If you live in the Phoenix area, you're obligated to badmouth Tucson at every possible opportunity. In fact, I'm sure some readers saw the word "Tucson" somewhere in or around this block of text and have already turned the page. Congratulations to you, the reader who is open-minded enough to make it this far.
Whether your Valley of the Sun pride can handle it or not, Tucson's Club Congress is Arizona's best live music venue. I've been to your bars and theaters (indoors and out), and no venue mixes the physical aspects of what makes a place to see bands enjoyable with the quality booking Congress pulls off. Sorry, it's something you Phoenix types will have to just come to grips with. You have Lo-Lo's, Chris Bianco, and freeways that allow you to exit within a five-mile radius of your downtown. It'll be okay.
While we're busy crushing your illusions of complete and total cultural superiority over your cousins to the southeast, it must be noted that, despite what this publication has stated recently, the "most important" act in Arizona is down in Tucson as well. In fact, you should probably start preparing yourself for the wave of popularity and success that will soon surround Sergio Mendoza y la Orkesta.
Sergio Mendoza y la Orkesta
HocoFest is scheduled for September 4, 5, and 6 at Hotel Congress in Tucson. Calexico, The Meat Puppets, Cracker, Mexican Institute of Sound, Sergio Mendoza y la Orkesta, JFA, Golden Boots, Har Mar Superstar, and Sleepcar are scheduled to perform throughout the weekend.
The 15- (or so) member act has been in existence for less than a year but already is tagging along with (and occasionally upstaging) Calexico, opening for them in April at Phoenix's Heritage Square and performing alongside the duo at last weekend's Street Scene festival in San Diego and Outside Lands in San Francisco.
Sergio Mendoza's stylish act has a simultaneously post-modern (including sound manipulation and samples) and classic take (trumpets that recall '40s American jazz) on the mambo, without becoming a self-conscious retro act, just playing music reflecting what Mendoza heard his father listen to. The Orkesta has an European tour and a Joey Burns-produced full-length in their near future, and it's not difficult, while listening to the band, to imagine the act drawing raves from both the NPR set that went nuts for the Buena Vista Social Club and hipster types alike. I realize that sounds like standard rock-critic hyperbole, but you haven't seen these guys. They're really that good.
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So, here's the problem for Phoenicians: If you didn't see Mendoza in Heritage Square a few months ago, you probably missed your chance to see the band without doing some traveling. As you might be able to piece together yourself, clearing and synching schedules, then dragging a triple-size band anywhere, is a challenge, so who knows when they'll be back? That's where "best music venue in Arizona" Club Congress comes in. The venue throws itself a birthday party each Labor Day weekend stacked with acts from Tucson and a few state and national acts as well.
This year, a weekend pass runs $25 for three nights of shows, with the Meat Puppets and X headlining Saturday, and At the Drive-In/Sparta side project Sleepercar and Calexico topping the bill on Sunday. While the other nights are probably worth the trip, Friday's Latin-themed stage puts together the Orkesta with Mexican Institute of Sound, whose third album Soy Sauce, a mash-up of traditional Mexican sounds with hip-hop influences, is among the best-reviewed Latin releases of the year.
Latin alternative acts like M.I.S. seem to rarely play Arizona, so if you're a fan of Latin music, the $10 ticket charge (even with the cost of driving to Tucson) is a bargain. Plus, you can tell your Phoenix-centric friends you saw Arizona's best band back when they were still playing Arizona's best venue. After all, this might be your last chance.