Handlebar-J
Courtesy of Handlebar-J

From the hundreds of cowboy hats adorning the walls to the sawdust on the floor, there's no place more "country" than Handlebar-J. This steakhouse/nightclub has been owned and operated by the Herndon family since 1975, and owner Gwen Herndon's sons, Ron and Ray, can often be found performing as the Herndon Brothers on stage.

Guests such as Starfire and Jessi Coulter pop in to perform every so often, too, and on the rare nights when there's not live music, Handlebar-J's jukebox selection of C&W classics keeps patrons two-steppin' and line dancing.

Spirits Bar & Grill

This bar — formerly Thunder Pass, located in the no man's land between Mesa and Apache Junction — is one of the most eclectic watering holes around, a place where cowboys, biker dudes, and young Republicans somehow mingle with one another without overturning tables and tearing out ceiling fans. The focus is definitely on the bygone Western era, when men in Wranglers posted up at the bar and drank cheap, cold brews until the cows came home. Folks flock to the spacious dance floor on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday when DJs spin honky-tonkin' new-country hits. It's definitely a yee-hawing good time.

Texaz Grill
Tedd Roundy

There's more to Texaz Grill than great Texas comfort food. When you're chowing down on a Texas-size chicken-fried steak, with a massive mug of iced tea waiting for you to slurp down your gob, you may think there's nothing that could possibly enhance your experience. Well, pardner, you'd be wrong. Just ask owner Steve Freidkin. If there's one thing a real Texas joint needs, it's a jukebox. It just so happens that Texaz Grill has the best one in town. For just a few shiny coins, you can hear all your favorite Texas musicians from Stevie Ray Vaughn to ZZ Top to The Fabulous Thunderbirds. Listen to "Texas Flood" while you're shovelin' down award-winning Terlingua Chili and just try to tell us we're full of bull.

Marquee Theatre

Sure, the parking costs $5 (and there's never enough of it), the security can be rude, and all shows are general admission and standing room only. So what makes the Marquee Theatre the best place to see national acts? Well, one reason the shows rock at the Marquee is because of the venue's sound and light system, which is state of the art. We've heard crappy bands sound good at the Marquee Theatre, which isn't an easy trick to pull off. But the main reason the Marquee gets this award is because the venue gets all the great national shows. Sure, the arenas around town get the familiar stadium-fillers like Rolling Stones, The Police, and Rush, but Marquee Theatre has a knack for hosting hot acts that are just starting to crack the national market or already have a huge indie following — The Killers, Tegan & Sara, Dresden Dolls, Hank III, Peter Murphy, Dilated Peoples. Now, if we could just find somewhere to park.

The Sets -

Sure, The Sets hosts its share of mid-level national shows (everything from punk legends The Dwarves to underground hip-hop act Bear The Astronaut), but this massive venue hosts more local shows than national ones and, indeed, more local shows than any other venue of its size. The bulk of The Sets' calendar is filled with Valley artists' gigs, from local indie rockers Kinch and rising Phoenix death-metal stars Abigail Williams to hip-hopper Intrinzik and folk-rock heartthrob POEM. With Kim LaRowe (former booking agent for the now-defunct Mason Jar) handling business at The Sets, the venue's become known for providing a great atmosphere for local artists to hold their CD-release parties. That's pretty sweet for locals, as The Sets has one of the largest club stages in Tempe and a state-of-the-art sound system. Bands won't get bored between sets, either, as The Sets has a large game room, an outdoor patio, and three full-service bars (so singing snockered is easier than ever).

Best Local Band Destined for the Big Time

Digital Summer

Since they debuted on the Phoenix music scene in January 2006, the rockers of Digital Summer have experienced a level of success that many local bands would kill for. The five-member outfit has not only gotten its songs in regular rotation on Valley radio powerhouse KUPD, it's also landed gigs opening for major-label bands like Godsmack and Sevendust, and amassed a legion of fans who pack its shows at such venues as the Marquee Theatre in Tempe. How'd they do it? Simple. Such accomplishments came about through a combination of tireless self-promotion (including plastering their ubiquitous stickers on street signs and buildings around the Valley), mobilizing a devoted street team of die-hard DS followers, and blasting out a radio-friendly melodic hard-rock sound in the same vein as Chevelle and Staind. In a perfect world, the band would be signed to a major label and have its videos all over MTV. But given the ever-tumultuous state of the music industry, the boys of Digital Summer haven't accomplished that particular goal just yet. Given their history, however, we're sure it's gonna happen someday soon. Remember us when you're famous, guys.

Formed in 1994, Tempe-based quartet The Chadwicks is one of the few bands in the city whose repertoire consists almost entirely of cover songs. Even The Chadwicks' "alter ego" band, Rock Lobster, plays covers exclusively. What makes the band stand out is the scope of its playlists — these guys cover more than a hundred songs, spanning several genres and decades. They can turn on and tune in at a '60s dance party with songs by The Doors, Van Morrison, and The Rolling Stones; they can rock your bell-bottoms with '70s songs by Don McLean, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Aerosmith; and they keep it contemporary with covers of artists like Modest Mouse, The Strokes, Maroon 5, and Weezer. And if you're worried they skipped the '80s, fear not — check out Rock Lobster, which plays nothing but '80s hits, from Frankie Goes to Hollywood and The Bangles to Naked Eyes and Dead or Alive. Whatever your musical tastes, the guys in The Chadwicks have you covered.

Very few tribute bands attain such a degree of national success that members of the original band recognize or perform with the tribute band or such that the tribute band is able to sustain itself on a national tour. There are The Atomic Punks (a tribute to Roth-era Van Halen) and Led Zepagain (Led Zeppelin tribute), both from California. And there is UnSkinny Bop, the nation's foremost Poison tribute band, from right here in Phoenix. The band not only physically resembles '80s-era Poison — right down to the big hair, lipstick, and spandex — but does a pretty amazing re-creation of Poison's sound live, too. UnSkinny Bop is so sincere in its spot-on renditions of Poison songs that the band actually records the covers and posts the audio files on the UnSkinny Bop Web site. The band is so sublimely imitative of the original that — prior to Poison's reuniting — promoters were looking to book UnSkinny Bop to open shows for Poison's fellow '80s hair-metal acts Warrant and Firehouse. UnSkinny Bop recently returned from a national jaunt called the Bad Boys 2008 Tour and is currently unleashing its brand of jock 'n' roll at a Valley club near you.

TDO rocks on the contemporary tip, with an original sound that blends folk, rock, jazz, and pop — sometimes in a single song. The band's latest (and only) studio album, East Meets West, displays the Phoenix trio's ability to merge smart acoustic arrangements with unbridled jams, but it's Ten Dollar Outfit's two live albums — Live at The Clubhouse and Live at Chandler Center — that really show off the band's musical dexterity. Like the Grateful Dead, Ten Dollar Outfit takes its studio recordings and stretches them into epic, extemporaneous odysseys in a live setting. Given that frontman Brian Chartrand names Steely Dan as one of his biggest influences, it's no surprise that these jams are often keyboard-heavy and lean in a progressive-rock direction. In the studio, TDO is solid, but the live show is where the trio really comes unhinged and rocks it. And in an era when studio wizardry often masks musical ineptitude, being able to say your group is a "live band" is quite an accomplishment.

You couldn't go anywhere at the 2008 SxSW music festival in Austin without hearing somebody rave about Tempe band What Laura Says Thinks and Feels. They were named in Soundcheck magazine's "Label Alert: The 411 for Lovelorn A&R Reps" section, which proclaimed that WLSTaF "will slay you" live, and "you will die of pure, unadulterated happiness." They received a shout-out from Miami New Times music editor Arielle Castillo, who called them "a bunch of shaggy, long-haired types with a really pleasant, tripped-out, fleshed-out, psych-y sound." They got props in numerous national music blogs, from austin360.com and Some Velvet Blog to stereogum.com and ultra8201. They even were mentioned in news stories by nme.com, MTV, and Reuters.

Anyone who's heard the amazing pop arrangements and Beach Boys-esque vocal harmonies of these multi-instrumentalists shouldn't be surprised at all the buzz. What's shocking is that the band is still unsigned by a record label. We suspect it's not because there's a lack of interest (the band reports it has been in talks with some labels but won't reveal details until a contract is inked). If you didn't catch the band at SxSW, check out one of its local shows soon, because this band is bound to hit the highway for greener pastures at some point.

Best Of Phoenix®

Best Of