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.
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.

Best Of Phoenix®

Best Of