Last Exit Live
Benjamin Leatherman

Confession time: When Brannon Kleinlein announced he was reopening his bygone venue Last Exit, we had a few doubts. Not about the man himself, since the 39-year-old is dialed into the Phoenix music scene, but rather the location he was moving into. Not only is the cozy music venue located along a confusing one-way stretch of Central Avenue, it's also in the heart of a dodgy 'hood south of downtown Phoenix. Both issues seemed to vex patrons during its previous identity as The Ruby Room and probably aided in the rock dive's untimely demise. None of this mattered to Kleinlein, however. After all, his old Tempe venue — the original version of Last Exit — also was off the beaten path, but people always seemed to find it. (In fact, it probably would still be around had he not gotten a bad case of burnout in 2009 and decided to sell the place.) Such has proved to be the case with Last Exit's reincarnation after Kleinlein fixed the joint up, improved parking and security, and began getting the word out via social media. Scenesters and music gourmandizers alike have found their way to shows, especially those involving popular and tastemaking touring and local bands. Crowds have even shown up for concerts in the middle of the workweek, which Kleinlein cites as a good sign things are going well. "Weeknight shows in this town are very tough," he says. "So if you can get 50 people out, then you're definitely doing good."

Crescent Ballroom

Whichever way your tastes run — local or national, indie or iconic, hardcore or hip-hop — it's ultimately impossible to avoid Crescent Ballroom, which means it's a good thing there's no reason to avoid it. By day, it's a bar and lounge, soundtracked by free music and unsolicited burrito recommendations from your friends and acquaintances. At night, it's a remarkably versatile venue, hosting year-old Phoenix outfits and vets like Built to Spill with equal alacrity. For all-local showcase Los Dias de la Crescent and this year's Du Hot Club de Bizarre, which featured Of Montreal and Devendra Banhart, it even sprouts a second, outdoor stage. Ultimately, it's hard to explain what's great about watching a touring act perform at Crescent Ballroom without sounding like an anti-perspirant commercial; it's small enough for locals, but big enough to house any band that's, say, soundtracking car commercials but not yet appearing in them.

Sail Inn

It's like that old weather joke that people in basically every state think they invented: If you don't like the music at The Sail Inn, wait five days. Actually, one day is usually enough. A given week might see a Grateful Dead tribute show followed up with an album-release party for an early-20-something dance-pop band. And in June, the place pulled off a particularly neat trick, hosting acts named Jah Missionary and Vomit God. When so much Valley music is segregated by age, group affiliation, and sheer physical distance, that eclecticism is an asset. In other words, it's a good place to lurk if you're looking to slip out of your musical bubble. Updated and revitalized by the original owner when it reopened in 2009, The Sail Inn's calendar is still tilted toward jam and jam-affiliated rock. But Tempe residents for whom six-minute guitar solos are a non-starter still will find plenty to like.

Joe's Grotto

Hosting a metal show is a stressful prospect, even if it doesn't come with all the Satanic accouterments parents worried about in the '80s. For one thing, nothing else in rock 'n' roll makes noises quite comparable to metal's guttaral screaming and layered, loud guitars; for another, no other genre has thrown off quite so many warring, not-quite-compatible subgenres. Without the necessary experience, it's a constant battle to keep the bands audible and the diehard fans convinced you know what you're doing. Joe's Grotto has been around long enough to thread that needle, putting on doomcore and neoclassical shows with equal aplomb. It looks like a gritty, authentic venue, but it doesn't sound like a gritty, authentic venue, because it's got a great sound system. Lots of places periodically play host to Phoenix's metal-hungry music fans, but nobody does it more consistently and thoughtfully.

Within a week of each other, two influential musicians making tentative returns to the public eye hit the Valley. It was difficult to pick Jeff Mangum over Aaron Carter of "Aaron's Party (Come Get It)," but the infamously reclusive genius behind Neutral Milk Hotel did a slightly better job of living up to the reputation that sprang up in his absence. Carter mostly just got hit on by the women of Martini Ranch and got into a Twitter feud with us; Mangum didn't allow photos, froze up at the site of a raised smartphone, and — while he was at it — wrung tears from a bunch of grown men and women who thought they'd never get the chance to see their indie Salinger in person. Two sets' worth of fans at Crescent got to hear his singularly strange, affecting paeans to Anne Frank, which would have been enough by itself. What made the shows great, even though Jeff Mangum has never once beaten Shaquille O'Neal in a pick-up basketball game, was his ability, despite more than a decade out of live music, to reach back for the manic energy that built his cult following in the first place.

After their customary three-year hiatus following 2010's Invented, the Mesa natives announced their eighth album and an Arizona tour in rapid succession in April. The album, Damage, was prototypically Jimmy Eat World; the tour was a little unusual. Bypassing Phoenix and Tucson entirely, Jim Adkins and company scheduled much smaller shows in not-quite-hotspots like Yuma, Wickenburg, Sierra Vista, and Casa Grande. The result was a run of up-close, sold-out shows that were as small as any the band has played since Clarity made them cult heroes in the late '90s. We were there on May 9, for the Casa Grande show, and aside from betraying their big-city upbringing — locals offered some helpful pronunciation tips for "Grande" — they haven't lost their small-show touch. That performance's encore ended with a fan jumping up and down on stage. At a bigger venue, that'll get you kicked out before the guitar solo in "The Middle." In Casa Grande, it earned him a high-five.

This has been a good year for Taylor Swift: The jokes about her various exes were finally played out, last year's Red continued to sprout hits, and she emerged, with that album's capital-e Extravaganza, as one of the most compelling arena acts of her generation. The category isn't labeled Best Arena Show Ever!!!, but it's close enough — in late May, a swarm of astoundingly polite, well-dressed, self-confident 9-year-old girls swarmed around Westgate's mock downtown, making perfect eye contact and feeling empowered. And, granted, making signs covered in high-contrast glitter. Taylor Swift's brand of hyper-produced, absurdly expensive arena show hasn't launched as many culture-studies Ph.D.'s as Lady Gaga's, but it's even more likely to feature an extended dance synthesis of dubstep, parkour, and the fashions of medieval Europe. And the kids it brings out are a little more likely to make you feel like the world is going to be a better — if also a more unnecessarily giddy — place when they grow up.

The Western

We've heard The Western's ambiance described as "honky-tonk bar and restaurant without the Disney-esque trappings" of a honky-tonk bar and restaurant, which is exactly how it'll charm you: If you're the kind of person for whom boots will always feel a little like a Halloween costume, The Western just might make you comfortable. Brainchild of Charlie Levy and Tucker Woodbury, who previously teamed up for Crescent Ballroom, The Western offers a rootsy, unpolished antidote to glitzier Americana with regular, free sets from local stalwarts like Sara Robinson. Like Levy's other venue, it's a great place to hang out that also happens to be an excellent venue — national acts aren't the focus, but they do and will show up when they fit the theme. What makes it such a pleasant place to be is that you won't feel like you also have to fit the theme.

Maya Dayclub

In Scottsdale, no one ever seems to stay satisfied with much of anything for too long. Hence the constant state of reinvention in the entertainment district, where the clubs gods have giveth and taketh away much in the past few years. They've been especially busy along Saddlebag Trail just south of Camelback Road, which has become Scottsdale's current "it" area. As its name portends, the 27,300-square-foot megaclub was designed to host the sort of around-the-clock affairs that kick off in the daytime and keep rolling after dark and long into the night. And that's exactly what's been happening since it opened in April.

In many respects, Maya's is Scottsdale's version of the high-style beach clubs of Sin City, with its similarly swank amenities geared toward the party crowd. The massive pool and patio area, which is centered on the outdoor DJ booth and LED screen and ringed with daybeds, bars, and cabanas, was busy with weekend swim fetes throughout the summer. Steve Aoki played the place (natch), as did Calvin Harris, Thomas Gold, and Fatboy Slim (who made his first-ever appearance in Arizona). And its 9,700-square-foot indoor nightclub has been filled to capacity most of the nights it's been open, probably because of the blockbuster level of DJ talent that has been brought in by prominent Scottsdale promoter Steve Levine. Suffice it to say, if you haven't already visited Maya yet, you probably will soon.

Yucca Tap Room
Lauren Cusimano

That 99 percent of all the shows going off at the Yucca are free would be nearly enough reason to give this longtime Tempe bar such an honor. But even if owner Rodney Hu charged us a cover, we'd be hard-pressed to find a better all-around place to see music in the Valley, because it seems that just about every night is a party at the Yucca. When gritty local acts of all stripes — power pop, post-punk, metal, garage rock, country rock — aren't providing the soundtrack to a typical booze-fueled night at the Yucca, you'll find numerous underground touring bands setting up and throwing down. With cheap beers, no-hassle entry and exit, respectable bar grub, a dedicated smoking patio, and not-so-elegantly wasted clientele, no other rock bar in the Valley offers a more consistently affordable and memorable night out seeing bands than the Yucca.

Best Of Phoenix®

Best Of