What Happens When New Times Reviews Bar Bands?
Fact: Phoenix has a lot more gigging local bands than anyone realizes. Even you, Mr. Hipster Who Really Cares About the Local Scene. I don't care who you think you are — you've never heard of half the local bands playing out in a given week.
Thing is, a lot of them are super-low-profile, playing regular nights at dive bars, honky-tonks, and other watering holes. Some of these bands are good and some are bad, but all presumably manage to entertain people (or at least a bar owner) slightly more than a jukebox, helping sell sauce to regulars.
And most of those bands escaped review. Until now.
With the list of SB 1070 boycotters growing, it has become more and more important for New Times music writers to look closer to home. So here we are, reviewing bar bands for our blog, PHXmusic.com. The task falls to me. As someone who has lived in Arizona nearly my entire life, I realized that it was rare for me to venture outside of my comfort zone.
But, for the past couple of months, I've been outside my bubble, attending shows by hype-less bands at bars filled with patrons you may never see at Marquee, Trunk Space, or Martini Ranch. It's been interesting.
I've made some general observations that apply in nearly every setting and, of course, I've experienced some more specific high- and lowlights along the way.
The most striking thing about these nights? They really are "regular" in every sense of the word. The patrons come often and are familiar with the bands. They often know the other clientele and the bartenders and wait staff. And when you're walking into a place like that for the first time (and usually with a camera), you stand out.
Not that you're left alone on an island of awkwardness. The crowds at these sorts of events are usually warm and pretty friendly. Also, in many cases these nights feature such "old-timey" Americana music as country, blues, or jazz. Because of its down-home nature, this style is often a little more comforting and inclusive for someone who feels out of place.
Of the eight nights I've visited, my favorite was Rockabilly Thursday at the recently burned-down Blooze Bar. (This admittedly has more to do with my own taste and style than anything else.) Other notable acts have included the Arizona Blues Project at Cody's Restaurant in Cave Creek, and Running From Bears at The Lost Leaf in downtown Phoenix.
Of the Cave Creek experience, I wrote, "I arrived at Cody's just in time for the band's break . . . The people out on the patio were super-friendly, quickly offering up an ash tray as I sat by myself on a barstool with a bottle of Bud . . . The band worked well together as a cohesive unit, trading solos, and each member offering up a unique personality."
And as for the Lost Leaf, the tone of the night was set through multisensory experiences. It looked "like an New York jazz club underground, but with more space and above ground," smelled like "light perspiration and aluminum," and tasted "savory, and slightly forbidden." Not quite your typical Roosevelt Row hang.
As mentioned, though, there were a few disappointments. As they do with many music critics, cover bands just leave a bitter taste in my mouth. I realize that with genres like country and blues, one expects to hear old covers. It's these songs that made the style, and they're typically the ones people want to hear when they go out.
So, yeah, about the jam bands. I was recently very harshly accused by Up On The Sun readers of being unappreciative of jam band music. Here's the truth: I am. It's a niche genre that appeals to very few people any more. For those it doesn't appeal to, it's hard to like, even as a novelty. I can recognize good musicians, even if they play a style of music I don't like. But my description of Grateful Thursdays at 910 Live in Tempe (a night that features a Grateful Dead tribute band called Xtra Ticket) as something that looks like a "strip club next to a U-Haul that has been taken over by hippies" has apparently pissed off every self-identifying "hippie" in the city. In addition to the overall feel, the band featured a Philip Seymour Hoffman look-alike on keyboards and used sheet music periodically throughout the night.
Though not all the nights have knocked me dead, there have been a few pleasant surprises. The next few months will undoubtedly bring more, as I try to hit up places more unconventional than the ones I've been to so far. Feel free to add comments on Up On The Sun if you have suggestions.
You can also drop by PHXmusic.com for a list of local music nights and to read the reviews I've done so far.
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