Wild Knight

There's an important rule in the club world that any and every newbie DJ would be wise to follow: Never attempt to outdo the headliner. As in ever. Especially not at Wild Knight. You won't impress anybody, least of all the big-name artist you're trying to show up. And, even worse, if you pulled that shit at this Scottsdale hotspot, it probably would be a major diss to one of the biggest and brightest names in electronic dance music. High-caliber beat-slingers have been regular guests at the posh nightclub over the past couple of years, thanks to Relentless Beats and other local EDM promoters, including scores of high-rankers from the DJ Mag Top 100. Skrillex brought it hard here, as did Tommy Trash, Dada Life, Hardwell, Wolfgang Gartner, and Paul Oakenfold (twice). And their supreme four-on-the-floor audio feasts also tend to sound better here than at most other Old Town parlors, since its setup (which boasts a Nexo-powered system and various bass traps to keep teeth from being rattled by low-end wub-wub) was engineered specifically for EDM. And Wild Knights' new owners, who purchased the club earlier this year, are reportedly planning to revamp its interior later this fall to lessen the emphasis on bottle service, put more of the focus on DJs, and make things even more copacetic for electronic sounds. They've also loosened up its old ultra-selective door policies, which means that the rest of us can join in the fist pumping.

Pub Rock Live

In the Valley's music scene, change is sometimes a good thing. Yes, it's always a buzzkill when a favorite band or concert hall goes kablooey. But more often than not, something better will come along. Case in point: When longstanding rock bar Chasers was purchased by KUKQ's Nancy Stevens and concert/event production guru Jeff Stotler in 2012, it got a complete makeover and new lease on life as Pub Rock. It definitely had seen major mileage over the decades during its stints as Chasers and as '90s hard-rock haven The Atomic Café, so the pair started making changes literally five minutes after getting the keys. They covered up the often-sticky and dirty cement floor with parquet tiles, rebuilt the creaky old stage, installed better sound and lighting rigs, and created a closet-size recording booth for interviews and live remotes. Its primary focal point is still on music, probably more so than ever. According to Stevens, its new moniker is a reference to the '70s era in English rock emphasizing small shows by big bands. And that's exactly what fans have seen at Pub Rock since the reboot, ranging from appearances by such punk legends as Unwritten Law and former Dead Kennedys singer Jello Biafra to an intimate acoustic concert with The Ataris' Kris Roe and a rollicking Queen tribute from The Protomen. Oh, and the bathrooms are no longer messy, fragrant scumbuckets, which makes it easier to, er, take a break between bands.

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.

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