Viva PHX 2016: A Taste of the 70-Band, 17-Venue Madness
Crystle Castles at Viva PHX.
Viva PHX's third edition once again ignited downtown Phoenix last weekend, proving for just one night that under the right circumstances Phoenicians will brave the great outdoors on their quest for excellent music. The festival operates by setting out a beacon for bands touring on their way to South By Southwest and transforming Phoenix into Austin for a night, and the approximation is pretty spot-on: Streets closed all over downtown, and in 17 tightly clustered venues, more than 70 bands from inside Arizona and out played music throughout the evening. Adventurous music lovers could catch a dozen bands from as far away as England throughout the night, and in between sets check out some lucha libre wrestling in a ring set up in the middle of an intersection.
New Times had writers and photographers on the ground everywhere throughout the night. Here's what we saw.
7:03 p.m.: No Volcano, Valley Bar
Just before No Volcano’s set at Valley Bar, there was a distinct sense that the 7 p.m. time slot might have been just a hair too early for the festival crowd: the bar was mostly empty, save a few of us at tables listening to “Hotline Bling” and “Fade Into You.” But within moments of the quartet taking the stage, the place was packed with Viva Phoenicians. Featuring former members of the lauded Trunk Federation and Colorstore, No Volcano married Built to Spill style psychedelia to heartland rock, pulling from the excellent new album Who Saved The Party. Guitarist Jeremy Randall’s slide leads gave way to a classic slacker rock chorus on “Tribute,” while “Who Saved The Party” featured a sonic mission statement from Jim Andreas: “Shake me down and get loose,” he sang over swinging glam riffs. JASON P. WOODBURY
El Ten Eleven
7:10 p.m.: El Ten Eleven, CityScape
My experience with the instrumental band El Ten Eleven was underwhelming. It wasn't for lack of effort or desire on their part. Guitarist Kristian Dunn announced he was suffering from a shoulder injury, which made his doubleneck bass/guitar combo a heavy but necessary burden. Dunn compensated by keeping up a great attitude and clever onstage banter with the early evening audience. Things started to turn when Dunn dared the audience to clap, a move so desperate it would make former Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush wince. But when all was said and done, you couldn’t help but respect the Los Angeles-based duo. They do their job the hard way. They avoid using pre-programmed music which gave songs like “I Like Van Halen Because My Sister Says They’re Cool” a warmth that their contemporaries lack. JASON KEIL
7:30 p.m.: Harriet Brown, Crescent Ballroom outdoor stage
The Viva PHX schedule pumped Harriet Brown as "romantic funk," but upon wandering into the Crescent Ballroom outdoor stage on Second Avenue I found not a group effort but a single man with a bowl cut and dark sunglasses, holding a guitar and surrounded by synths and pedals. The look couldn't have been more L.A. hipster had he been drinking Intelligentsia coffee in Silver Lake. A small crowd began to gather as Brown started playing, hoisting his soaring falsetto over dark and at times funky beats, making full use of the loop pedal. A slow way to start the night, but soon a crowd of maybe 100 was swaying to Brown's at-times befuddling mixture of R&B, electronica, and funk. DAVID ACCOMAZZO
8:17 p.m.: Mystic Braves, Monroe Street Stage
The ’60s called, but they aren’t asking for anything back from L.A.-based quintet Mystic Braves—except maybe drummer Cameron Gartung’s mustache. Color popped against the night sky, from the lights to bassist Tony Malacara’s shirt to the hair of a few members of the audience. The reverbs carried for blocks and brought people whose parents were barely around when this sound was common to the psychedelic, revived hippiefest. On stage, stoicism was the standard, but the crowd below was getting a little groovy. Spilling a drink was never an issue, though, because that just wasn’t the kind of vibe, man.
Heard in the crowd: “They’re like the Beatles when they were on drugs!” TAYLOR GILLIAM
8:55 p.m.: Fan Encounter, Valley Bar
Popped into Valley Bar to try and catch the tail end of Oakland band Astronauts, Etc., but alas, I was too late. I plopped down on a couch instead, and a guy carrying a box labeled as "tacos" asks if anyone is using the vacant next to me and sits down and begins talking to an elderly gentleman sitting on an adjacent easy chair. They don't get too deep into conversation, though, before two guys in various band t-shirts approach the guy sitting next to me. "Dude, that just so smooth," the two fans repeat in several different wordings. Apparently the guy with the food just finished playing over on the Valley Bar stage. The three have a good-natured banter for a couple minutes, and the fans give Stateside Presents, the organizers of Viva PHX, some love. The musician next to me agrees. "Everyone here is just so professional. Every time we've played here we just get treated so well," he says. DAVID ACCOMAZZO
9 p.m.: Kitten, Masonic Temple
I wanted to catch the feeling of Viva PHX. Walking through downtown, I felt inspired by the city’s potential. The scents emanating from the food trucks smelled amazing. Music from the Renaissance Square “Soul” Plaza and Punk Rock Alley filled my ears. I enjoyed some Lucha Libre wrestling, and experienced the unusual but smooth romantic funk of Los Angeles’ Harriet Brown on the Crescent Second Avenue stage. I was worried I’d arrive late to see Kitten at the Masonic Temple, but my running turned out to be unnecessary. The sound crew at the Masonic Temple was frantically fixing an issue. The band’s keyboardist looked irate. With nine minutes left in Kitten’s scheduled set, the crowd was finally rewarded for their patience. The floor shook beneath my feet as Chloe Chaidez arrived dressed for the dramatic and launched into an energetic performance of “Fall On Me." She danced around the stage and graciously apologized for the delay. JASON KEIL
9:34 p.m.: Salvador Duran, Grace Chapel
Viva PHX organizers deserve plenty of accolades, but not the least of their accomplishments is the festival’s use of space. Clustering together small rooms, bars, and outdoor stages downtown, the festival allows for maximum diversity, in music and settings. Take the beautiful set by Tucson balladeer and painter Salvador Duran at Grace Chapel. San Diego punks Rocket From the Crypt might have been playing just outside of the church on the Monroe Street Stage, but Duran’s performance felt a million miles removed. Bathed in red light, Duran’s performance was understated and gorgeous, like the hall itself, his soulful traditional Mexican folk songs devoted to matters of the heart, to kissing, and to chocolate and tequila. Duran, known for his work with Orkesta Mendoza, Calexico, and Iron and Wine, strummed a guitar, dancing intricately rhythmic zapateados, employing throat singing, fluttering bird calls, and harmonica. The performance was the most soulful thing I saw at the festival. JASON P. WOODBURY
Rocket From The Crypt
9:15 p.m.: Rocket From the Crypt, Monroe Street outdoor stage
As San Diego punk rockers Rocket From the Crypt start playing, their singer engages in the first of what would be some pretty entertaining banter. "I love South By Southwest!" he screams, shouting about how great a city Austin is and altogether poking fun at Viva PHX's similarity to SXSW. He's not done jogging the Phoenix audience, though. "We're just here for the iced tea," he quips, before asking the crowd to "put your desert flippers together." I soon pop over to the Grace Chapel to snag a photo of Salvador Duran, and on the way out, Rocket From the Crypt's banter once again proves to be top-notch. The stage isn't visible but the sound of the same guy's voice is. Apparently he's ironically whirling an FM-branded towel above his head. "Any radio station that puts its name on a towel sucks," he proclaims, and begins to mercilessly rib on 93.3 for having the audacity to print its logo on some free gear. DAVID ACCOMAZZO
10:03 p.m.: Neon Indian, CityScape
Frontman Alan Palomo was more or less the entire show here, which was a tough act to pull off on the same stage that would later see headliner Crystal Castles. He provided vocals, brief stints on the keyboard, and dance moves that probably felt familiar to anyone who saw Bruno Mars’s Super Bowl performance. Palomo and his live band synthed, sampled, and shook it through the set to the totally packed area, everyone mesmerized and collectively bobbing their heads, as if entranced by the electronica. Also spotted on the keyboard: a red jacket and a fabulous bob of chestnut hair. Ron Burgundy, was that you?
Heard in the crowd: “Anything goes here. I mean, I just saw a girl walk by in a literal dog collar.” TAYLOR GILLIAM
10:06 p.m.: Sage Francis, Crescent Ballroom outdoor stage
Lots more people than I expected are here. While many are presumably waiting for Biz Markie, who will follow after cerebral rapper Sage Francis finishes his set. That's not too knock on Sage's ability to draw a crowd — tons of people were there for his set, hanging on his every rhyme. But the funny part here was when Francis covered "Get Shwifty," the awful "hit" song from the hit Adult Swim show Rick and Morty. DAVID ACCOMAZZO
10:09 p.m.: Eleanor Friedberger, Valley Bar
As Playboy Manbaby did charmingly chaotic things in the “Punk Rock Alley,” Eleanor Friedberger and her band Icewater dug deep into a set of pop rock gems from their latest album, New View. There’s a stately, cool quality to Friedberger’s voice but a palpable warmth to her songs: “Because I Asked You” grooved over pulsing electric piano; “Does Turquoise Work?” floated with liquid, George Harrison sweetness. But Friedberger and company were perfectly capable of exuberantly joyful rock, too. “Stare at the Sun,” from 2013’s Personal Record was a perfect closer, with Friedberger clutching the mic and strutting across the stage. “If that was goodbye, then you must be high,” she sang as the band charged, ending a set that could have gone on much, much longer. JASON P. WOODBURY
10:13 p.m.: MRCH, Last Exit Live
It was a little jarring for me to see Mickey Pangburn trade in her guitar for a Korg synthesizer.
Her other project, the folk band The Prowling Kind, was my first exposure to the local music scene after I moved to Phoenix. Pagburn’s smile brightened up the darkness of MRCH’s (pronounced March) indie electro-pop songs. The band, which also includes Prowling Kind members Erin Beal and Jesse Pagburn, is a perfect fit for Mickey’s wispy vocals. The outliers who camped out at Last Exit Live or hiked from downtown were not disappointed. When Mickey strapped on her guitar to premiere a "brand brand new" song, it was the first time I saw dancing at Last Exit Live. The song flirts into Blondie territory, part dance and post-punk. I’m excited to see what’s next. JASON KEIL
10:45 p.m.: Crystal Castles, Cityscape
Strobe lights, screaming, and smoke machines: there is nothing calming about a Crystal Castles show.
As someone who appreciates the Toronto-based lo-fi electric band’s albums, I didn’t hear anything from the brainchild of Ethan Kath that translated into a compelling live performance. I looked down from my perch at CityScape and saw a young woman who appeared to be recovering from an epileptic seizure. It was a jarring experience. The crowd seemed to embrace the chaos, but I wondered why new singer Edith Frances was even onstage. Her voice was sampled and looped so much her presence seemed pointless. Her modus operandi is bouncing around like Bellatrix Lestrange from Harry Potter. At one point she took a cigarette break mid-set. I saw three human beings playing music, but it felt so cold and emotionless. They went out of their way to challenge the audience. I couldn't will myself to enjoy it. JASON KEIL
10:55: Lydia, Masonic Temple
Through the entire hour-plus set, frontman Leighton Antelman did. Not. Stop. Smiling. He and his bandmates were right at home on stage in the cozy (read: warm, especially compared to the chilly air outside) temple, and even years later they look excited to be back from their hiatus. Maybe it’s the whisperings that Illuminati activity went down here, but the lights that made shapes dance on the ceiling also feel notable. Named a local band to know by the festival, Lydia already has a loyal following who made up the first five rows and spent most of the set with their hands in the air and shouting the lyrics destined to be their Instagram captions. TAYLOR GILLIAM
Jason P. Woodbury
11 p.m.: Sam Outlaw, Valley Bar
Credit for self awareness where it’s due: Los Angeles-based country singer Sam Outlaw, wearing a cowboy hat and wrapped in denim, remarked on the Valley Bar stage that when you’re last name is “Outlaw” and you play country music, “People think it’s real fucking fake.” But Outlaw’s his mother’s maiden name, and even if there’s some pastiche at work, his voice and killer band sold the songs from his album Angeleno effortlessly. “Who Do You Think You Are” was prime West Coast country and “I’m Not Jealous” — bolstered by swooning pedal steel — featured a casually cruel kiss off worthy of Merle or George: “I’m not jealous a’ them, I’m embarrassed for you.” Outlaw’s got a foot planted in history but an eye on now too, right down to his onstage banter, classic honky tonk speak updated. “Don’t forget to tip your bartenders and sit in the front seat with your Uber drivers,” he cracked. JASON P. WOODBURY
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