THE BEST THINGS I SAW | By Becky Bartkowski
2013, it's been real — and really, really busy. That was especially true when trying to take in as much art, culture, comedy, architecture, and anything else I could get my eyes on this past year in Phoenix. In no particular order, here are the best things I saw.
The Best Things We Saw, Ate, and Heard in 2013
Topia at Desert Botanical Garden: Sitting in a parking lot during Arizona's early summer sounds plenty unappealing, but during Ballet Arizona's Topia, that initial setting dissatisfaction fell by the wayside quicker than the sun set behind the dancers. With the Papago Buttes as its backdrop, the corps of dancers took to the 80-foot-long stage installed in Desert Botanical Garden's parking lot and performed artistic director Ib Andersen's Beethoven-soundtracked choreography for the second year in a row. Unfortunately, the show didn't make it onto the company's 2013-14 performance schedule, but here's hoping they'll remount the site-specific work in 2015.
Alison King's "Where Cantilever Meets Coyote" lecture: As the founder of ModernPhoenix.net, Alison King is one of this city's most valuable resources when it comes to local architecture. That made her lecture "Where Cantilever Meets Coyote" a must-attend event for folks looking to delve deeper into Phoenix's postwar architecture boom. King gave a rundown of the city's big-name architects — Al Beadle, Ralph Haver, Paolo Soleri, Jimmie Nunn, Ed Varney, and Fred Guiery — complete with a timeline of each man's life and career and swoon-worthy images of buildings preserved and long gone.
"Generations: Inspiration of Bird City" at Willo North Gallery: Though Joseph "Sentrock" Perez left Phoenix for Chicago in the summer of 2012, the artist whose style is rooted in street art returned to his hometown for a group exhibition at Willo North Gallery in August 2013. "Generations: Inspiration of Bird City" showcased three generations of Phoenix street artists through Martin Moreno, Luis Gutierrez, and Perez. Pulling their works together made for a colorful, thoughtful show that traced the impact and influence these artists have had on one another. And the backstory between Moreno, the elder statesman of the crew, and Perez, the youngest, is nothing short of inspiring: Moreno came to Perez's elementary school to create a mural, and that first experience with art propelled him to become a painter.
Phoenix Comicon 2013: In a word, Phoenix Comicon 2013 was overwhelming. There's so much to do and way too much to see, and, honestly, it's kind of a panic attack waiting to happen. But, no matter, more than 55,000 nerds turned up this year to catch celebs including John Barrowman, Wil Wheaton, and Jewel Staite. The costumes were, as always, awe-inducing creative works worthy of marvel (heh). The best part of Comicon is discovering other people who share your pop culture obsessions. That is why, though there were more technical and spot-on cosplayers, my favorite Comiconner was a woman carrying a martini glass and wearing a banana suit with blue handprints across it and a sign that read, "I Need a Favor." Arrested Development fans, c'mon!
The Most of Lit Lounge: A little rock 'n' roll and a little This American Life is how emcee Tania Katan describes her ongoing storytelling series Lit Lounge. For the program's one-year anniversary, Katan gave her audience The Most of Lit Lounge, "because we're already the best." Scribes and funny folks took to Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts stage to talk about camping bathroom anxiety, juggling and joking on The Gong Show, and enduring a nauseating lesbian cruise, complete with a trio of musical guests. I laughed. I cried. I went to Lit Lounge.
There Is a Mountain by Mary Shindell: Artist Mary Shindell makes a habit of opening up her subjects to see what's inside. And when she took on South Mountain, the results were mesmerizing. For the group show "Creature-Man-Nature" at Mesa Contemporary Arts, she pasted a 25-foot-wide digital rendition of the mountain in pinks and browns onto the back wall of North Gallery. With chunks of rock imagery and vegetation throughout the drawing, it was a simultaneous look at the land mass' interior and exterior. The second element of the installation was a chandelier of bluish tubes, called "cacti," that mimic the radio and TV towers that top the mountain in real life. The X-Files-meets-National Geographic vibe was exciting, scary, and made for the most memorable work of art I saw all year.
Aidy Bryant at Tempe Improv: There's no getting around it: Aidy Bryant is freaking hilarious. The Saturday Night Live repertory player (yep, she got a bump up this year) is part of a new school of players on the sketch show, and she's making her giggle-inducing mark. Before the fall 2013 season started, Bryant came home to Phoenix for a weekend of shows with costar Tim Robinson, who's now on the show's writing staff. The duo played off one another with improvisational, audience-engaging games and showed off some of their in-the-works characters and bits. Aidy's exploration of a childhood journal full of doodles, stickers, hopes, dreams, and other assorted girlish weirdness had me in stitches. Brava.
"Diving Lady" Relighting in Mesa: Calling her "The Diving Lady" is a misnomer, as the famed neon sign at the Starlite Motel in Mesa actually is composed of three 10-foot women. When illuminated, it looks as though one woman's diving into a pool. But the famed lady, erected in 1960 to advertise the hotels' swimming pool (which is no more), halted her jumps when she was struck by lightning in 2010. It wasn't until April 2013 that she was reconstructed and relit, much to the oohs and aahs of preservationists and vintage lovers alike.
"Modern Spirit" at Phoenix Art Museum: Phoenix Art Museum fashion curator Dennita Sewell outdid herself with the exhibition "Modern Spirit: Fashion of the 1920s." Featuring wearables beyond the obvious selections of fringed frocks and opulent accessories, the show revealed everything a woman would wear from innovative undergarments (no corsets here) to daytime pleated dresses and Asian-influenced evening gowns. Of course, the unmistakably '20s dresses by Coco Chanel, the innovative designer largely responsible for women's Jazz Age dress, perfectly encapsulated the era.
Torch Theatre Hosting Jackalope Ranch Bingo at Crescent Ballroom: Time for a little self-love: Jackalope Ranch bingo was wild. Every Wednesday in August, the lovely folks at Crescent Ballroom let us put on a bingo night. And it was gangbusters. Between a troll-bedecked Marshall Shore, who hosted half the game nights, Tania Katan, who instigated an impromptu dance party onstage, and Torch Theatre, it was supremely entertaining. But it was Torch that put on the most riotous installment. Torch member and New Times contributor Jose Gonzalez and his team brought the proverbial cuckoo to bingo, having a contestant drink a shot that first passed through Gonzalez's beard (real!) and encouraging competitors to do as many pushups as possible for a chance to win a mystery shot. Don't worry. I saved links to all the Vine videos and TwitPics.
THE BEST THINGS I ATE | By Laura Hahnefeld
The year's most outstanding dishes in the Valley run the culinary gamut — from the exquisitely unique to artfully crafted re-inventions of elemental flavors. In no particular order, put them on your plate and prepare to be wowed.
Scallops at Virtù Honest Craft: At chef-owner Gio Osso's tiny, wonderful Mediterranean-inspired café in Scottsdale, the menu may be different today from what it was yesterday and similar tomorrow, perhaps, but it's always in flux. If Osso has prepared his pan-seared scallops for you on the evening you visit Virtù, the culinary stars have aligned in your favor. Delicately light and sweet, they are impossibly pristine, served atop a tidy arrangement of butternut squash, caramelized onion, and bits of bacon with a white chocolate beurre blanc that is even more decadent than you thought possible. (3701 North Marshall Way, Scottsdale, 480-946-3477, www.virtuscottsdale.com)
El Español at Otro Café: Further playing upon the success of his first restaurant, Gallo Blanco, chef Doug Robson creates Mexican and Spanish-influenced dishes at his newest project in north Central Phoenix that run from traditionally impeccable to memorably sublime. Among the latter is the El Español, a shareable plate of thin-sliced ham, serrano peppers, avocados, olives, and red onion in a savory citrus dressing ready to be scooped up with crunchy pieces of bolillo bread. Lightly earthy, a little spicy, and entirely refreshing, you can picture it coming out of a tapas-style cafe in Spain. (6035 North Seventh Street, 602-266-0831, www.otrocafe.com)
Guthi Vengaya Curry at Karaikudi Palace: If Karaikudi Palace in North Scottsdale has a specialty, it is the South Indian dishes, which, given the menu's 130-plus selections, are not always the easiest to find. One in particular, the guthi vengaya curry (pro tip: It's number 60) is especially worth pursuing. Consisting of whole baby eggplants stuffed with onions and spices then cooked with ingredients like peanuts and tamarind, the smoky and spicy creation is both a thoughtful nod to its home state of Andhra Pradesh, on India's southeastern coast, as well as a magnificent dish in and of itself. (8752 East Shea Boulevard, Scottsdale, 480-998-6006, www.karaikudipalaceaz.com)
The Ivan Burger at The Attic: Like many people, I had my first Ivan Burger at The Attic even though it was on the menu for two years at Cave & Ives, a Mediterranean restaurant in the same space and from the same owners as the Attic's. Like any good hamburger, it's a well-balanced mix of flavors and textures, but its house-ground well-seasoned patty and locally made pretzel bun put it over the top. At the moment, it's the best burger in town. The only secrets, George Bernard Shaw said, are the secrets that keep themselves. (4247 East Indian School Road, 602-955-1967, www.facebook.com/theattic4247)
Kale & Chard Kim Chee on Brauns-chweiger Pâté at Renegade by MOD (R.I.P.): Cutting-edge cuisine was never so brilliant (or so brief) as it was at Renegade by MOD, the risk-taking restaurant in North Scottsdale from former Kai chef Michael O'Dowd and partner Ed Leclere. In November, after just six months, the two called it quits, the restaurant's name changing to Renegade and O'Dowd's menu of re-invented foods from around the globe left intact (for now) but sans its creator. [Editor's note: On Monday, December 30, it was announced that the restaurant had closed altogether.] To the dearly departed, I offer a fond memory of my most favorite dish: dense, black rye bread layered with supremely flavored braunschweiger along with kale, kimchi, and bits of crisp cured forcemeat topped with a perfectly poached egg. (9343 East Shea Boulevard, Scottsdale, 480-614-9400, www.renegadescottsdale.com)
Shrimp and Corn Tamale at The Blind Pig: By the time you've taken in the mammoth butcher's case and perused the restaurant's meat-centric menu, you have a pretty good idea of what to expect at The Blind Pig, the Scottsdale hangout from restaurateurs Bob and Sally Ann Molinari and Hobe Meats owner Bret Pont. Still, the Shrimp and Corn Tamale, with its plump grilled prawns, lightly sweet masa cake, and luscious cream sauce of corn and cilantro, is surprising. Despite its elegant appearance, the dish's flavor is bolder than you might expect and the plate is brought to you by way of a server who calls you "Hon." You wouldn't have it any other way. (3370 North Hayden Road, Scottsdale, 480-994-1055,www.blindpigaz.com)
Big Jim at the Welcome Diner: When people talk about the Welcome Diner, the tiny, iconic eatery at 10th and Roosevelt streets, they inevitably bring up the Big Jim — and they should. Because that sandwich, a teetering tower of well-herbed chunks of fried chicken, bacon, melted cheddar, and thick, peppery sausage gravy between scratch-made buttermilk biscuits, pretty much sets the tone for Michael Babcock and Jenn Robinson's (Old Dixie's food truck) tight menu of New Orleans- and Southern-inspired eats. And with just nine seats and a few tables outside, Southern comfort never felt so cozy. (924 East Roosevelt Street, 602-495-1111, www.marthaandmary.net/welcomediner)
Bastila at Alzouhour: Moroccan bastila is nothing short of an exotic delight — a rich and sumptuous sweet and savory pie that tastes like Christmas and looks like a supersize cookie. You'll find a very good bastila at Alzouhour, the tiny Middle Eastern eatery, bakery, and market where owner Zhor Saad makes hers with spice-cooked chicken and crunchy sweetened almonds stuffed into a paper-thin shell of phyllo crust sweetened with cinnamon and sugar. Typically prepared for special occasions, it's only fitting that this hearty meat pie comes big enough to enjoy with friends. (7814 North 27th Avenue, 602-433-5191)
Push Pop at Bink's Midtown: James Beard Award finalist Kevin Binkley's reimagined plates of produce at his charming bungalow turned restaurant are reason enough for us to eat our vegetables. But his equally innovative desserts make doing so all the more rewarding. Consider the push pop, Binkley's gourmet version of the popular kiddy treat filled with layers of ever-changing ingredients like butternut squash ice cream, pineapple chutney, and tamarind chocolate syrup. It may be the most perfect (and playful) way to eat dessert in the Valley. And thanks to his newest location, Scottsdalians are pushing Binkley's pops, too. (2320 East Osborn Road, 602-388-4874, www.binksmidtown.com)
Mole at La 15 y Salsas: The mole at Elizabeth Hernandez's cheery Oaxacan restaurant and market in Sunnyslope is pretty much everything you'd want. Dark, intricate sauce? Check. Dozens of ingredients? Check. Spices ground on a metate? Well, sure, why not. She makes two kinds: black mole, which is smoky, spicy, and a bit sweet, and mole rojo, which is spicier and simpler than the black and made without chocolate. They can be had spooned over chicken or chicken enchiladas (enmoladas), but the black mole is best over the tamal oaxaqueño, where it meets with a moist and delicate masa cake wrapped in a banana leaf. (1507 West Hatcher Road, 602-870-2056, www.facebook.com/la15ysalsas)
THE BEST THINGS I HEARD | By Dan Moore
If you don't have a cassette deck in your car, you missed out on about half of the strange, inventive pop songs on this list. That's reason enough to buy back your old Walkman on eBay. In the meantime, you'll find most of these songs streaming online, sans the all-important tape hiss.
Wolvves — "Live Forever": I don't know that I'd want Wolvves to watch my cat or pick me up from the airport or hang out with me for any length of time, but that ambivalence is a sign they're doing something right on "Live Forever," which is the kind of generational-ennui anthem Bret Easton Ellis started with before he moved on to serial killers and tweet-length movie reviews. Wolvves is playing loud, fast music and reveling in it, but it's not like they're excited about it.
Playboy Manbaby — "Funeral Pizza": Playboy Manbaby is playing loud, fast music and reveling in it, but don't get them wrong: They are excited about it. Robbie Pfeffer and company, whose Rubber Brother Records opened for business at midyear and proceeded to blanket the Valley in cassette EPs, tend toward the hairy and unwashed and gauche — other songs on Obsessive Repulsive are titled "Beer Gut" and "Minivan" — but in the hectic Manbabyverse there's a positive correlation between unrehearsed ugliness and weird affirmation.
Fayuca — "Por Que Seguir": Barrio Slideshow saw Phoenix's bilingual masked men earn some MTV exposure — no small feat for a politically minded, Spanish-singing ska-punk band in the year 2013. If the Jason DeVore-featuring "Shoot It Up" is the band at its most relaxed, single "Por Que Seguir" is pure energy, with a video that brings 1984-style tropes into a working-class life.
Dry River Yacht Club — "Dead Mother Dearest": Any Dry River Yacht Club album is doomed to failure, because most people will come to it already having seen and heard their crowded, ecstatic live shows. El Tigre, subject of a crowded, ecstatic release party late in the year, does its level best to compete. And if it's not quite as good at transporting you to the scene of the "Safety Dance" video as the band's pre-industrialization rock is in person, at least it gives you something to listen to in the car on the way to and from shows.
decker. — "Shadow Days": "Shadow Days" is not the kind of song most people turn into a music video —but then, it's not the kind of song most people make, so when Sedona's space-folks turned their unsettling six-minute drone into a time-traveling battle between an old man and himself, it wasn't especially surprising. Worth it, of course, but not surprising.
St Ranger — "Right On": Our pick for best local band of 2012 didn't quite make it into 2014, breaking up in November rather than replacing members as the individual pieces of its super-precise indoor-pool surf-rock sound got busy. But its last two songs were at least a proper send-off, combining their serpentine melodies with a fittingly strange casualness. "Right On" sounds like nothing so much as St Ranger getting almost too busy to keep being St Ranger.
Fairy Bones — "Like Like": If No Doubt hadn't started out as big fans of Madness, they might have sounded like Fairy Bones by the time they got to Tragic Kingdom. Vocalist Chelsey Louise bounces all over their self-titled debut EP, but "Like Like," the first single, distills their sharp edges into two thrilling minutes.
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Captain Squeegee — "Shift Happens": Captain Squeegee raised a little over $10,000 to record To the Bardos in a spring crowdfunding campaign, and it turns out that that's exactly what it costs to get a clear picture of the Valley's weirdest ska refugees and self-actualizers. The unstated goal behind the sheer volume of gnostic ideas and off-kilter instrumentation in Bardos is to trigger an out-of-body experience in the listener. But if it doesn't work, don't worry — they have an instructional web series that will help.
Mergence — "White Bark": Mergence is doing some weird things on its second album, Songs for Humans Volume 1, but "White Bark" is unique for its fusion of the stark, alone-in-the-desert thing the band is cultivating with the classic-rock sensibilities that make it a welcome anachronism around town. "White Bark" has a melody that you'll be stuck with after a minute and a half of unprotected exposure, but the component parts of that melody are unconventional enough that you'll keep coming back for the real thing.
Future Loves Past — "Lupa": Future Loves Past's debut LP, All the Luscious Plants, is a blurry photo of a band that's rapidly gaining confidence. "Lupa" might not be its best track, but its mix of Duran Duran urgency and danceability with a just barely noticeable metaphysical weirdness — her name is Rio, except she's also some kind of wolf-goddess — showcases everything this band is doing right. The band's next project, a concept album about the solar system, raises the main question it will contend with in 2014: Is there room on a larger scale for a band that's this polished and this weird all at once?