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Unmodified

Meet the new boss: Kimber Lanning (foreground) passes the Modified torch to Scott Tennent.
Paolo Vescia

Kimber Lanning is a petite, fair-haired lady. Plopped down in a beanbag chair in a corner of her Tempe Stinkweeds record store and surrounded by records, tee shirts and magazines, Lanning's youthful face and diminutive figure suggest an earnest indie-rock kid rather than the self-made businesswoman she is.

Lanning has steadily built herself a modest local music empire over the years. In January, when she purchased Modified, a downtown Phoenix performance space/gallery, it seemed an ideal move. In-store shows that Lanning had long sponsored at her record stores had been growing bigger and bigger. Limited by space and logistical constraints, it seemed a small location suited for showcasing bands and some of her other performance-related interests would be the next logical step.

But after the first few months, it became clear to Lanning that Modified, which leases its space, had taken on a life of its own and would need the attention of someone who wasn't so busy. She tapped Scott Tennent, a Stinkweeds employee and friend who had worked closely with her since Modified's opening. She transferred ownership of the business to Tennent, although only a nominal amount of money changed hands.

Somehow the transfer spawned rumors that Lanning had "sold" the venue and was abandoning the project entirely. There was a minor uproar and a slew of concerned calls.

Fortunately for the arts and music communities, none of it is true. Though she has handed over the space's reins to Tennent, Lanning will continue to handle the art-gallery side of the business -- looking at portfolios, selecting artists, coordinating openings. Tennent will handle the music and other events that aren't directly arts-related. Meanwhile, the structure and setup of Modified will go unchanged and the booking policies will remain intact.

"It wasn't the sale of a business," stresses an exasperated Lanning. "All the volunteers are the same. Everybody who was behind it is going to stay the same, nothing is going to change."

Lanning adds that she knew she couldn't be responsible for Modified for long.

"I started Modified with the idea of it being run as a collective, mostly because I knew I wasn't going to be able to maintain it forever," she says.

The demands on Lanning's time -- already split among the day-to-day operations of Stinkweeds, promoting indie-rock shows and handling the gallery -- were mushrooming as Modified rapidly grew as a live music/performance venue for local and national acts ill-suited for the bar-and-club circuit.

Tennent is the ideal man to take over the space. A veteran of the Stinkweeds counter and an active member of the music community -- he plays guitar in local combo Half Visconte -- Tennent is a well-respected figure who's spent the better part of the last year apprenticing with Lanning, learning the nuts and bolts of booking and promotion.

"It's been really good learning things that way. I think it's going to help make the transition smooth," says Tennent.

Lanning says, "The only difference that I see is that he's already been able to dedicate more time to it, promote stronger and get more people in."

The nine-month-old venue has filled a critical void in the Valley's cultural scene. Though its main focus primarily has been split between live music and art, in its brief existence it has also played host to everything from poetry readings, music workshops, film screenings, modern-dance recitals and even fashion shows featuring the work of local designers.

But Modified's status as a favorite stop of the who's who of indie, underground, and avant-garde music is its strongest suit. Respectful, attentive crowds and an ambience unencumbered by TVs, gaming tables or booze are attractive to the kind of performers who rely more on the dynamics of their art than the volume of their amps.

Within the past few months, the space's stage has been graced by the likes of Godspeed You Black Emperor!, Low, and Elf Power. And with upcoming shows by Quintron & Miss Pussycat, Black Heart Procession, Isotope 217, and Archer Prewitt, it's clear that Modified will continue to gain momentum as a frequent destination of touring acts on the artistic and commercial fringe.

"The bands love it," says Lanning. "Take [Chicago-based slo-core band] Low as an example. They would rather play to 75 or 100 quiet, respectful people than a bar full of 500 people who are shooting pool and talking. They'll do it every time, and to them the money end of it doesn't matter."

Tennent adds, "I think for a lot of bands it's a breath of fresh air to come to a place where all the people who work there actually know who they are and know their music."

Modified's downtown location also provides an alternative to the overdeveloped neon-lit emptiness of Mill Avenue. A quick look at the club's calendar (which can be accessed at its Web site, www.modified.org) shows that Tennent is already expanding Modified's local bookings. November's schedule promises an acoustic night featuring sets by Chula's Danielle Bejarano, and Reuben's Accomplice singer Jeff Bufano, jazz from the Gabe Johnson quartet, punk from nevergonnascore, and Über Alice, and a show by power pop progeny Pollen.  

"[Booking more local bands] is definitely something we're trying to do," says Tennent. " It's not unlimited, because we're only open four nights a week, but between that and the national bands it's something we want to have a good balance of.

"Since Modified opened, there's been a lot of excitement about it," he continues. "The music scene has grown because of it, at least the local rock scene that doesn't go to the bars. It's definitely gotten a lot bigger in the last year. I'm just excited to be able to help keep pushing it forward."

Modified is located at 407 East Roosevelt. For concert, booking or other information, call 602-252-7664.

Texas Top Hand: In March, Bash & Pop had the pleasure of spending a few days in Austin, Texas, just prior to the annual South by Southwest music conference. Before the city was inundated by the annual migration of unctuous business types, corporate flacks, publicity hounds and, yes, even media slime, we were fortunate to catch a set by country singer Don Walser at Jovita's, a south Austin beer garden.

The notion that certain bands or artists are the "missing link" in certain musical chains is not a new idea. For years, critics and writers have suggested that Cheap Trick is the missing link between the Beatles and the Replacements, or that the Stooges are the missing link between the Velvet Underground and the Sex Pistols. Judging solely by appearances, you'd have to scratch your head at those who claim Walser to be the missing link between Bob Wills and the Butthole Surfers. But listening to the 65-year-old's unabashedly rural vocals and simple, stirring songs, it becomes apparent why he's been given that tag.

It's not that his craft is revolutionary in and of itself. But within the context of "new country" (the kind dominated by Shania and Garth, or whatever he's calling himself these days), Walser's piercing falsetto, dexterous vocals and sincere, unironic delivery seem about as uncountry as a Butthole Surfers song -- maybe even more so (that and the fact that Walser is probably the only human being ever to share stages with the Surfers and Buddy Holly).

Walser is a late bloomer. The man dubbed the "Pavarotti of the Plains" has been playing and singing his whole life, but his musical career began in earnest after he retired from a 40-year career in the Coast Guard. Walser moved to Austin in the mid-'80s, eventually gaining a dedicated local and national following through a series of vibrant albums on the Watermelon Records label. His latest release, Here's to Country Music (Sire), is his fifth album; and, as the title suggests, it's a celebration of the genre.

Unlike the current spate of dreaded all-cover albums, Here's to Country Music actually equals and in many cases improves upon the original versions -- or at least lends something different to the songs. Walser puts his own stylistic signature and patented yodel on material by Hank Thompson, Marty Robbins, Felice Bryant, Cindy Walker and Bob Wills.

Those put off by the idea of a yodeling oldtime cowboy singer should note that Walser's vocal acrobatics are much more genuine than Jewel's "Watch me yodel the way my daddy taught me when we were singing in Alaska" shtick. Unlike the toothy, mammaried mutant/wanna-be poetess, Walser's yodel isn't simply for show. It's a natural element of his singing and a dedication to the similarly styled crooning of his hero, the "Singing Brakeman" Jimmie Rodgers. Walser salutes Rodgers on the new album, with the record's only original composition, "My Ride With Jimmie." No stranger to the Valley, Walser makes his Phoenix return on Tuesday, November 9, at the Rhythm Room. Local guitar legend Al Casey will lead a pick-up combo backing Walser.

Don Walser is scheduled to perform on Tuesday, November 9, at the Rhythm Room. Showtime is 8 p.m.

Lakestock: The nonprofit Arizona Music Forum is staging an all-day festival at Tempe's Club Rio on Sunday, November 7, featuring 60 bands performing on five stages. The event is ostensibly designed as a celebration to coincide with the opening of the Tempe Town Lake. In truth, the size and scope of the event reflects the significant inroads the AzMF has made within the local music community in a fairly short time. Fair warning, though: Any event boasting a lineup with 60 bands -- regardless of whether they're local or national acts -- promises its fair share of crappy music. Still, proceeds for the event are going to a good cause. Admission is two cans of food or $2, all of which will go to benefit the St. Vincent de Paul Food Bank.  

Contact Bob Mehr at his online address: bmehr@newtimes.com


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