Best Of :: People & Places
Devon Nickel's been around Valley theater a while (not too long — he's a relatively young man), including in Nearly Naked and Phoenix Theatre's co-production of Spring Awakening in 2012 and NNT's acclaimed Blood Brothers in 2009. He sings beautifully enough that he could be routinely cast doing only that, but that isn't what happens, because he acts at least as well. Last winter, he took on the physically, emotionally, intellectually taxing role of utter crazy-pants Alan Strang in Nearly Naked's revival of the classic '70s British drama Equus. The entire production was stunning, but Nickel's Alan was the hub around which it all revolved, and appropriately so. We laughed, we cried, we could not look away — and yet there was so much truth, passion, and pain in Nickel's work that we scarcely remember the play's protracted nude scene. Which is not something that would escape us on an ordinary day.
Climate change will mean routine, human-killing temperatures of 130 and higher during the summer. All water sources will dry up, sparking extreme conservation efforts. Farming will become impossible. Wildfires will transform the state's forests and highlands into the ashen landscape depicted in The Road. Welcome to the vision of worrywarts like Will deBuys, author of a March piece on slate.com titled "Phoenix May Not Survive Climate Change," and Andrew Ross, who wrote the 2011 book Bird on Fire: Lessons from the World's Least Sustainable City.
But allow us to retort: Truth is, reports of Phoenix's impending demise are premature. State officials expect the population of the Phoenix area to nearly double by 2050 — to about 6 million. And no one should die of thirst: Phoenix and its suburbs have a multifaceted water supply more robust than any other major Southwest city. Sure, we'll have problems in the future. But it's the height of pessimism to claim that everyone will flee to perceived greener pastures rather than cope with the challenges. Don't you believe it.
We never turn down the opportunity to catch a rooftop view of the city, so when the chance to see Phoenix from the top of the Icehouse came up during an impromptu trip to the historic building now known for its contemporary art exhibitions, we bit. Little did we know it was going to take more than just a quick trip in an elevator to get to the roof.
Fair warning: This isn't a trip for the faint of heart — and by the time we publish this award, it might be a trip that's no longer an option for those who haven't signed some sort of waiver. Our guide took us up the stairs to the Icehouse's third floor. We climbed up the creaky ladder resting against the building's open elevator shaft (that's been out of commission for years), balanced on a metal beam that separates the open air about 10 feet off the third floor and 30 feet down the shaft, and jumped onto a platform that can best be described as unreliable.
From there, we navigated the building's attic, making sure to walk on supported ceiling beams, found a rusty chair under a manmade hold, and took another leap of faith up and onto the building's roof. A very untraditional view of Phoenix — warehouse tops, train tracks, high rises, and the quickly developing construction zone that will one day host Sheriff Joe Arpaio's fancy new offices — is the backdrop to this view. And, man, is it worth it — once you figure out how to get back down to tell the story.
We've had a culture crush on Alberto Rios for as long as we can remember, so we were delighted to see the ASU English professor and celebrated author honored with the position as the state's first poet laureate. Rios is a sweet, soft-spoken (both in person and in print) man with roots in Nogales. If anyone "gets" Arizona, it's him. But don't let us tell you that. We'll let Rios' words — from the conclusion of a poem called "In Us This Day" that he wrote on the occasion of former Governor Janet Napolitano's 2003 inauguration — show why he's the best:
We are in a border time,
The border between countries, between centuries,
The border between yesterday and tomorrow,
What we have been and what we are going to be.
We are a state of many languages, many cultures.
We must translate this into a state with many ideas.
Let us choose the best from this treasury of dreams.
Let us create a future
We would want to speak in any language.
We should not try to predict the future —
Instead, let us make it, and let us make it our own.
Thanks to Aidy Bryant, we'll never think of acupuncture or Mrs. Claus the same way again. Not since David Spade took his place as a cast member of Saturday Night Live have we had a hometown kid to wait up for (albeit only till 10:30). To be honest, our SNL viewing habits had waned. Then came Aidy — a Xavier High School graduate raised in Phoenix, fresh from a stint at Chicago's Second City, and Lorne Michaels' newest hire. This past year, we watched for her in every episode. We loved her in "Girlfriends' Talk Show" and teared up a bit when — as Candy Crowley — she got to yell, "Live from New York, it's Saturday night!" Yes, we are officially Aidy Bryant groupies. She's back on SNL for another season. Come Saturday night, you'll know where to find us: the couch.
We tried to see Grumpy Cat in person once. It was awful. And we say this only because the famous frowny feline of Internet fame wound up canceling. "Good," as we're sure she would say. The viewing was supposed to happen during an appearance by Tardar Sauce at last year's Great Southwest Scooter Fiesta in Gilbert before owner Tabatha Bundesen, who resides in the Valley, nixed the "interview" due to an overwhelming amount of media appearances at the time. And things haven't slowed down since. For the three of you not familiar with Tardar Sauce's backstory, the renowned sourpuss suffers from feline dwarfism, which causes her famous frown. Bundesen's brother posted a photo of Tardar to Reddit a year ago on a whim, and overnight fame ensued. The Internet found its newest hero, and Grumpy Cat's frown became the face that launched millions of memes. And make no mistake: Grumpy Cat was the biggest meme of 2012. (Sorry, Bad Luck Brian.) And this year looks to be even bigger. She's everywhere — on TV, in commercials, even in her own book. A movie reportedly is in the works, as is "Grumppucino" iced coffee beverages with her now-iconic mug on the label. And now a Best of Phoenix plaque to go along with it. Wonder what she'll say? Oh, yeah, that's right.
We've said it before, and we'll say it again: Cans are the best package for beer. Easier to ship and recycle, faster to cool, better at protecting the beer from sunlight and oxygen, shotgun-friendly — the upsides abound. Also numerous are the reasons we selected AmeriCAN as this year's best fest. The beer, of course, is a big one, with our city's best canned brews touching aluminum with stuff not available in our state any other time, like offerings from Sixpoint Brewery out of New York, 21st Amendment Brewery in San Francisco, and Florida's Cigar City Brewing Co. This year's venue — the open and shade-providing Scottsdale Civic Center — is another. Even the people pouring the beers, usually volunteers uneducated on their products, were improved, as the festival sponsors at SanTan Brewing Co. decided to recruit members of the Arizona Society of Homebrewers and the beer geek community at large.
Bigger isn't always better but, not uncommonly, it is more fun. Every April, the Scottsdale League for the Arts puts on a weeklong culinary festival that draws thousands of attendees to dozens of events. It would take a team of rabid foodies to get to them all, but that's part of the beauty of this giant festival: You get to pick and choose what you see, eat, and experience. Prior to the 35th annual event, the organization hosted a Friends of James Beard Benefit Dinner that brought an all-star lineup of chefs to the Valley. And during the week, we indulged our sweet tooth with Country and Sergio Velador's brutti ma buoni, an Italian-style cookie, at the Chocolate and Wine Experience; ate more burgers than we can count at the Burger Battle; and boozed it up at the Shaken and Stirred cocktail party at Searsucker. The organizers saved the best event for last, though, and after our memorable meal crafted by chef Josh Hebert at Posh's table at the Best of the Fest dinner, we're already looking forward hungrily to next year.
Several generations of Valley art lovers have cut their creative teeth at this huge spring festival, where juried exhibitors from all over the country sell wares from paintings to sculptures to handcrafted toys and jewelry. In recent years, local food trucks have appeared on the scene, and with outdoor entertainment and a kids' craft section, you can indoctrinate a new generation and make a day of it.
Georganne Bryant's been throwing her annual Crafeteria for only a few years, but it's already become a Phoenix holiday tradition, with good reason: No one curates a finer selection of Valley-based artisans than Bryant, whose stores Frances and Smeeks are testament to her impeccable taste and championing of the local scene. We look forward to seeing old friends, meeting new artists, and getting most of our Christmas shopping done in one fell swoop. How many days till Crafeteria?
No one would have blamed the McDowell Mountain Music Festival crew for throwing in the towel. Twenty-twelve was, after all, a bruising year for festival organizer John Largay and his staff: Last year, the festival competed against the massive Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in relatively nearby Indio, California, as well as Country Thunder in Florence, and MMMF's venue, the Compound Bar and Grill, closed its doors.
But rather than take 2013 off to recuperate, Largay and company came back hard. Real hard. The 2013 installment of the festival featured its best lineup ever, with the Roots, the Shins, Les Claypool's Duo de Twang, Umphrey's McGee, JGB, Dr. Dog, and more offering the most satisfying take on the festival's particular fusion — indie rock meets jam band — in a new and improved home, Margaret T. Hance Park in the heart of Phoenix.
Always quick to incorporate Phoenix bands, MMMF hired locals like Kongos, Ladylike, and Jared and the Mill to perform on a large side stage in the shadow of Burton Barr Public Library, near local artisan vendors and plenty of food and beer outposts. Smartly avoiding the festival crunch by hosting the festivities in temperate March, MMMF 2013 felt like a breath of fresh air for the festival and its attendees, and it worked out: MMMF has signed on for another edition of the festival in Hance Park in 2014.
Every city should have its own independent film festival, and even we were surprised by the talent at this year's Phoenix Film Festival. The weeklong event at Harkins Scottsdale 101 featured limited-release films — ranging from horror and sci-fi to comedies, love stories, and dramas — from all over the country. The best part was the post-screening Q&As with directors, actors, and producers, which gave Phoenicians a chance to mingle with up-and-coming talent in the movie industry. It's well worth the money to splurge for a full-event pass for $150, so you can hit up every movie. A further splurge to become a VIP pass holder ($250) will get you first access into every movie. However, you can also purchase single movie tickets for $12 if you just want to see one or two films during the week. Next year's event is slotted for April 3 through 10, and we can't wait to see the talent it brings to town.