Punk disrupts Modified Arts -- Riverboat Gamblers, Fuck You Ups and others, September 25: By far the most fun I have encountered in my travels through Valley clubs this year. The show amounted to a coming-out party for the Phoenix punk scene's faithful "Oi! Oi! Oi!" side. While none of the locals could match the songcraft of Texas' Riverboat Gamblers -- nor could they even try to best the world's best young trad-punk band -- they did keep up with them in the unrestrained energy department. From the soundboard and ledge climbing to Fuck You Ups guitarist Abe Ruthless' relentless taunts (a "fuck you" and a spit loogie after every song) to the guys clotheslining each other inside and drinking Natural Light in the parking lot outside, it was an amusingly juvenile display rarely seen in this relatively well-behaved market.
Cousins of the Wize say goodbye to CPT, May 26: The Valley's raunchiest party band saluted fallen rapper Chris "CPT" Pangrazi -- killed a week earlier in a drunken-driving accident. Almost disturbingly, the band played one final show the best way they know how: by inspiring the crowd into a beer-drenched frenzy. Inside the stuffy, packed Big Fish Sports Pub in Tempe, 18 musicians who had played with Cousins of the Wize since the mid-'90s took the stage at one point or another, along with a throng of dancing women. Somehow, though, the band managed to keep the Memorial Day event anchored in sadness, from the lost, wasted look on rapper Mike "Pie" Gomez's face to guest vocals by Pangrazi's little brother Matt.
The Lynch Mob plays The Mason Jar, March 16: Former Dokken guitarist and Valley resident George Lynch and his prog-metal band Lynch Mob played the central Phoenix institution at either the best or the worst of times, depending on your perspective. The fire that killed 100 or so people during a Great White concert at The Station club in West Warwick, Rhode Island, had raged just a month earlier. In the media and among casual observers, '80s metal holdovers were taboo at that point. And yet this show confirmed why men like Lynch and Great White's leader Jack White can still make a good living in shoebox clubs like The Station and The Mason Jar. Lynch's connection to his audience was undeniable -- the middle-aged faithful still want to believe in their heroes -- and the guy can still shred through a guitar solo better than most of today's mainstream hacks. And unlike White and other peers, Lynch lives in the present. With his blue-dyed hair, bazooka-size biceps and crashing, bluesy riffs that had no relation whatsoever to Dokken's accelerated arpeggios, the imposing guitarist could have scared the most virile of modern rock's mooks.
Busted Hearts perform "Kentucky Mandolin," multiple occasions: The epitome of bluegrass as performed by veteran punk musicians, the passionate Bill Monroe instrumental "Kentucky Mandolin" is a staple of Busted Hearts' weekly Sunday sets at Long Wong's on Mill in Tempe. I caught bandleaders Bruce Connole and Keith Jackson's love letter to the hillbilly vernacular style three times in 2003 (February, July and November); each time, the Monroe tribute was the clear highlight, growing more intense each time.
Opiate for the Masses celebrates a goth-rock homecoming, October 24: After spending the summer in Southern California beating the desert heat and recording songs for an early 2004 release, one of the Valley's most promising bands reentered the local radar with this energetic performance at Nita's Hideaway in Tempe. Opiate for the Masses' musical roots are steeped partially in goth-rock, the dark, ambient, usually self-hating style made famous by British bands like the Cure 20 years ago. I say partially, because the band's songs themselves mirror those by heavier bands like Korn, and front man Ron Underwood is an archetypal blond-spiked, bare-chested rock star. It's a mix that really has no pop precedent. Even so, the band's young audience cheered to Underwood's requests for them to get loose -- and to the gruesome sight of two guys hanging by the flesh between their shoulders from hooks raised above the stage. These guys make misery and torture cool.
On the recorded side, here are the Valley releases from this year I'll be enjoying long after New Year's Eve:
The Format, Interventions & Lullabies (Elektra): A pristine, intimate production. Nate Reuss' turbulent love life makes for good emo songwriting. Though other Valley acts remained signed to major labels, this was the only promised wide release that actually made it onto store shelves in 2003.
Blanche Davidian, Attack of the Killer: Song title of the year: "Marilynesque Chambers." Motörhead as done by the Beach Boys -- by guys dressed as thrift-store drag queens.
Ember Coast, From the Mood Room: Clean power pop with prog-rock twists -- are those flutes? -- from Mesa youngsters.
James Bilagody & The Cremains, Sacred Stage: Wild, wonderful integration of hard rock and traditional Navajo music.
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Atllas, The King of AZ: As self-styled and bold as Phoenix hip-hop gets.
Pokafase, "Politics": A stunning, stream-of-consciousness lyrical run through national headlines. Performed a cappella during the baritone-voiced rapper's shows, it takes on added weight.
Roger Clyne & the Peacemakers, "God Gave Me a Gun": The best original protest song of the year by a Valley band. Takes on the ironic voice of a holy warrior -- with a pretty hook.