Best Of :: Nightlife
I was an arrogant, ambitious fledgling reporter working in a moldy basement for the Arizona State University student newspaper when my crusty editor assigned me a story about psychics.
“They’re gypsies!” he said. “I hate them! Go figure out what idiots are asking Mrs. Rita for advice. I hate her!”
It was 1996, and his Mrs. Rita rage wasn’t entirely uncalled for. Before the days of chain breweries and taco mania, Mill Avenue’s charmingly sticky basement bars served cheap pitchers of Miller Light and were home to a live-music scene that produced a few mainstream bands. We liked to think it was a mini Seattle. Only with sunshine. And less depressed grunge.
No other way to put it: Viva PHX took over downtown Phoenix during its 2017 edition. And it kinda had to. (Full disclosure: New Times is a sponsor.) Around 100 bands took to stages at 20 venues during the fourth annual music festival. For one night only, the city was flooded with sound — and about 12,000 people. Girl Talk, American Football, Wyclef Jean, and The Maine headlined, and the rest of the bill was stellar in its variety. Lucha libre wrestling bouts, a concert-poster show, and food trucks were all in the mix, along with performances from Blackalicious, Bash & Pop, and The Gentle Hits. There was too much to see and way too much to do — in the best way possible.
Of course, you can count on the Rebel Lounge marquee to let you know what bands are playing this week and when the next Emo Night PHX is going down, but the Rebel crew likes to go above and beyond, providing plenty of drive-time chuckles, too. Whether noting how happy the staff is the 2016 presidential election is almost over (to be fair, that was when we all figured the outcome would be different) or posting bad Yelp reviews for all Indian School Road motorists to see, the staff at the Rebel are as good at crafting messages as they are at throwing great rock shows.
FORM 2017 wasn't a perfect festival. Check-in on Friday was bumpy. Wait times to get from a parking lot to the experimental northern Arizona arts community of Arcosanti were out of control. And, of course, it was hella hot. But by the time everyone settled in on Friday evening, all the earlier drama blew away with the breeze. Solange took the stage in head-to-toe red for a headlining set in the amphitheater. The R&B singer led her band through new classics from her masterful record A Seat at the Table and delved back into her early catalog for weirdo art pop and bizarro soul. With a minimal stage setup, postmodern dance routines, and a crystalline voice, she presented the perfect antidote to 2017's hideousness, singing about blackness and beauty, pride, sorrow, and joy.
Alberto Ríos describes the moment when he learned that the band U2 was sharing one of his poems during their current tour as "thrilling and out of the blue." So out of the blue, in fact, that Arizona's first poet laureate learned of this from his son, whose friend had gone to see the band. The friend recognized Ríos' words on a giant screen — from "The Border: A Double Sonnet" — before the band took the stage. The 28-line poem begins:
The border is a line that birds cannot see.
The border is a beautiful piece of paper folded carelessly in half.
The border is where flint first met steel, starting a century of fires.
The poem is lovely and so is the music of U2. We think it's the perfect mashup, and we're glad Ríos does, too.
Leave it to metal singer and longtime restaurant industry pro Grace Perry to give us the pitch-perfect downtown dive. It was love at first sight when the former frontwoman of Landmine Marathon threw open the doors to the wood-paneled 50-person hangout, complete with cozy booths, a stuffed javelina, cheap beer, and the vintage arcade shooter Revolution-X. (Mhm, that's the Aerosmith game.) Our favorite part, though? It's the jukebox, stocked with Perry's picks ranging from early-aughts boy bands and Big Star to Andrew W.K. and, yeah, a little Landmine Marathon.
Charlie Levy did it again. In August, the longtime Phoenix concert promoter behind Stateside Presents teamed up with Live Nation to open his third downtown concert venue, The Van Buren. An impeccably designed 1,800-person music hall, the spot opened with a sold-out set from Cold War Kids and has a lineup of must-see concerts in the coming months. Located in a revamped auto dealership, the venue has multiple bars, a mezzanine for a bird's-eye view, and tiles worthy of the #ihavethisthingwithfloors Insta tag. More impressive than the gorgeous cement walkway in the lobby? The super-friendly staff and security crew, who are easily the nicest metal detector-wielding bag-searchers we've ever encountered. Period.
DIY, BYOB, BAMF — pick the acronym you like best. They all apply to The Lunchbox, an itty-bitty venue just off Calle 16. Dannie Levie founded the spot in October 2016 as a sort of one-stop shop for local and touring bands. It's a print shop by day, offering screen-printing, graphic design, and cassette duplication, among other services. And on select evenings, the 100-capacity music venue hosts bands like The Darts, A Giant Dog, and Slow Moses. What it lacks in space, it makes up for in perks for the artists. All performances are recorded, filmed, and photographed — and the media are turned over to the bands post-show.
For a spell in 2016, The Trunk Space was kinda homeless. After leaving its longtime spot on Grand Avenue (and having its iconic Luster Kaboom mural painted over), the Valley's premier DIY art space occasionally programmed concerts at The Newton. But it just wasn't the same as the lovably dumpy spot where bands like AJJ cut their teeth. Cut to last fall, and Steph Carrico and company shared great news: T-Space would once again have a permanent base for up-and-coming indie musicians at the Grace Lutheran Church. The extra-heartwarming part? Kaboom's green geek-beast mural was re-created as an indoor painting behind the stage. Just like home.
We can't name a downtown music venue that has inspired so much change — and so quickly — as Crescent Ballroom. Since Stateside Presents founder Charlie Levy opened the spot in 2011, the Valley's music scene hasn't been the same. A constant hub of activity, the 550-capacity club hosts live music every night, serves up burritos and cocktails, and just happens to be a great place to catch a concert, whether an up-and-coming local band is releasing a fresh record or your indie faves are rolling through town. A place where there's always something to do? We didn't have that before Crescent, and we're so thankful Levy and company carved out such a space.
Yes, this is the best extra-large music venue in town, but it's so much more than that. It's also al fresco. There's something unforgettable about stretching out on a lawn during an outdoor concert. Call it phantom Coachella syndrome, but Ak-Chin Pavilion perfectly satisfies that summery quest for a place to sit cross-legged with a really big beer while bands play through a breeze. The sprawling venue can hold 20,000 people — 8,000 under its roof and the other 12,000 on the grassy hillside. In 2017, the west Phoenix venue formerly named for Cricket, Desert Sky, and Blockbuster has hosted Jimmy Eat World, Dead & Co., and Future. Pretty great reasons for taking it outside.
A neighborhood bar by day, often a music venue by night, Time Out Lounge caps the end of the Huntington Square Shopping Center plaza in central Tempe. A local hangout under the same ownership since 1988, Time Out hosts comedy and DJ nights, but loudest of all are the nights promised by the many colorful flyers decorating the walls and flat surfaces of most of the bar. Bands range in genre from metal to punk to indie to jam and back again, and don't worry, there isn't a seat in the house where you won't hear every single note. Local outfits fill up multi-slot evenings like Night of the AZ Punks and the Ghost Mother tape release show, while touring acts might ask you where to grab something to eat while hanging out in front. Covers don't usually go above $5, though most bands just ask for a donation and for you to have a good time.
Yucca Tap Room has been scheduling live music since the Hu family (notice it's Hu's Yucca Tap Room on the sign out front) started hosting bands in 1989. The classic wood-paneled walls of the Yucca's original music room create the perfect setting for local and touring punk acts, as many a punk fan would most likely be drinking there anyway. The Tempe dive bar and grill has welcomed some well-known bands to its short stage in 2017, including Michigan ska giants Mustard Plug, the Boston-based Big D & The Kids Table, Zeke, and San Diego's The Bombpops. Of course, local bands like The Venomous Pinks, The Rebel Set, and the psychobilly-leaning Creepsville 666 also fill up a Yucca flier. The classic Tempe music venue also hosts the annual Ska Prom, SkaFest, and the 666th Annual Punk Rock Halloween Bash.