Best Of :: Nightlife
By Robrt L. Pela
Crescent Ballroom owner Charlie Levy always knows when it’s 3 p.m. “When I see Michael Strong walking down the street with his briefcase, I know it’s 3 o’clock,” Levy says. That’s when downtown’s legendary Michael’s Jewelers — located just above Levy’s Valley Bar — closes for the day, and when 98-year-old Strong exits the jewelry sales and repair shop he’s owned since 1950. “Michael still repairs the jewelry and watches himself,” Levy says. “Just going in and talking to him is like going back in time. He’s been on this street forever, and he remembers everything.”
Levy has been around awhile himself, and has been eating at Haji-Baba for decades. “I remember going there when I was at ASU 25 years ago,” he chuckles. “The food is as good now as it was then. It’s consistent because it’s the same people running the place that have always been there. They never fail me.”
- I love Encanto Park (2605 North 15th Avenue) for a lot of reasons, but the soccer games there are amazing.
- My dad is a cheesecake connoisseur, and Ollie Vaughn’s (1526 East McDowell Road, 602-254-1392, ollievaughns.com) cheesecake made his eyes light up.
- You can go to Michael’s Jewelers (138 North Central Avenue, 602-253-1002, michaelsest1950.com) to get your watch repaired, but you can also get a history lesson about downtown Phoenix, there, too. Michael Strong owns the place, and he’s 98 years old and has been around since 1950. He’s fascinating to talk to.
- I’ve tried to get the choir from Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church (1401 East Jefferson Street, 602-258-0831, pilgrimrestphx.org) to perform at The Van Buren, but they won’t return my calls. Hopefully they’ll read this and change their minds.
- A lot of the time, you remember a restaurant’s food as better than it was, if you went there a lot when you were younger. But Haji-Baba (1513 East Apache Boulevard, Tempe, 480-894-1905) has been great since I started going there in the early ’90s. You can always pick up some weird spice to put in your scrambled eggs in their market, too.
Phoenix has a storied history of DIY venues that rose and fell: Iron Lady, The Manor, Wall Street, ICYC, and many, many more. Sometimes they go into hibernation, throwing open their doors every once in a while for a special show. Most of them just disappear; part of the whole point of having a temporary autonomous zone is that they're, well, temporary. Rarest of all is the DIY spot that goes legit. The Lunchbox (LBX) started as one of those well-kept secrets — the kind of place where you needed to know somebody who knew the address to find it. Fast-forward a few years later, and now it has shows every week, a website, even an active social-media presence. What hasn't changed about LBX, though, is its knack for booking obscure, edgy, and interesting acts. Whether it's the avant-classical metal of Wrekmeister Harmonies, or weird singer-songwriters like Circuit des Yeux, LBX hosts some of the most forward-thinking and uncompromising artists working in the underground.
Phoenix has turned into a bit of a festival hub. We've got enough weekend-long extravaganzas to keep any music fan broke and busy for most of the year. The only problem with so many of these festivals, from McDowell Mountain to Innings to Pot of Gold, is how similar they all are. From the ubiquitous Tito's Vodka stands to their simpatico booking philosophies (some token dad bands for the oldies, some indie chart-toppers for hipsters, and a shit-ton of electronica for the cash-flashing EDM set), it starts to feel like you're going to the same event, only in a different month. That's why FORM Arcosanti is a breath of fresh air. FORM uses the natural beauty of its surroundings to create a truly memorable festival experience. An added benefit of going to FORM: It puts caps on attendance, so it doesn't feel too claustrophobic. And the programming is the most adventurous of all the big Arizona festivals: From metal heroes like Deafheaven to R&B stars Solange to avant-garde sound artists like Grouper and Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, FORM bills are a diverse cross-section of scenes and styles.
Until a few years ago, the Valley didn't have a signature electronic dance music festival to call its own. We've had tons of great dance clubs, of course, not to mention scores of parties, raves, and the occasional touring festival rolling through town. But, yeah, no unique big-ticket event exclusive to metro Phoenix that does for us what Ultra does for Miami or Electric Zoo does for NYC. In 2015, local promoter Relentless Beats changed all that when they brought the first-ever Phoenix Lights in for a landing. A mix of ETs and EDM, the event's alien invasion motif is not only unique to the dance music world but also uniquely Phoenix, as it was inspired by the triangle-shaped UFO that famously buzzed Arizona in 1997. Over the past four years, Phoenix Lights has become the biggest EDM extravaganza of the Valley's spring festival season. Every April, it offers carbon-based lifeforms two days of close encounters with dance music overlords like Hardwell, DJ Snake, Excision, and Diplo, as well as an otherworldly scene featuring crashed spaceships, alien artwork, and strange beings. Maybe it's the mind implants talking, but we want to believe it might help raise Phoenix's standing as a DJ destination. May it live long and prosper.
Nope, your eyes aren't playing tricks on you. That clock in the corner of Hatter & Hare is actually running backward. No fooling. And, yes, a table topped with a tea set is indeed hanging upside-down from the ceiling, as is an entire deck of oversize playing cards. So, um, are they completely crazytown at this place? Nah, just a little mad. (It even says as much above the front door.) As you might've guessed from all these clues, this newly opened cocktail lounge in the Seventh Street restaurant district takes more than a few pages from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. As such, Carrollian whimsy abounds inside Hatter & Hare, from murals depicting the Cheshire Cat and other characters to kookily off-kilter furnishings and signs declaring "Eat Me" and "Drink Me." Should you heed those commands, the similarly fanciful menu offers sandwiches shaped like hearts, and themed drinks like the White Queen, Jabberwocky, and Tweedledee. They even serve cocktails in a teacup the size of a punch bowl. Be forewarned: If you choose to polish off one of 'em by yourself, you might wind up feeling like you've tumbled down a rabbit hole for realsies.
F. Scott Fitzgerald can take that "There are no second acts in American life" malarkey and stuff it. When the venerable, long-running all-ages DIY institution The Trunk Space closed its doors on Grand Avenue in 2016, it didn't stay dead for long. After a few months of pop-up shows put on by the venue's dedicated team of volunteers, The Trunk Space found a second life as part of Grace Lutheran Church on Third Street. The gumball machine and photobooth are gone, but The Trunk Space's spirit of booking iconoclastic acts and being a place for young bands to find their voices remains. Since reopening at Grace Lutheran, Trunk Space has hosted underground legends like Lydia Lunch, packed anniversary shows by hometown heroes AJJ, film noir musicals, and marathon show events like Endless Bummer and the Indie 500 (where the space hosts back-to-back performances until 500 songs are played). And while some things change, other things remain the same: The discount comic boxes may be gone, but Luster Kaboom's iconic monster nerd mural followed owner Steph Carrico and her merry band of supporters to their new home.
If you want to hear what's going on in local or national underground music, then you go underground — literally. Jaunt through the alley west of Central Avenue and down a flight of stairs to join 250 of your closest friends inside Valley Bar's music hall. Once there, you can catch an album release party by a local band, indie musicians on the verge of stardom, or intimate shows by legendary artists such as Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore. If your claustrophobia starts acting up, you can listen to the show while playing Skee-Ball in the game area or grabbing a flatbread pizza in the Rose Room.
It's inevitable. At some point, you're going to see a show at The Van Buren. Guaranteed. And it's due in large part to the sheer number of "can't miss" concerts at the 1,800-person downtown Phoenix music venue co-owned by Live Nation and Charlie Levy of Stateside Presents. Since opening in August 2017, The Van Buren has hosted gigs in a wide variety of genres — from hip-hop and heavy metal to reggae, regional Mexican, and (of course) rock 'n' roll — within a stylish milieu that features gorgeous digs, primo acoustics, and excellent sightlines. There's also a gorgeous lobby and ample patio, each with its own bar. Just like Levy's other downtown spots (the equally popular Crescent Ballroom and Valley Bar), there are more than just concerts happening here, as dance parties, beer festivals, comedy nights, and live podcasts have taken place. We can't wait to see what's in store for The Van Buren's second year.
Seeing a show at Ak-Chin Pavilion is something of a rite of passage for Valley residents. Concertgoers have made the trek to this 20,000-person outdoor venue in the West Valley for decades now, dating back to the '90s, when it was known as Blockbuster Desert Sky Pavilion. Any number of recording stars and legendary bands from a wide variety of genres have performed here over the past three decades, including such notable artists as The Moody Blues, Nine Inch Nails, Blake Shelton, Rob Zombie, and KISS. Its ample open-air pavilion roof provides shade to those fortunate enough to possess reserved seating tickets, while general-admission types can kick back on the hilltop lawn area with blankets and still have a great view.
The acoustics are perfect, the seating is comfy, and the lineup of talent is a dream come true for any of us who thought we'd maybe never see our faves perform again. For those of us who came of age listening to singer-songwriters like Rickie Lee Jones, Rita Coolidge, and J. D. Souther, the Musical Instrument Museum's almost nightly concert series is a great place to catch up with our favorites. And no one's shaking a musical stick at the world artists and up-and-comers that MIM books, either. Did we mention how fair ticket prices are? Get your seats early, though, as many MIM shows sell out quickly.
At Yucca Tap Room, you make a decision the moment you arrive — left door or right door. The left door leads to the Whiskey Lounge, where you've got a pool table, some booths, a bar separating patrons from selections of craft beer, and maybe a DJ. But the right door takes you to the original Yucca Tap Room, the well-worn music venue around since the early '70s that has seen many famous local and touring acts in its four decades of operation. And thanks to its short, approachable stage, decent sound, and somewhat of a floor area, some great punk shows have gone down. Agent Orange normally make a stop here, as well as comp punk darlings like Mustard Plug, Guttermouth, No Use for a Name, and Pulley. BroLoaf put on one hell of a show here, too. Heck, the Whiskey Lounge even aired that Fat Wreck Chords documentary that one time.
If the walls of Pub Rock Live could speak, they'd probably offer up many twisted tales of rock 'n' roll exploits that've gone down at this Scottsdale spot during its many iterations over the decades. For a good chunk of the '90s, it was a hard-rock sanctum called The Atomic Cafe. Then, it transformed into Chasers, a dive-y haven for both heavy metal and punk effin' rock. In 2012, it became Pub Rock Live, but has continued its predecessors' predilection for rock and its many different flavors. During any given month, the club's 20-by-26-foot stage hosts all manner of touring acts, particularly those specializing in metal, pop-punk, garage rock, and hardcore. Locals love the place, too, including bands like Doll Skin, Fourbanger, The Beast of Bailey Downs, and Ebinezer. Plus, there's always tons of free parking and the bartending staff is friendly as hell. Rock on.
Why do we keep coming back to The Rhythm Room as our pick for the best blues destination in town? Probably for the same reasons that local blues hounds keep coming back, year after year, to indulge their taste for toe-tappin' and rump-shakin' tunes at this central Phoenix blues institution. The many shades of the genre — from Delta and Chicago to 12-bar and boogie-woogie — are showcased several times a week at this no-frills joint equipped with just a stage, seating area, and bar. There's always room to dance, though, which patrons do with gusto when things get jumping. The Rhythm Room is a longtime favorite of local artists and touring legends alike, and has been since owner Bob Corritore, a veteran harmonica man and longtime host of KJZZ's Those Lowdown Blues, helped open the spot 27 years ago. We sincerely hope The Rhythm Room doesn't stop boppin' for another three decades or more. And that ain't no jive.