On a typical weekend night, it's not at all unusual to see dozens of people socializing on the sidewalk in front of Modified Arts, or smoking in the parking lot at The Trunk Space -- spots on Roosevelt Street and Grand Avenue that, not so long ago, were vacant. What turns my head these days is the sight of people actually walking down either street -- a half-dozen teenagers in black hoodies schlepping from The One Place over to Holgas, or clusters of thrift-store-chic early twentysomethings shuttling back and forth between the PHiX and Four White Walls.
That's what happened last Friday night, when I thought, "Oh shit! There are actually some people walking around down here!" It was a modest scattering of pedestrians on normally deserted streets -- for this town, nothing short of a miracle. The downtown art scene has gotten plenty of ink in the local media over the past couple of years, but now the music scene is really coming into its own, too, with edgy new spots quietly cropping up almost every month. (Many of these places do double duty, functioning as art galleries as well as venues for music, comedy and theater.)
So the debut of Oh Shit! A Fest? -- a fledgling downtown music festival -- lived up to its punctuation, both the exclamation point and the question mark. I say that because although the attendance was pretty average for any of the six Roosevelt-area and Grand Avenue art spaces involved, it wasn't big enough to look like much of a festival. As in, "This is a fest?" It certainly didn't come close to getting the kind of crowds that would turn out for a First Friday.
But at the same time, it wasn't First Friday. That was what impressed me. Keep in mind, there's no vibrant cityscape connecting the dots here, just darkened buildings or empty dirt lots, and the kids still came out in support of the event. It was a very young crowd -- the future of downtown, in my opinion -- but I think that had more to do with the all-ages venues than the actual 35-band lineup, which was a well-rounded assortment of metal, hardcore, pop and indie rock bands.
Promoter Psyko Steve was being ambitious with this thing, and I hope he can pull off something like it again. (He told me he has no idea where he'll be or what he'll be doing at this time next year.) I'd love to see more people start taking a leap of faith like this. Somebody else who's got the right kind of attitude and optimism about downtown is Donald Martinez of The Shizz (theshizz.org), who's been putting together another music festival called Bands on Grand, scheduled for March 11. Linking together eight Grand Avenue venues and 41 local bands (such as Necronauts, Minibosses, and Seven Storey Mountain) with one $10 ticket price, the event sounds like a hell of a fun Saturday night in downtown. Proceeds will be used for the creation of a Grand Avenue Merchants Association. (More info will soon be posted at bandsongrand.com.)
Our own New Times Music Showcase is already in the works (it's a big annual shindig in downtown Tempe, happening April 9; a full lineup, including band profiles, will be posted at phoenixnewtimes.com in early March), and what's so remarkable is how much talent there is to choose from. One day, the rest of the U.S. will stumble upon Arizona's untapped oasis of music as if it appeared out of nowhere. Our scene hasn't had a chance to step up like Detroit or Atlanta or Houston have in recent years, though, and while we've had our occasional national-level ambassadors, from the Gin Blossoms to Jimmy Eat World to Calexico, some people still think of our state as cowboy country, or the kind of redneck wasteland depicted in that movie U-Turn.
But that doesn't mean they're not intrigued. Publicists and label reps from New York and L.A. are curious about this place, and when I tell them about how much is going on here, they want to know more. (I'm sure they're seeing dollar signs, of course.)
And I know that people are going to want to hear more. Take, for example, Carbon 14, a Philly-based punk and garage rock magazine that's jam-packed with interviews, pinup girls, reviews of records and B-movies, and articles on lowbrow artists. The latest issue includes a special-edition CD, Encyclopedia Arizonica: The A-Z of AZ Rock, which handily puts a batch of killer local rock bands -- a lucky 13-band lineup that includes Labor Party, Sonic Thrills, Blanche Davidian, and Glass Heroes -- into record and book stores from coast to coast. No surprise, the magazine introduces the CD with the disclaimer, "While [Arizona] might not be the first state you think of when it comes to rock 'n' roll . . ." Good thing former Angry Samoan and Cave Creek garage god Jeff Dahl, a longtime contributor to the mag, and Tucson's Downtown Dave Chamillard (from Whiskey Bitch and The Besmirchers) helped to instigate this. Maybe it'll open some minds. (Dahl says he's already getting tons of e-mails raving about it.)
One of the comp's most interesting tracks, "Made Like No Other," is a surprising new direction from Hell on Heels. Over martinis at the Bikini Lounge one night not long ago, lead vocalist/guitarist Paula Monarch gave me the lowdown on the new song, recorded especially for the compilation at Dahl's home studio. It's a much different sound than what you've heard from these ladies in the past. Monarch goes for a pouty, sultry singing voice instead of a ragged rock rant, and despite her joking concern that she comes off like Gwen Stefani at one point in the song, I swear she sounds as naughty as a pintsize female Jeff Dahl. But even beyond that, the whole band has a slinkier, more grown-up sound with girl-group backup vox and the addition of Question Mark and the Mysterians-style keyboards (Monarch says they were inspired by The Animals and The Pandoras).
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What brought on the change? Well, for one thing, half of their lineup is new, which you'd never know from the outdated band credits for the disc. Original members Monarch and Chela LaRue (guitar and vocals) are now joined by Jessica Roe (drums) and -- move over, Madonna and Cher -- the single-monikered Nicole (keys and vocals). Right now they're making arrangements to record their second album later this spring with renowned Seattle producer Jack Endino, who also produced Hell on Heels' Bomp! Records debut (not to mention Nirvana's Bleach).
On a completely unrelated note, New Times is once again sponsoring a contest to send one local DJ to the Ultra Music Festival, the over-the-top, nonstop dance party that will take over Miami during this year's Winter Music Conference. The New Times winner will get to spin live on one of 10 stages on Saturday, March 25, an amazing opportunity to show off some sick turntable skills at the country's biggest DJ blowout, where more than 200 artists, DJs and producers will be performing for an expected a crowd of 40,000. Send your best mixed CD (any style), along with your real and DJ names, address, e-mail and phone number, to my attention at 1201 East Jefferson Street, Phoenix, AZ 85034, by February 24. The winner will be contacted by the end of this month.