BEST C&W NIGHTSPOT 2004 | Handlebar-J | Arts & Entertainment | Phoenix
Courtesy of Handlebar-J
With the granddaddy of Valley country clubs, Mr. Lucky's, closing last month, Handlebar-J, near the intersection of Scottsdale Road and Shea (a now prime piece of real estate it's occupied since the '60s), has become the default "king of clubs" for country music fans. Anchored by the Herndon Brothers Band, featuring loyal sons of original house band leader Brick Herndon -- including CMA award-winning recording artist Ray Herndon, who still makes it home from Nashville on a regular basis to play with the bro's -- the Handlebar is the only honky-tonk in town offering live country music seven days a week.

The club's "Outlaw Connection" nights, hosted by Waylon Jennings' widow Jessi Colter, was recently carried live on Sirius and launched the satellite network's Outlaw Country channel.

Yee-haw! Readers' Choice: Graham Central Station

Run by longtime Valley blues impresario Bob Corritore (host of KJZZ's 20-years-running Sunday night showcase Those Lowdown Blues), the Rhythm Room has earned its rep as a major house of blues by regularly hosting the biggest names on both the local and national blues fronts. Elwood Blues himself, a.k.a. Dan Aykroyd, heralded the RR as "one of the great blues clubs in the Southwest" on his syndicated radio show.

Other clubs in Phoenix easily top the Rhythm Room in funky house-party decor. But only the Rhythm Room regularly draws the heavy hitters on the national scene to the stage. And the Rack Shack Blues BBQ in the parking lot serves up the perfect fare for the club's down-home jams. Readers' Choice: Rhythm Room

Being a swing dancer often means familiarizing yourself with all the places you avoided in your youth: senior centers, RV parks, Elks lodges and American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars posts. And certainly, the Valley's VFW posts in both east central Phoenix and Sunnyslope offer a great swing scene on Sunday nights. But the Kyote Ballroom, behind the Denny's just south of U.S. 60 on Rural, presents a mature version of the classic meet market that will make you feel more like you've stepped into an MGM musical than an old folks' home rec room: Its spacious wooden floor is surrounded by classy lighting and retro dance art prints, not to mention well-padded stools for the aging derrière.

Offering lessons in a variety of "social dancing" styles (including ballroom, swing, Latin, salsa and Argentinean tango), the place gets swinging on Friday nights, when a $5 cover buys you lessons in East and West Coast swing, Lindy Hopping and intermediate waltz. Rock on! Readers' Choice: Kat's Korner

Jimmy Eat World doesn't have to go it alone in the national spotlight now that Reubens Accomplice is riding high on its excellent second album, The Bull, The Balloon, and The Family. Produced by J.E.W.'s Jim Adkins and released on Western Tread -- the fledgling label owned by Adkins and Valley promoter Charlie Levy -- this album has the satisfying pop hooks, catchy melodies and emo sincerity to make it an indie-rock classic. A major bonus is that these rising stars still play gigs at intimate local venues, so you can see them live for the full effect. Readers' Choice: Shallow Water

The first time we saw The MadCaPs, we did a double-take. This three-piece garage band was slowly cruising Roosevelt Street on a First Friday, performing out of the back of a pickup truck and turning heads the whole way. When they pulled into the parking lot of a nearby gallery, the impromptu concert attracted not only a bunch of art-walking onlookers, but a surreal congregation of fire dancers, a clown playing saxophone, and a kooky little grandma who wasn't afraid to dance up front. The MadCaPs do come to a standstill, from time to time -- you can catch them at places like the Emerald Lounge -- but we prefer to catch them on the street.
As even the most non-hatin' hip-hop head will admit, the only people supporting live hip-hop in town are the rappers who take their own turns on the stage. That said, Blunt Club Thursdays at the Priceless Inn in Tempe host more local rappers -- not to mention DJs, break-dancers and graffiti artists -- than anyplace else in town. Hosted by the affable Emerge McVay of Bionic Jive (our cover boy), the Blunt Club recently celebrated its second anniversary of showcasing all the four elements of hip-hop culture in one divey strip mall bar. True, the events rarely draw an audience beyond its own performance roster. But hey, if there are enough aspiring hip-hop artists in town to fill a club regularly, that's a scene in itself that deserves attention.

Bellyache all you want about the beer prices or paying to park. When the legendary Nita's Hideaway closed its doors late last year, the Marquee came to the rescue. Without the Marquee, you have to wonder if we would've seen so many noteworthy national headliners, including The Strokes, Sonic Youth, Kanye West, and Motörhead. After all, it's pretty much the only venue in town with a capacity of 1,000 people. Lately, the Marquee's been hosting smaller shows as well, with featured local bands, free parking and earlier set times to accommodate the all-ages crowd. Take one look at the home page of Lucky Man Productions, which owns and operates the theater, and it's clear that there's plenty more good music to come. Readers' Choice: Celebrity Theatre

Jennifer Goldberg
We'll always be nostalgic for the mighty Long Wong's on Mill, the demise of which, earlier this year, left us scratching our heads about the future of local music. But it didn't take long for us to learn that the Tempe scene didn't die, it just found a new home at the Yucca. Rock and roots bands like the Pistoleros, Gloritone, the Zen Lunatics, and Ghetto Cowgirl -- all popular Long Wong's alumni -- play here regularly, and there's no cover charge. Live music almost every night of the week certainly puts patrons in a good mood, but the cheap drinks undoubtedly add to the Yucca's friendly atmosphere. Readers' Choice: Mason Jar

With apologies to those goodhearted kids who make up the local music scene, the real place to go for truly experimental tuneage isn't even in the Valley itself. Be warned, getting a mate or two to accompany you on the hourlong drive north to Paolo Soleri's hippie-dippy haven, perched on a windswept hillside, is almost as frustrating as trying to explain which particular genre the musicians who frequent the place fit into. For instance, the exotic percussion reverberations of Italian "musicologist" Andrea Centazzo were hard to describe to friends, other than "it kind of sounds like the score to American Beauty." But once we got them to tag along to the open-air, starry-skied amphitheater, they were taken by the atmosphere and the freeform, unconventional harmonies. We skipped the CDs for sale (how can you re-create transcendence in a Toyota?), because now that we've rinsed out our brainpans, we're ready to crank up some Authority Zero or New Romantics on our way back down to Phoenix.

The kid is croupy and the boss is bitching and the mortgage is due, and, oh, for the good old days when the most important thing in your life was the release of the new Supertramp album. Which today is a very old Supertramp album, but which you can still buy (and maybe even a sealed copy!) at Memory Lane, our favorite link to our musical past. We travel back to puberty and beyond with every trip to Tempe's 20-year-old treasure trove of old vinyl albums and singles, where just recently we scored a dead-mint copy of Jerry Vale's Arrivederci, Roma (because we were feeling sort of '60s Euro-nerd), a clean reissue of Taboo: The Exotic Sounds of Arthur Lyman (to quench our thirst for something '50s loungey), and an autographed copy of Wham!'s Make It Big because, well, we wanted an aural reminder of simpler times.

We always find our thrill, and a big hunk of our past, at Memory Lane, where the friendly, helpful staff never laughs at our oddball choices -- not even the time we bought three REO Speedwagon platters.

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