There is, sadly, not much of a busking scene around Phoenix's new-ish light-rail system. Sure, you might catch a rogue saxophonist blaring out "Baker Street" on a metro platform from time to time, but not often. No, the real music/light rail mash-up comes from The Train Tracks, a bi-weekly series. (New Times has a loose association with The Train Tracks, now helping pick acts who play; but even before that, we thought it was super-cool.) The gist: Local bands hop on board and play their best songs while the riders around them watch in awe, bemusement, anger, or indifference. The "what's gonna happen next" factor always gets us excited, especially if there's a cranky old man nearby. The Train Tracks is all about our city's best bands utilizing our city's most ambitious public works project in a generation, and that makes it well worth tuning in every two weeks.
There were a lot of pretty solid local compilation albums released in the past year, but the latest installments of Zia Records' "You Heard Us Back When . . " series stand out because of their breadth. We're calling YHUBW "local" compilations, but they actually pull together bands from the three areas the 30-year-old chain calls home: Phoenix, Tucson, and Las Vegas. We can't speak for Vegas and Tucson, but the curators did an excellent job of picking some of our city's most interesting acts. Volume 4, which came out in April, for example, starts out with three well-known local acts (Dust Jacket, Kirkwood Dellinger, Matthew Reveles) before exposing some equally interesting but much less prominent acts like Gooder and The New F-O's. Not everything is gold — Volume 3 features a song by VW Trainwreck, possibly the worst band in the state — but that's sort of the charm of it. If you're looking for a local comp, you don't just want to hear bands that don't suck — it's nice to get a feel for the scene as a whole, maybe with a little comic relief. Any post-Monkees band that records its own theme song, as the all-too-appropriately named Trainwreck did on the compilation is at least good for a few laughs, and we thank the good folks at Zia for providing them.
What do you do when your band is broke and a national act wants you to go on the road with them for a few weeks? If you're Die Ignorant, you try to get an investor. And when that investor falls through, you steal a page from the McClintock High School volleyball team's playbook and host a fundraising carwash. If no one else will let you do it at their place of business, you go to popular American chain restaurant Applebee's. Then, we make fun of you because, you know, it's ridiculous. You're in a band, dude, play shows to make money! Actually, though, we have to give credit to Die Ignorant, who not only raised enough money to tour with California's Guttermouth, but taught us a valuable lesson about punk rock. That lesson? Screw the media; do what you gotta do. With that, the guys earned our sincere respect. We've already marked their upcoming bake sale at Chick-fil-A on our calendar.
Desert Botanical Garden
The Garden has long been one of the Valley's gems. The Friday-night tradition (held March through June on the outdoor Ullman Terrace) of top-drawer jazz and other musical forms (with a beverage of your choice, of course) can't be beat anywhere that we've found. Trust us: This isn't your Jacuzzi jazz scene. Last season's headliners included Nina Curri and the King Snakes, the inimitable Big Pete Pearson, Fuerza Cribe, and Hall of Famer Dennis Rowland, he of the world-class smooth and silky pipes. Get there around, say, 6 p.m. for the 7:30 show to wander around the grounds, where cacti may be in full bloom and the photo-ops are endless. Then settle in somewhere — there's not a bad spot on the premises — and check out the sounds of excellent local talent doing what they can to make you happy.
Who says you can't change something old into something new and fresh? First, the seven-year-old classical music series, American Bach, changed its name to the hipper-sounding Arizona Bach Festival. Then, the weeklong concert program, dedicated to performing the cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach, decided to add even more members of the Phoenix Symphony and the Grammy Award-winning Phoenix Chorale to the festival's signature concert. The series, which typically takes place every winter, also showcases organ and violin recitals by professional musicians in intimate and acoustically conscious churches in Phoenix's central core.
Scorpius Dance Theatre
Courtesy of Lisa Starry
Most contemporary dance companies are either boring to watch or so bizarre that you practically need subtitles to interpret a performance. That's why we love Scorpius Dance Theatre, a local troupe known for mixing graceful moves and humorous interludes in a way that makes dance accessible to the average Joe. The company was founded by choreographer Lisa Starry in 1999 and has won numerous awards including a few of our "Best Ofs." We won't pretend that Starry's sexy A Vampire Tale has nothing to do with Scorpius winning in this category, but it's certainly not the only reason we noticed them. This annual Halloween production brought the sex appeal back into modern dance, an ideal that continued this season in Catwalk. The fashion-themed show highlighted one major difference between Scorpius and the other modern dance troupes we've seen: Few dancers in this company look like Kate Moss. Starry breaks with longstanding tradition by hiring the best talent, regardless of whether a dancer is bald and broad or short and curvaceous.

Best Funky Arts Space in Town That Never Changes

Kerr Cultural Center

ASU Kerr Cultural Center
Patron of the arts Louise Lincoln Kerr was the daughter of real estate tycoon John C. Lincoln, which may be what inspired her to buy 47 acres of land south of Lincoln Drive in the 1950s. She started an artists colony there, with a performance hall/studio made of natural adobe bricks (formed and dried on the property), and doors hand-carved from sugar pine. The building's main doorway was adorned with empty beer bottles set right into the plaster; the well-worn earthen tile was made from local clay. And it's all still there, bequeathed to ASU in 1977 and home these past several decades to musicians and other artists who come together to perform for our enjoyment. And no matter who's performing in this cozy, wood-beamed sanctuary, the evening always feels like an informal gathering of friends in someone's living room — which we suspect is exactly what Louise Lincoln Kerr had in mind.
Tempe Performing Arts Center
Okay. So they stank up the stage with Twelfth Night of the Living Dead, the Shakespearean zombie tragedy that ended their 2009-10 season. But that bomb was a rare dud in the eight-year history of this small, quirky theater company. Their tough, terrifying columbinus last year was utterly mesmerizing, and their holiday offering, A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant, was unlike anything that Phoenix audiences had seen before — or will likely see again. What could have been just another weird little black box has grown quickly into a smart-minded, smart-mouthed home to intelligent and thought-provoking plays that, frankly, no other company in town would touch. Artistic director Ron May, who will be directing three of Stray Cat's four plays in its upcoming season, is to blame for this marvelously oddball addition to our local theater scene.
Herberger Theater Center
A quick lesson in professional versus non-professional theater: Actors' Equity Association is the labor union representing American stage actors and managers. "House" is, in this context, another word for troupe or theater group. A professional union theater company is referred to as an equity house, while a smaller, non-professional company that pays neither dues to the union nor wages to its actors is called, in polite company, a community theater. And, in our state, Arizona Theatre Company is the best equity house around. Founded in Tucson in 1967 as the Arizona Civic Theater, this company — our state theater, headquartered in Tucson — has been presenting the best local and national performers to a combined audience of more than 150,000 patrons since 1983. ATC's trick seems to be mixing a well-known favorite (like 2008-09's Hair, or the upcoming production of Neil Simon's Lost in Yonkers, to be directed by the company's artistic director, David Ira Goldstein) with "important" plays (many ATC fans are still recovering from the beauty of the company's production of A Long Day's Journey into Night from a few years ago). Brilliant.
No one quite knows what Phoenix did to deserve her, but there she is, playing everything from kids to birds, in any number of plays and musicals. Katie McFadzen has been cooking with gas on local stages for what seems like decades but may be only, like, 15 years. Her turn as a butch debutante in Five Women Wearing the Same Dress got our attention in 1996, and people are still talking two years later about her Viola Swamp in Miss Nelson is Missing! at Childsplay, where she's been an Associate Artist (read: acting ensemble member) for a very long time. Audiences loved Katie even before she wowed them as Mayzie LaBird in Seussical, and they're still recovering from her cool comic turn as a Mexican hoochie-mama in Teatro Bravo!'s Little Queen last year. ¡Y guy!

Best Of Phoenix®

Best Of