The Arizona Republic's Dan Bickley is the best sports columnist in the Valley, and his encyclopedic knowledge of the local scene long has impressed self-described aficionados such as ourselves. But writing is one thing; communicating on the radio during drive-time is another, and Bickley's learned how to pull it off, which is by being himself — a sincere wiseguy who is a better listener than most of the jokers on the airwaves. His partner, Mike Jurecki, brings a font of knowledge about the Arizona Cardinals to the table and sounds to us like the plugged-in dude at the end of the bar who's a little rough on the grammar but comes by it honestly. The rapport between the two middle-aged guys is real and refreshing, even when the subject matter — say, pressing contractual issues involving a little-known interior lineman — is too far inside even for us.
Robin Nash is not universally beloved by Valley radio listeners — in fact, we've cursed her name a few times ourselves — but with last year's big format change at The Station Formerly Known as The Edge, it's been nice to hear her familiar voice. Yes, she can be a little fan-girlish, but she's also evolved into a true pro over the years. As time has passed, her personality seems more muted, and that's cool with us. We salute the flirty daytime jock for surviving the collapse of the industry around her and for evolving along with it. We like her fairly short between-song banter and the fact that she now keeps a blog. Sure, it's mostly just national music news, but it's still the sort of commitment to expanding her medium that we like to see.
Less than a decade into his career, Power 98.3's evening jock, Chris Chavez, is already a journeyman in the radio game. He's a laid-back guy who doesn't try to show up the songs, which is one thing we really like about him. He's got Latin flavor without being cartoonish about it, and he's not annoyingly homer-ish about Phoenix, either, hailing from Texas and openly aspiring to make it up to the L.A. market. As the music director at the station, he mostly spins the same stuff everyone else there does — the station seems to have about a dozen songs in rotation on any given day — but his intros are crisp and amusing. In a Phoenix urban radio scene sorely missing Karlie Hustle (who quit her job in radio, stopped doing Groove Candy, switched up her sexuality by dating a man, and deleted her Twitter account in the past year) Chavez is the best voice we've got.
Urban oldies? It seemed like sort of a weird idea when The Beat — a quadrocast station made up of KNRJ 101.1 FM, K224CJ 92.7 FM, K257CD 99.3 FM, and K228XO 93.5 FM — started bumping old-school R&B and hip-hop in late 2008. Then an L.A. station picked up the format, making the Phoenix-bred format less of a novelty. There are a few solid stations for hip-hop in town, but we really like the unique playlist on The Beat, built around hits from the golden age of rap and featuring such artists as Pac, Biggie, Dre, and Snoop. And, sure, we like a little Warren Hill, some Fresh Prince, and a little R. Kelly in there, too. The jocks are nothing special and the low wattage of the signal is annoying, but The Beat is good-time music and always manages to make us smile as we flip by for a few seconds on a long commute.
Sure, Barrel Boy is an almost offensively pathetic Hee-Haw-style caricature of country music fans. Sure, the chubby, barrel-clad protagonist's Howard Stern-style antics are annoying and maybe irresponsible (like the time he got tasered by KNIX jock Mark Wills then gave a speech about how awesome and useful Tasers are, despite the serious concerns some people have about the devices, which have reportedly killed people). What do we like about Barrel Boy? He goes for it. In this terrible economy and his dying industry, he's willing to humiliate himself for a small measure of fame and, we're guessing, an even smaller financial gain. Hell, he's barely on the actual station. But ya know what? He's going for it. He's living the dream. As the station's well-paid, pretty-boy morning men get all the fading glory of the radio biz, this lowly mercenary is doing what he can to keep everyone at the station employed with less degrading work. So, let's all give a 10-gallon hat's off to Barrel Boy. We just wish we had our own version.
Phoenix's twin powers of KMLE and KNIX both do a great job spinning the latest out of Nashville, but we prefer this underdog licensed out of Wickenburg but available across the Valley. We get plenty of Montgomery Gentry and Trace Adkins from them, but we also get a little more old-school Garth and Willie than on the more commercial country stations. KSWG claims to be "real country," and though it's not as pure about the classics as, say, Yuma's totally badass Outlaw KCYK 1400 AM (which you can get on the outskirts of the Valley), it's a little more expansive than the big boys. Until Phoenix gets a true classic country station, this is a great place to tune in for the occasional hit from Hank or the Hag.
Martini Ranch
The "sound guy" is unquestionably the placekicker of the local music scene. No one — and we mean no one — notices when sound is good for a show, but they'll bitch forever and eternity if it's a little tinny. Ask around about who is super-good at the job, however, and local musicians (who notice these things even if their fans do not) will often point to Mike Toth. Actually, one local musician called Toth "The Messiah of Sound." Toth is the main guy at Martini Ranch, which always has impeccable sound, not only because of the nice, soft acoustics but because of what he does behind the board. He also handled the 2009 McDowell Mountain Music Festival, which stands out as one of the best music-oriented events in the Valley's recent past. So, if sound guys are kickers — ice-cold pros who get the job done in the clutch — it's fair to call Toth the Adam Vinatieri of local music. We're lucky to have him. Here's hoping he doesn't move to Indianapolis.
Each week, our music blog, Up On The Sun (PHXMusic.com), appoints a "Flier of the Week" to recognize excellence in promotional posters for local concerts. If Phoenix's Surfside IV, a group that plays instrumental surf rock, has a show in any given week, they're always in the running. The band has gone through some ups and downs (the drummer and a guitarist quit at the same time last year, leaving the remaining members scrambling for replacements), but guitarist Trey a.k.a. "T-Ray" consistently draws up the best fliers in town. A poster for a show at The Icehouse Tavern featured a fantastic drawing of a man-eating Sasquatch, while the flier for a show at the now-closed Ruby Room was a dead-on take on the pulpy posters used to promote 1940s monster movies. Oh, then there was the killer robot attacking The Blooze Bar. It's all great stuff, highly stylized in a way that fits the band perfectly. We'd love to see someone offer T-Ray a gallery show on a First Friday.
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.

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