Allow us to modify Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's comments about pornography from 1964 to fit the definition of "real country": We're not sure exactly what it is, but we know it when we hear it. And that's the vibe you get watching Phoenix country band Junction 10 play at local bars like the Yucca Tap Room. Inspired chiefly by the late Merle Haggard, Junction 10 plays Bakersfield-style country (to quote Dwight Yoakam's quoting of Waylon Jennings, Phoenix is just "Bakersfield East," anyhow): twangy, hard-edged, and soulful. Vocalist/guitarist Robert Perez, a big man with a big voice and a big heart, leads the band with ambling charm, and his band always matches him with worn intensity.

Guitarist Tommy Connell doesn't need much to make his Sunday night performances on the Cibo pizzeria patio special — just his small amp, his tasteful effects pedal, and his big Gretsch guitar, which he utilizes to weave a stream of classic jazz, quiet lounge melodies, and rustic Americana. Known for his work with pedal steel player Jon Rauhouse (who plays for Neko Case, Billy Bob Thornton, and more), Connell knows how to find the sweet spot between Western swing — hillbilly jazz! — and evocative, twangy atmosphere, adding a lilting, understated ambience to Cibo's already cozy evening vibe.

Established in 2013, Phoenix-based label Moone Records has quickly solidified itself as the premier representation of Phoenix's indie pop underground. Cassette, vinyl, CD, and digital releases by country-rock super group Little Bobby Jr. and the Horsey House Band & Friends (featuring members of ROAR and Cherie Cherie)  and indie R&B-inspired outfit Pro Teens demonstrate the label's design aesthetic — clean, minimalist packaging — and speak to the genre-bending approach which seems to guide each entry in its catalog. The label wears its Phoenix pride on its sleeve, hosting shows around town and shining a light on little-seen corners of the art scene here, as well as committing to community-based activism (see the trenchant HB 2440 commentary offered on the label's Facebook page). 

Mill Avenue jangle pop wasn't the only guitar music coming out of the Phoenix metro area in the 1990s. Bubbling in the Tempe underground was the "Beautiful Noise" scene, encompassing bands like Halfstring and Alison's Halo which were more akin to guitar-pedal-obsessed British psychedelic groups like the Jesus and Mary Chain, Cocteau Twins, the Boo Radleys, and Spacemen 3, all of whom are featured, alongside Alison's Halo, on Still in a Dream: Story of Shoegaze 1988-1995. In recent years, bands like Deerhunter and M83 have adopted shoegaze styles and become huge smashes, so it's exciting to see one of Tempe's finest represented alongside genre titans, a concrete representation of the desert's contribution to the woozy, distortion-drenched genre. 

Music festivals are all about lineup and vibe, and McDowell Mountain Music Festival checks both those boxes and then some. The nonprofit event brings major headliners to downtown Phoenix (for example, Avett Brothers, Beck, and Widespread Panic), all while being an exemplary model of how music festivals should treat their guests. Beer and cocktails are high quality and reasonably priced. Ticket packages go on sale early. There are no intrusive security pat-downs, no obscenely priced bottles of water. McDowell Mountain Music Festival is everything a great festival should be, providing the best fan experience in Phoenix and, above all, great music.

Best Nontraditional Music Festival

Viva PHX

Have you been to a music festival recently? Stifling crowds, terrible sight lines, muffled outdoor sound? Unless you're willing to get there early and forgo bathroom breaks and proper hydration, it's almost impossible to get a good view. Once you pass into your third decade of existence, the prospect becomes mighty unappetizing.

Enter Viva PHX, Stateside Presents' nontraditional take on a music festival. (Full disclosure: New Times is a sponsor.) Modeled around South by Southwest, the 2016 version brought more than 70 bands to 17 venues downtown. The sheer number and density of the music festival participants is impressive in itself, but what's more notable is the transformative effect the festival has on downtown. Streets that are normally quiet on a Saturday night overflow with people making their way from venue to venue. For one night, downtown Phoenix turns into a pedestrian-friendly musical mecca, and the energy is contagious and undeniable.

Crescent Ballroom

Is there a more enjoyable live music experience than the Crescent Ballroom? Located at the site of a former auto mechanic garage, the venue is a model of good business practice for the rest of the city, offering not just a live music hall but a great restaurant as well. The ballroom itself is a sight to behold, with perfect sight lines, crystal-clear sound, reasonably priced beers, and attentive service. There's also a fantastic Mexican restaurant, Cocina 10, for music lovers and diners alike. Crescent Ballroom has it all for music lovers. There's a reason it's the hippest venue in town.

Orpheum Theatre

In all of the Valley of the Sun, there's no place quite like the Orpheum Theater. Majestic columns, a fantastic chandelier, and Spanish baroque-style murals, all underneath a ceiling of painted clouds against a blue sky, combine to make the Orpheum a fairly spectacular place to see a concert. Erected in 1929, the building has undergone a number of lifecycles and renovations, and now the building has a place on the National Register of Historic Places.

Yucca Tap Room
Lauren Cusimano

A great live music performance comes from the energy flowing between the band and the crowd. Small venues foster this connection in the best ways. There is often no space between the musicians and the spectators, and the intimacy of the space often leads to the most memorable shows. Yucca Tap Room is the longest-running rock bar in Tempe for a reason. It's a comfortable yet badass place to see a show. Feel like getting close and dancing? There's plenty of room up front. Feel like grabbing a stool, nursing a beer, and enjoying from a distance? You can do that, too. No matter where you take it in, the sound's incredible, and it's no surprise that many a scenester's favorite moments in live music happened at Yucca.

Gila River Arena
Andrew Marshall

There might be only a few places to catch arena headliners like Aerosmith, Madonna, and Justin Bieber in Phoenix, but if we had our choice, they'd all come through Gila River Arena, the most music-friendly extra-large venue in town. Chase Field is far too boomy; Talking Stick Resort too impersonal; University of Phoenix Stadium way too big; Ak-chin Pavilion too spread out. But Gila River Arena is Goldilocks' third bowl of porridge; it's just right. Somehow, the sound manages to reach all corners of Gila River, and the structure of the seats around the arena means that the stage is always easy to see. And leaving the concert is great as well — concertgoers are greeted by a fantastic fountain that makes the shops and restaurants of Westgate Entertainment District an enticing sight.

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