1. LES PAYNE PRODUCT
This high-concept dynamic duo--born of a much reviled alt-rock quartet called Crime Dog--occupies a musical space all its own: You could call it minimalist garage funk-pop. Behind their sense of the absurd and fashion unpredictability, though, guitarist James Karnes and drummer Chris Pomerenke are deft musicians who ably compensate for their lack of bandmates, with Pomerenke regularly using a spare hi-hat hand to plunk down chords on a portable organ. Their demented songcraft can be sampled on an endearing six-song EP released on Aviator Records in 1998. Look for them in an as-yet-untitled indie film scheduled to drop later this year.
As Urge Overkill was to the early '90s and Cheap Trick was to the late '70s, so is Haggis to the Valley's millennial cusp (they've even been known to cover Cheap Trick's "Surrender"). The brain child of guitarist/singer Brian Talenti, this quartet offers a reminder of the power that straightahead guitar-rock can still have when it's executed with skill, high spirits, and a fondness for self-parody. The best evidence comes from the band's excellent debut CD, What's Up Haircut?, but a rarer Christmas disc, The Short Leg, gives Eddie Money's "Two Tickets to Paradise" the raucous Haggis treatment, and convinces you that it's a good song.
This hypnotically trancey rock trio's gigs are always major events, partly because the group's material is so intelligent and affecting, and partly because they only play two or three times a year. That's just the way leader Jamal Ruhe likes it. Consciously resistant of falling into the career traps that overwhelm most bands, Ruhe--a former member of the beloved One--brings that maverick spirit to all of his many musical endeavors. Currently, the talented Ruhe is also fronting Yearofthemule, and playing in Deckard and Niner (his long-awaited reteaming with his sister Shamsi, former vocalist of One). Sleepwalker's low profile was threatened last year by the understated excellence of the band's debut CD, The Man in the Moon. And we're all the better for it.
4. ZEN LUNATICS
One of the Valley's underrated treasures since their formation in 1991, the rootsy Lunatics have recently reemerged in peak form after a period of suffering through frustrating lineup changes. Behind their smart matching suits and skewed sense of humor, this band can deliver the musical goods, a "Maximum Pop" sound that transcends the limitations of the three-minute pop song. Band front man Terry Garvin: "We just play rock 'n' roll. And nobody seems to know exactly what that is anymore. But it's what we do."
1. TWO FLAVOR BLUES
Probably the hottest blues-based band to hit the local scene in the past year, Two Flavor Blues features the considerable musical legerdemain of leaders George Bowman and Scotty Spenner, two veterans on the Valley blues circuit. Their highly danceable sound straddles the worlds of classic Stax-inspired R&B grooves and traditional 12-bar blues.
2. LADY J AND BLUES RATIO
Equal parts blues, jazz and vintage soul, this band is led by the incomparable mother/daughter vocal combination of Lady J and Maxine Johnson. Their attack has the emotionally charged immediacy of blues with a healthy ratio of funkiness.
3. HANS OLSON
Phoenix's dean of acoustic blues, Hans plays raw, rustic blues with equal aplomb on guitar and harmonica. His gritty authenticity and reverence for the blues tradition is showcased on tracks like the loving tribute "Me and Brownie McGhee," from the 1995 album Kachina Blues.
4. SISTAH BLUE
A supergroup formed in 1995 by the Valley's preeminent female blues musicians, Sistah Blue has moved back to its hard-edged blues roots since original singer Lila Sherman returned to the fold last year after departing in 1997. Their no-nonsense approach can be heard on their recently released, self-titled debut CD, a strong, live-in-the-studio effort that was eagerly awaited by the group's legion of local enthusiasts.
1. COUSINS OF THE WIZE
Live-band hip-hop fronted by the commanding presence of MC and musical mastermind Pie Gomez, this band ably takes the lessons of innovators like the Roots and mixes real instruments with expert scratching into a high-voltage, seamless collage. As for the group's enigmatic name, Gomez explains: "The idea wasn't to call ourselves wise, but, rather, call ourselves the cousins. We wanted to say something where we weren't actually calling ourselves wisdom, yet wisdom was the end goal."
2. KNOW QWESTION
A two-man MC team trading rhymes over imaginative beats and esoteric samples, this crew has taken the best elements of East and West Coast traditions for a distinctive sound captured on the 1998 CD Eclipse. Cappuccino is the sober, philosophical captain of the ship, while Cash is the brash, uncompromising first mate, Flavor Flav to his partner's Chuck D. "We're making music," Cappuccino says, "not gangsta rap, not crime rap. But we share the same feelings with those people."
3. UNDERGROUND EMPIRE
A potent three-man MC collective, Underground Empire's profile is no longer quite so subterranean, thanks to its role as the host of Big Fish Pub's Wednesday hip-hop nights. The showcases have revealed them to be generous ambassadors of local hip-hop, while also spotlighting their own pre-millennial tag-team approach. The group formed when Philadelphia homeboy (and friend of Philly legend Schoolly D) Zabdullah came to stay in Arizona with his older brother, and met a Phoenix MC who went by the name of Mikal Life (a.k.a. MTL). They eventually hooked up with an MC named Bear and producer Joe Risk. They've just launched what they're calling a "seven-year plan" for world domination, complete with solo projects and greatest-hits collections. Don't bet against them pulling it off.
1. THE REVENANTS
Unlike most rockers who turn country, Valley music veteran Bruce Connole hasn't mellowed out. If anything, the Revenants allow him to explore his darkest obsessions. The result, as heard on the band's excellent 1998 album Artists and Whores, is an inspired mix of Hank Williams and Nick Cave, stubbornly traditional, but showing no weakness for cheap nostalgia. Their recent signing with local Americana label Hayden's Ferry should help them connect with the audience they so richly deserve.
2. THE CARTWHEELS
A side project that formed from the rib of Zen Lunatics, The Cartwheels explore the flip side of the same coin. Where the Lunatics love the rocking Buddy Holly of "Rave On," The Cartwheels admire Buddy's twangier side. Their smart, barrelhouse honky-tonk is well captured on the recently released, 12-song debut CD Dang!.
3. THE RAMBLERS
This band began as a hillbilly-twang side project for longtime roots-rock fixture Mario Moreno, guitarist for the Hoodoo Kings and the late, lamented Varmits. In recent months, Moreno has made the switch from bass to guitar, and has assumed a front-man role in this tastefully retro ensemble.
4. THE NITPICKERS
This quartet, led by the talented Dave Insley, plays warm, affable back-porch roots music that falls squarely between the bluegrass and straight country traditions.
Widely recognized as one of the most innovative hip-hop DJs on the national circuit, Z-Trip tirelessly spreads the message, earning massive acclaim for his ability to conjure hip-hop from hoary rock material, particularly the melding of Van Halen's "Eruption" and Public Enemy's "Rebel Without a Pause." He's also an unflagging adherent of the local DJ scene, selflessly offering to sacrifice some of his showcase time to open up slots for up-and-coming DJs.
2. DJ EMILE
A reliably loquacious egomaniac, Kuwaiti-born Emile Ananian is also a staggeringly talented, unpredictable component of the acclaimed Bombshelter DJs (along with Z-Trip and Radar). This erratic visionary never fails to follow his impulses and wanders bravely across the stylistic map, showing an equal command of house, hip-hop, drum 'n' bass, and trippier, esoteric fare. As he once put it: "No one complains about me as a DJ, but it seems everyone's got a complaint about my personality. And I'm like, 'Hey, I'm not asking you for a date. I just want to play some records.'"
The reigning champion of this category, Radar is a masterful hip-hop turntablist who was recently cited--along with Z-Trip--by Spin magazine as one of the 13 most influential underground DJs on the planet. Radar is a gifted DJ with a deep musical knowledge and an impeccable sense of timing. In the words of Spin: "[He] scrawls his signature with wah-wah scratches and rhythmic caterwaul."
4. PETE SALAZ
The Valley's most talented and relentless champion of house, the frequently nominated but not-as-yet victorious Salaz wryly describes himself as "the Susan Lucci of the underground." The resident and founder of the two-year-old RedMonkey club night, Salaz--and an inevitable parade of special guests--showcases his love for an unfashionable sound once a month at Riverbottom Lounge.
5. MARKUS SCHULZ
An uncompromising adherent of the Paul Oakenfold school of trance, Schulz defiantly approaches dance music as a spiritual nutrient, a source of uplifting melody, and not merely a provider of hard beats. Once a favorite at the Works, he's currently the resident DJ for Karma, the promising new club night at Bash on Ash.
Rightly praised for the heavy psychedelia of its Gilby Clarke-produced debut album on Pavement Music, Windigo is a veteran band that continues to grow. In the hands of front man Matt Windigo, their music is irreverent yet artsy, loud yet carefully crafted. The quartet's self-titled 1998 CD has earned raves from hard-rock critics across the country.
2. ST. MADNESS
Known for years as Crown of Thorns, this band has reemerged with a new name but an equally frightening horror-metal aesthetic. Led by angst-ridden metal maniac Prophet, St. Madness takes on Bill Clinton and crystal meth, among other targets, on its new CD, God Bless America, a state-of-the-union message from the bowels of hell.
3. PSYCHO GYPSY
Experts tell us that grunge signaled the end of spandex and mousse in rock, but Psycho Gypsy clings to the '80s metal dream like a drowning man clings to a life preserver. Gloriously excessive, proudly ridiculous, these guys bring mascara and mousse back to their rightful places in the rock pantheon, determined to provide pop culture with yet another dose of Poison.
4. BLDG 5
Like so many other late-'90s bands, Bldg 5 works the seam between hard rock and funk, but that barely begins to cover their rhythmic misadventures. This quartet--named after the downtown Phoenix rehearsal space they share--changes tempos and grooves with reckless abandon, as though the idea of sticking with any rhythm for more than a few bars is too boring to bear. Call it the short attention span of chronic stoners, but these guys make the most of their musical wanderlust, as heard on their debut CD, Foundation.
1. VICTIMS IN ECSTASY
For this band, "camp" isn't a place to send your little brats for the summer. VIE may be the most self-consciously flamboyant band on the Valley scene, but behind the lipstick and torn fishnets, they're basically a rock 'n' roll band with a highly developed fashion sense. But their cross-dressing proclivities and dark bombastic songs have earned the devotion of the Valley's many goth kids, and if their sound isn't exactly industrial (after all, they don't have a keyboard player), they wear the tag, as they wear those party dresses and feather boas, quite well.
2. DIGITAL FREE LONER BOY
This Tempe band plays old-school synthesized pop of the frothiest kind. The punchy, willfully silly "Vegas" (from their two-song debut release Sample and The Edge's Locals Only compilation) delivers some orchestral maneuvers in the light.
3. RADIO FREE AMERICA
It's fitting that this group of self-described "tech heads" met in an Internet chat room, where they found they shared a love for digital pop. These computer-chip warriors dished out the impressively polished debut CD killjulie, which highlighted their collective skill at updating the synth-pop of their youth by driving a Nine Inch Nail through its heart, with hard, modern beats and a pervading sense of doom.
1. REUBEN'S ACCOMPLICE
This quartet delivers alternately sensitive and powerful post-emo rock with intricate guitar figures and a driving rhythmic attack. As evidenced by the group's 1998 single "Borders/O' the Night," the immaculate six-string mathematics of Jeff Bufano and Chris Corak and the band's melodic songcraft separate them from the pack of emo pretenders.
2. MAD AT 'EM
The Valley's reigning girl-dominated punk band, Mad At 'Em churns but unabashedly catchy tunes delivered with a fast, irreverent sloppiness, mixing anger and humor in accessible three-minute packages. Though their sense of gender politics is rarely overt, it's always unmistakable. Guitarist Kim Smith: "We're just basically into empowering women who want to rock. Because, most likely, the guys aren't going to give them a chance, we want to do that."
A showcase for the furious, powerhouse vocals of Yolanda Bejarano, this band has delivered a string of stunning sets over the past few months, opening for such stellar bands as Built to Spill and Jimmy Eat World. As demonstrated by fiery new originals like "The House, the Car, the Honeymoon" and "All I Wanted," Bejarano's voice is perfectly complemented by this band's roaring attack and acute feel for dynamics, and the combination skillfully conveys the shades between heartbreak and rage.
4. HILLBILLY DEVILSPEAK
Despite a series of recent lineup defections that would have crippled most bands, bassist/front man Tom Reardon has carried on with his grinding, abrasive punk from the Jesus Lizard school of aggression. The frightening "Chew Well," from Hillbilly's Colorized CD, is a marvel of contained intensity.
1. BARRIO LATINO
A versatile dance band with a repertoire of more than 250 songs, this band is where the traditions of Mexican folk music and the crossover dreams of Latin pop meet in one percussive setting.
2. PAN-AM ORCHESTRA
This huge salsa band is a throwback to the large dance orchestras that first brought Latin rhythms to the attention of the American masses. Featuring several topflight local jazz players, this band specializes in ultra-accomplished, densely arranged dance music.
3. STRAIGHT UP
This group takes its cue from the highlights of '70s funk, offering up bilingual Rick James and P-Funk with a Latin twist. Essentially an R&B band with a Latin flavor, they are eclectic and accomplished enough to fit in any number of genre categories.
1. WALT RICHARDSON BAND
Widely revered as the godfather of the Valley's reggae scene, Richardson's musical interests also include touches of folk, blues and various world rhythms.
2. ZEBBHI NIYAH
The essence of Rasta traditionalism, Niyah has worked with both Rita and Ziggy Marley.
3. GRANTMAN AND ISLAND BEAT
Liberia native Grant Man brings a one-world, utopian consciousness to his soulful lover's rock.
1. LOOKOUT FOR HOPE
This trio applies the lessons of free jazz and the New York no-wave scene of the early '80s. With a minimalistic sax, bass and drums lineup, they turn gigs into improvisatory workouts, with frequently exciting results.
2. DENNIS ROWLAND
The essence of smooth, Rowland is a sharp, charismatic bandleader who is equally comfortable crooning the standards or tearing into a low-down blues number. Over the years, he and his band practically have become synonymous with Saturday nights at Mill Avenue hot spot Beeloe's.
3. DAVE COOK
A father figure to many of Phoenix's instrumental virtuosos, Cook has towered over the Valley jazz scene for three decades, bringing an unerring timekeeper's sense to electric fusion, bebop and big-band swing. Recently, he returned home to his old headquarters, the Melody Lounge (renamed Club Melody), where he is again presiding over infectiously loose all-star jams every Monday night.
1. FRED GREEN
This trio specializes in pro-spliff, anti-authority anthems, delivered with an airtight sense of funk groovesmanship, a metallic guitar heaviness and hip-hop-inspired beat consciousness.
2. BIONIC JIVE
Led by Larry Elyea, guitar hero and head honcho of Mind's Eye Digital (a consistent haven for local funk-rock), this band has cooked up a contemporary cosmic slop, where battling musical concepts collide and form bizarre new hybrids. The result is soulful and heavy, avant-garde yet danceable.
3. DISLOCATED STYLES
This rowdy ensemble can be thought of as the musical love child that was spawned from the 1991 union of Anthrax and Public Enemy on "Bring the Noise." Metallic guitar riffs collide with deep Clintonesque grooves, screeching shards of turntablism, and the fiery raps of mop-haired leader Joe Boogie and his MC accomplices. The band's fun-loving heavy groovesmanship is on display on its two CDs, last year's Spanking the Funky, and the brand-new Elevator Music. As Boogie himself puts it, "We are a love band. There's no hidden message in our songs, no politics, just the universal groove of a good time."
This communal band takes funk to its logical extremes, with a horn section, percussion, and the commanding, voluptuous presence of lead singer Tiffany Sullivan. Committed to the groove for its own sake, this group wastes no time with social commentary, unless it's "free your ass, and the mind will follow."
5. YOKO LOVE
This Mesa trio cranks out bratty, snot-nosed funk of the hard-edged variety. Behind the self-consciously juvenile attitude, their musicianship is impressively mature, as evidenced by their 1997 Epiphany CD Who's Your Daddy?.
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1. EXIT 56
This group began as a pure rockabilly combo and has subtly shifted its approach to win over the swing camp. Their exuberant showmanship and swinging, Carl Perkins-influenced tunes offer proof that rockabilly is ultimately swing music with a pompadour.
2. HEAVENLY 7
A vintage, horn-driven combo that's become a fixture at Bash on Ash, this group, led by vocalist Jody Byrd, has become one of the most popular local acts with the lindy-hopping fedora crowd. Their resume includes three songs on last year's Swingin' Christmas compilation CD, distributed by BMG.
3. SWING 42
Because the swing movement has a much greater display of avid dancers than viable live bands, swing mecca Bash on Ash found itself frequently short of bands. Into the breach stepped Swing 42, a band formed by Martin Pendergrast, a power-pop vet who is currently a manager at Bash on Ash, exclusively for the purpose of filling in the gaps on nights when no other swing band was available. Along the way, the group has quite inadvertently developed a sizable following among rock-stepping club regulars.