In recent months, there's been a lot written and said about the death of the Tempe scene.
Apparently, the sheer accumulation of isolated events (the closing of Gibson's, the deaths of Brad Singer and Elvis Del Monte, and the record-label woes of the Refreshments, Pistoleros, Pharoahs 2000, and Lo-Watts) has convinced many people that the good old days are officially gone. Beyond the fact that these postmortems were absurdly late (this just in: Hitler and Eva Braun aren't feeling too well), they also play into our contemporary need for instant nostalgia, some kind of pre-millennial microwave memory sense that must be fed at all times.
These accounts of Tempe's salad days all assured us that a) things really swung in the early '90s; b) things are just not the same now; c) you really should have been there. Of course, even if you were there, you weren't, because such a garden of Eden exists only in the collective cracked rearview of people hung up on the past.
Of course, I'm biased. I've lived in the Valley for less than two years, so I approach the Gin Blossoms era not with a native's pride/animosity, but from the more detached perspective of someone who found the band's tunes moderately enjoyable on the radio. Nothing more.
The worst thing about all these death knells is that they miss the point of what makes a music scene flourish. As pleasing as it might be to see a Valley band get signed to a record deal and experience national success, it's not like such factors guarantee the vitality of a local scene. If they did, then Phoenix should have blown up when Nastyboy Klick came out of the desert to score a national hit a year and a half ago. Did you notice a difference? Neither did I. A scene makes it because people get excited about going to clubs to see locals play music, not because some fickle radio conglomerates decided to put a Valley band in rotation. Though it's great to see deserving locals get the recognition, we shouldn't need Spin magazine to tell us that the Bombshelter DJs are turntable virtuosos, or KROQ in L.A. to tell us that Jimmy Eat World is one of the most stirring, dynamic emo bands on this mortal coil.
This little rant brings us to the issue at hand: See, we come to praise the local music scene, not to bury it. The fourth annual New Times Music Awards Showcase, set for this Sunday, April 18, serves up 48 local bands, all of which are either unsigned or--in the cases of groups like Windigo and the Revenants--signed to labels based in the Phoenix area. It's an impressive collection of talent that covers the genre spectrum, and only scratches the surface of what's happening in Valley clubs. If you added all the local bands that are, or at one time were, signed to national labels--bands like Jimmy Eat World, Trunk Federation, N17, Gloritone, Grievous Angels, Pistoleros, Sipping Soma, Dead Hot Workshop, Phunk Junkeez, etc.--it's hard to understand what all the hand-wringing is about.
So, there isn't a single, definitive Tempe/Phoenix sound. Is there a single, definitive sound that's seized the national Zeitgeist in the late '90s? See my point? We're living in an era of fragmentation and uncertainty, and it's reflected in national--not just local--music trends. You think major-label execs don't get anxiety attacks every time they try to guess which way popular tastes are going to twist and turn?
But if it's a time of fragmentation, it's also a time when styles and sensibilities are mingling in odd, unpredictable ways. Consider bands like Bionic Jive and Dislocated Styles, hard rockers in spirit, energized by the sonic adventurism of hip-hop and modern funk. Or Les Payne Product, a quirky duo that can't resist applying a dose of funk to its lo-fi indie-pop.
And if you're looking for eclecticism, look no further than Sleepwalker front man Jamal Ruhe, who is very nearly a one-man encyclopedia of modern music. In addition to Sleepwalker's gorgeously languid dream pop, he's also spitting out angry acoustic diatribes with Yearofthemule, contributing to Deckard and the promising new Niner, while also running sound at the Green Room.
That kind of eclecticism is the unspoken theme of the Music Awards Showcase. For a $7 wristband, you get up to 48 bands (plus a non-competing closer) and 330 minutes of music (about 14 cents per band, and two cents per minute). The showcase format either demands that you check out several different Mill-area clubs in order to catch your favorite bands, or that you check out a cross-section of bands in one club. Last year, I saw several people who had gone to Bash on Ash for Polliwog come away astonished at the percussive precision and flamboyant energy of the massive Pan-Am Orchestra. Quite accidentally, these people were turned on to a form of music they would ordinarily disregard.
Of course, rampant eclecticism can also be problematic at this type of event because voters are frequently asked to compare artists that have little in common. At last year's showcase, when the never-bashful Emile raised the point that it's absurd to pit hip-hop DJs against house DJs or drum 'n' bass DJs, he was on the money.
In a way, it's equally strange to ask voters to pick from Sleepwalker, Les Payne Product, Haggis and Zen Lunatics. Although all four bands feature guitars and drums and sing their songs in English, they have practically nothing else in common. But the local music scene is too diverse for the showcase not to reflect that. Anyway, ballot-box results have always been secondary to the concept of celebrating an often unsung scene with one big display of musical muscle.
Enriching the eclecticism this year is the addition of a "swing" category, in acknowledgement of the havoc wreaked on American culture by Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and its pinstriped brethren. Sure, I know what you're saying: This let's-pretend-it's-1942-and-we're-at-the-Hollywood Canteen trend has gotten out of hand, and it'll probably blow over by next year's ESPY Awards. It's hard to argue with this point, especially when you consider that disco was killed by friendly fire: too many TV commercials, too much of John Denver doing the hustle in a white three-piece suit at the Grammys, and way too much of Ethel Merman cutting dance tracks.
The swing movement is staring down the barrel of that same kind of cheesy overexposure, and it's also faced the unique challenge of finding enough bands that can master the formidable demands of big-band music. Nonetheless, the swing revival has delivered one of the few indisputable cultural tremors of recent years, and its strength in the Valley justifies its place in the showcase. Will it be back next year? It all depends on whether what is essentially still a dance craze can prove itself to be a genuine musical movement.
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Another relatively new showcase development this year is the inclusion of a non-competing band to headline at Hayden Square, an idea that we dabbled with last year for the first time. This year's Hayden Square headliner, playing the 8:30 to 9:30 p.m. slot, is Pharoahs 2000. The band, led by ex-Gin Blossoms vocalist Robin Wilson, is about to release its debut CD, with the infectious track "Quitter" already getting airplay on a host of local radio stations.
Isn't it ironic? Don'cha think? Even as we administer last rites--for the hundredth time--to the Tempe jangle-pop sound, it threatens to make a big splash all over again. A New Zealand group that knew its way around a pop song once asserted that "history never repeats." That may very well be so, but the good news is that while no one was looking, a new scene came along to replace the old one, even while traces of the old one continued to linger. The best part of the Music Awards Showcase is that all that maddening diversity can co-exist within a radius of a few hundred feet. At least for one day.