Best Of :: Arts & Entertainment
Downtown Phoenix's First Friday art walk experienced some growing pains in the past year. Streets were closed off and then reopened. Merchant tents relocated or disappeared. But this flux birthed a host of new First Friday events, including The Firehouse's new sketch comedy-slash-variety show starring such locals as Shaikh Sammad, Anna Moncada, Dwayne Holmes, and John Luther, of the band Haymarket Squares. We love the organic feel of the show, which features new skits every month and brings in guest artists, from the Strange Family Circus and Mizz Lucy Morals of Scandalesque Burlesque to Hooves (who perform the show's theme song) and event co-founder Aaron Johnson. The cast never fails to shock, whether poking fun at the "birther bill" loonies or casting the Pope's disdain for condoms in a funnier light.
There's no glowing neon sign marking the South Phoenix location of the Inner City Youth Center. Nor are there glossy advertisements, slick radio spots, or other primo promotional tactics trumpeting the underground all-ages gigs held at this under-the-radar music venue. Hell, it barely even has an online presence, as its proprietors maintain a cluttered-looking blog announcing upcoming shows. Even then, it takes some hunting to find the joint, as fliers list only a nearby intersection and the instructions to "enter from [the] back alley." The funky directions lead patrons to an even funkier scene inside ICYC, as the warehouse-like venue is a messy milieu of secondhand furniture, empty beer cans, and spray-painted murals covering cinder block walls. Its messy stage regularly hosts punk and hardcore bands, including performances by some internationally notorious acts. (For instance, infamous grindcore band Anal Cunt staged what likely will be its final Phoenix show ever at ICYC in April, a few months before singer Seth Putnam passed away.) Similar in most respects to the iconic NYC punk venue ABC No Rio, ICYC is more than just a music venue, as it's also hosted art shows, fundraisers, and even the occasional community fundraiser. It's a pretty punk rock place, to say the least.
Behind heavy wood doors and down a dark stairwell, Rokerij exudes the quiet air of a secret club. A fireplace burns even in the middle of the summer, but the cool, dark atmosphere of the place is well suited to the subtle blaze. Named for the Dutch word meaning smokehouse, Rokerij features the menu from nearby Dick's Hideaway, making the pairing of a rare steak and glass of neat whiskey a realizable delight. The corners of the dim bar are suited to quiet conversation, and the bar's close seating means you'll end up engaged in interesting conversation with old-school Phoenicians in no time.
Located down a steep flight of well-worn wooden steps, the late, great Monroe's was a classic basement bar in downtown Phoenix. During the day, this cramped cellar was a great place to nosh on pub grub and maybe knock back a few lunchtime beers in a place where the sun (and your boss) could not find you. (Unless your boss happened to be there, too.) By night, Monroe's transformed into a sultry, smoke-filled blues bar — yes, up until 2007, you could actually light up indoors in AZ. Unfortunately, it all came to a crashing halt four years ago, when Monroe's closed suddenly for "renovations" and never re-opened. Now, the building's owners have finally put the space back on the market, leading to a flurry of interest from wanna-be tenants, says the leasing agent, who expects the space to reopen by the end of the year.
All too often, the best-kept secrets stay underground — and so, it appears, will the full story of the Incognito. Legend places the underground bar in the basement of the Safari Hotel, built in Scottsdale by local architect Al Beadle and owned by Bill Ritter and Ernie Uhlmann. The Safari swung its luxury resort doors open in 1956 to crowds who made the long, 14-mile drive from Phoenix — and from all over the country.At the jungle-themed resort's height, all 108 rooms were booked; women were treated in the salons and danced on the ballroom floor while cocktails were poured from a fine-dining lounge for all-star guests including Burt Reynolds and Bing Crosby. But what isn't in the books or blueprints is what a few guests and local old-timers casually remember as a dummy payphone, just outside the resort. Say the secret word into the payphone and an outside door to the underground Incognito would be opened. There would be no mention of the place when Martin Milner and George Maharis filmed a 1961 episode of Route 66 at the Safari, and certainly no hint on the resort's well-known restaurant menu or hotel guide. According to Uhlmann's son, Mark, who's spent years documenting his father's influence in the city, there was no bar called the Incognito on the property — at least not while his father was in charge. The building passed from Uhlmann's hands in 1980 and was razed by the city a decade later to make room for condos. And though we'll always remember what was above ground (and we'll certainly see more transitions in the years to come), we'll always have to wonder about what went on below.
To get to The Big Bang, you literally have to go underground — there's a flight of stairs next to the entrance, leading to what's essentially a basement. The space used to house blues joint BeLo's, and the exposed brick and industrial piping on the ceiling adds to the "speakeasy" feel of the place. Patrons can sit at a table and drink booze from the bar while taking in some great live music, courtesy of the Bang's "dueling pianos." The entertainers here — who include pianist/singer Julie Martinez (who played at the first Big Bang club in Missouri when it opened in 2001) and Ben Murphy (who studied piano at Indiana University) — are immensely talented, able to play off each other, interact with the audience, and fulfill requests, no matter how bizarre. Whether it's a rockin' rendition of the Jackson 5's "I Want You Back," a lounge version of "Gin & Juice" by Snoop Dogg, or even the one song they're really tired of playing (Billy Joel's "Piano Man"), the performers at The Big Bang never cease to entertain.
Located below the larger Nile Theater venue, The Underground harks back to those underage days, when the best shows you saw were hosted in someone's basement. The Underground is quite literally a basement — you can see utility beams and pipes on the ceiling, and there are mounds of crumbling dirt and drywall in the corners of the room, where dampness and decay has taken its toll (you won't find such moldy charm above ground). But aside from its basement aesthetic, The Underground has some great acoustics (not counting the occasional sonic bleed-through of whatever show's going on upstairs in the Nile). There's enough space for about 75 people to fit comfortably, but because the venue's a basement, it can get really stuffy and hot when it's packed. The only downside for would-be concertgoers at The Underground is there's no elevator. So if someone's physically unable to climb up and down the stairs, the best they can get is to listen to the show from the lobby or from the top of the stairs.
The Arizona Society of Homebrewers is one of the biggest home-brewing clubs in the entire country. Attending one of the society's monthly meetings means rubbing shoulders with some of Arizona's home-brewing greats. Want to discuss the effect of noble hops on your American-style pale ale? Need some advice on getting a mead off the ground? Hoping to learn more about what types of beer pair best with goat cheese? Welcome home, you brew-swilling beer snob. In addition to the meetings, ASH holds an annual beer festival called "Spring Fest," which is absolutely not to be missed.
For years, people tried to keep The Black and Tan a secret, closely guarding its location, despite the fact that a Google search for "Black and Tan Phoenix" neatly pulls up an address and phone number. That's because The Black and Tan actually is a legitimate recording studio and rehearsal space. But that's not what this building in an industrial area of west Phoenix is known for. It's known for being the Valley's only true speakeasy. The Black and Tan has played host to some of the wildest private parties and underground music shows in the city, from national acts like Slick Idiot (which includes members of KMFDM) to local noisemakers like industrial duo Mess & Phetamine. The building's got plenty of room to house a stage and a bar, which it has done regularly for the past several years. On some event nights, people in the know can just show up with money and get in, but in an attempt to keep the place exclusive, a lot of the more recent events require a special ticket or password to get in.
Stop into Hanny's on a weekend night in downtown Phoenix, and you'll see why there's no one on the street. The swanky bar and restaurant is a great place to spot who's who in the downtown scene, and an even better place to do some exploring. The building was designed by local architects Ryal Lescher and Leslie Mahoney and opened as Hanny's department store in 1947 (you don't even have to squint to see the original signage above the bar and on one of the outside walls). But more interesting than the dressing rooms turned bathrooms on the second floor, the hidden bar area from which you can spy on first-floor guests, and the empty elevator shafts is the basement. The space is an empty shell of what once was — the shoe counter still stands near the elevator, dusty and forgotten. The staircase is blocked off with a chain-link fence. Sneak past the Hanny's employees down the staircase and behind the dressed mannequin by local artist Janis Leonard (below the DJ booth) and you'll see what may one day be one of the coolest underground spots in Phoenix. Just don't tell them we sent you.
It's a good thing that the fabrication facilities and other blue-collar businesses surrounding Stratus close up shop after the sun goes down, since there's no one around to file a noise complaint when the West Valley venue gets wild on weekend nights. And believe us, we're talking wild. A colorful cornucopia of costumed kids and vibrantly dressed electronic music fans slide into Stratus almost every Friday or Saturday to partake in a melodic maelstrom of bright lights and big beats. Hit up the info lines for any of the handful the underground raves and word-of-mouth dance parties that transpire into the wee hours each weekend and you're likely to get directions to Stratus. It's popular among local promoters because of its location in the middle of an industrial neighborhood, as well as the posh amenities located within. While its plain-looking exterior resembles the workmanlike façades of neighboring businesses, the interior boasts high-definition video screens, two VIP lounges, a pimp Dynacord sound system, and various laser light displays. There's also a fully stocked bar slinging drinks to those patrons who are of age (and have proper ID), but you usually have to wade through a sea of glowstick-wielding teenagers to get there.
As any Phoenician who's had his brains melted and skin seared by the sun can ascribe, it's hot here for a majority of the year. Damn hot. Hence the number of swimming holes around these parts, particularly in Scottsdale. There are pools aplenty in the stylish suburb, even in the unlikeliest of places. Like, say, smack dab in the middle of Old Town nightspot Spanish Fly, which features an oasis-like swimming pool encompassing most of the outdoor patio. Where other Scottsdale beach bars boast paltry wading pools, Spanish Fly — formerly the home of upscale Polynesia place Drift — trumps 'em all. The proprietors exchanged tiki shtick for chic couches, posh cabanas, and a glimmering waterfall. As its name portends, the joint also serves Mexican-style nosh, but be sure to wait an hour after eating before taking a dip.