk Space. It was while we were there that I felt part of this community of music lovers and appreciators. The staff was friendly, the crowd was more than just the usual people I saw at church, and Austin and I even got a photo taken in their vintage photo booth. Up until this point in my life, I was planning on being a teacher. But this show along with many other shows I was exposed to that year led me to choose my career in cultivating the music scene in which I would soon immerse myself.

The Prowling Kind
The Prowling Kind
Ashley Beaudin Photography

Prowling Kind - Jason Keil
Growing up, I would read about music scenes in artistic cities: Seattle, Portland, Detroit. I was disappointed when I covered local music in Milwaukee. I often wrote about cover bands and Wilco clones, so I thought "scenes" were a figment of music writers' imagination. I had lived in Phoenix for about two months when my girlfriend (now wife) and I went to see The Prowling Kind at Crescent Ballroom. We walked in with some trepidation, but walked out floored. When lead singer Mickey Pangburn took the stage to perform songs from the band’s stunning concept album Tennessee, we knew we were hearing something special. The record chronicles Pagburn’s 15-year journey across the country with her mother to escape her ex-convict father. The single "Melted Together" is a highlight. We were eager to devour what Phoenix had to offer musically. That night, I knew I wanted to cover music in the Valley. I never wrote about the Prowling Kind (most of the band moved on to the project MRCH). Tennessee pops in my head every now and again. It still gives me chills and serves as a reminder of how great local music is in Phoenix.



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