Best Midsize Music Venue 2021 | The Van Buren | Nightlife | Phoenix

Partying Hard on Mill Avenue

It’s Friday, and you need to put the week (and especially the memory of that lousy Psych 101 exam score) behind you. Mill Avenue beckons.

Will you start on the patio at The Handlebar? You will, because you’re trying to be pandemic-conscious but also because you like to start slow, with a couple of cold brews, and the Handlebar beer menu is impressive. The sausage sandwich at the next table looks tasty, but it’s too early in the evening for food. Maybe at the next stop.

Read the rest of this essay...

We like to think about the days when The Van Buren was a car dealership. Could the owners of the Phoenix Motor Company ever have imagined that many decades later, their building would be one of the best music venues in the bustling metropolis of Phoenix? There's no trace of The Van Buren's former life when you walk into the building for a show, just chandeliers, desert murals on the walls, and space for about 1,800 concertgoers to rock out to local acts like Playboy Manbaby and Phoenix Afrobeat Orchestra as well as national ones like Gogol Bordello, Lord Huron, and Cold War Kids. We like the sense of space at The Van Buren; both the outdoor patio and the indoor area near the bar are roomy and open, perfect places to see and be seen. In 2021, car dealerships are a dime a dozen. We're glad The Van Buren got the concert venue upgrade.

It can be a challenge to keep up with the stadium's name changes, but whether it's called America West Arena, US Airways Center, Talking Stick Resort Arena, Phoenix Suns Arena, or now, Footprint Center, there's no place we'd rather see a big show. This year, downtown Phoenix's biggest indoor sports and concert event center finally got a makeover to match its many moniker changes; the $230 million renovation completed in early 2021 includes new suite levels, more comfortable and sleek black pleather seats, a family-friendly food hall on the upper concourse, a state-of-the-art sound system, and new video screens. With a capacity of more than 18,000, it's the best place to see the biggest national and international touring acts, from The Eagles and Guns N' Roses to Twenty One Pilots and The Weeknd.

We really are #blessed to have so many places in the Valley to get out and see live music, but one of our favorites is a bar that just doesn't get enough love (in our opinion). Old Town Tavern is tucked away in central Scottsdale, and on most nights of the week, you can walk in and catch an intimate set by some of the city's best musicians. Pistoleros alum Mark Zubia and Gin Blossoms guitarist Jesse Valenzuela are regular performers, as are Corey Gloden of Wyves and local music legend Shawn Johnson. Old Town Tavern's small interior puts you up close and personal with the musicians, and the bar has a tight-knit community of patrons that will make you feel like one of the gang.

It's difficult to say that any one band is a city's greatest musical asset — metro Phoenix teems with excellent, multi-genre artists. But Paper Foxes represent a choice that also feels properly aligned with Phoenix as a rich and vibrant city. Their infectious blend of New Wave and disco not only packs shows Valley-wide but exemplifies the lively and joyous aspects of the local music scene. Sounding a bit like Duran Duran and a bit like The Killers, Paper Foxes don't trade substance for style; rather, the slick synths and angular guitars draw you in so you can get hit with the lyrics, which are often about heartbreak, political turmoil, and the like. The band is the best example of the "'80s but make it modern" vibe that a lot of local acts put out these days, and although we're still waiting for a follow-up to their 2019 album, Popular Confessions, we can sustain ourselves by seeing them at venues like The Rebel Lounge and listening to songs like the quasi-title track "Pop Confessions." Back when the album came out, synth player Patro Gaston told us the song is about "how it feels like the world is nearly going to end, but it's okay to let go and enjoy life anyway." Sounds like the perfect music for 2021.

Phoenix has no singular defining musical style or sound; you're just as likely to hear great rock as hip-hop, punk, folk, and electronic music. Violet Choir, which is composed of Mickey and Jesse Pangburn of local bands MRCH and The Prowling Kind, fully encapsulates that tradition just a year into its latest configuration. The band expertly marries bits of synth-pop, indie rock, punk, and pop into something that's both dense emotionally and yet hugely playful. Their February 2021 self-titled EP is sleek and moody, and we've listened to it plenty over the past several months when we're looking for music to accompany a chill evening. It's their gusto and commitment that has Violet Choir already among the other great bands that have called Phoenix their home. And they formed during a pandemic — imagine what they'll conceivably accomplish when the world's not on fire.

ROAR frontman Owen Evans is somewhat soft-spoken in person, but don't mistake that for a lack of ambition or artistic confidence. The excellent Diamond Destroyer of Death, which New Times deemed a standout in the first half of 2021, is a totally sweeping pop record. What makes this 10-track LP so magical isn't just the gimmicks, like "songs within songs" or some kind of nebulous story or concept. It's how Evans and his collaborators spin in strands of psychedelic, baroque, and '60s pop to make something far more groovy than the sum of its catchy parts. It's as if Evans himself is captaining an interdimensional tandem bike to take us through the pop sphere, pulling at bits of melody and romantic energies to delight and amuse along the way. The album itself doesn't just celebrate the great music of yesteryear, but tweaks and evolves it in real time to present something that's otherworldly and beguiling without losing any relatability or playfulness. This is pop music for a new, more strange world, and we should all be thankful for Evans' guiding presence in it.

Local rapper Jacob Railford fights for social justice and civil rights in the streets and behind the mic. As an activist and community organizer, he's wielded a megaphone while participating in dozens of protests since the murder of George Floyd in 2020 and is a founding member of anti-police-brutality organization W.E. Rising Project. As rapper Roqy Tyraid, he dexterously spits lyrically complex flows in weekly Twitter videos calling out local cops for brutal tactics and politicians for misrepresenting his group and Black Lives Matter protesters as criminal gangs. (Sample cut: "Most BLM protests were people / Predatorily arrested / Felonies for yelling in the street / Instead of misdemeanors.") Railford, who's been performing since 2005, told the Arizona Republic in July his rap career helped him segue into being an activist, and both pursuits ultimately have the same goal: working to inform others about social ills like police brutality and systemic racism. For Railford, there's more work to be done and he'll continue spreading the word with both microphone and megaphone.

Phoenix's rave scene has been a breeding ground for dynamic DJs for decades. One of its more recent standouts is Srija Serineni, who has worked her magic on the mixers as FAIRYDVST at desert parties, warehouse ragers, and forest campouts since debuting in 2016. What separates Serineni from other local DJs, other than being a south Asian woman performing in a scene largely white and male, are her forward-thinking mixes that weave new music from undiscovered bass house, U.K. garage, and future house artists with darker and weirder grooves. She was dropping producers like Qlank, Nostalgix, and Moksi on underground crowds well before they became staples of EDM playlists. Serineni still gigs at raves, including her own, but has crossed over to more mainstream events, bringing her outsider mentality and early adopter savvy to clubs and festivals. Local EDM promoter Relentless Beats began tapping her for events after she placed highly in a 2019 DJ battle. She's also lit up house music nights at Bar Smith, Hi Score Club, and Zuma Grill, putting clubgoers on the dance floor at each spot under her sonic spell.

Renowned Phoenix concert promoter Danny Zelisko has done and seen it all — and he's the first to tell you about it. In his 2020 memoir, All Exce$$: Occupation: Concert Promoter, he spins unforgettable (and often wild) yarns from 45-plus years of producing more than 10,000 gigs since the mid-'70s for a who's-who of music legends in the Valley and elsewhere. Like helping Pink Floyd sell out back-to-back nights at Phoenix Municipal Stadium in 1988. Or booking Paul McCartney at Sun Devil Stadium in 1990, or smoking weed with Perry Farrell when the now-defunct Compton Terrace hosted the first Lollapalooza show in 1991. As enthralling as this behind-the-scenes glimpse was to read, it told us what we already knew: Zelisko has profoundly shaped and influenced the local concert scene for decades, from mentoring Crescent Ballroom/Valley Bar co-owner Charlie Levy early in his career to advising the current proprietors of Celebrity Theatre after longtime owner Rich Hazelwood died in March. And he keeps bringing icons like Styx, Cheap Trick, and George Thorogood to town for fans of a certain age to enjoy and younger fans to discover. Keep going, Danny — we aren't ready for you to hang up that backstage pass yet.

It never fails. Every weekend night, a crush of clubgoers invade Scottsdale's bar-heavy entertainment district by the thousands to drink, dance, and debauch. Typically, the destination for this roving horde of 21-to-35 party monsters is the intersection of Saddlebag Trail and Indian Plaza. This T-shaped crossroads is a nightlife epicenter of the Valley: There are a dozen hotspots within stumbling distance of each other, each with its own vibe, DJ selection, and amenities. Along Indian Plaza, there's a posh nightclub (Pretty Please) next to a beer garden (Bottled Blonde) next to a tequila-and-tacos joint (Casa Amigos) topped with a boutique bowling alley (Skylanes) across from a pool party haven (Maya). Over on Saddlebag Trail, hip-hop hub INTL, country bar Dierks Bentley's Whiskey Row, and open-air dance club Hi-Fi compete for attention spans. The scene is chaotic, bordering on shitshow territory, and Scottsdale Police usually block off both streets to traffic, so forget about rolling up in your ride. Stick with those speedy golf carts instead to get you to and from the madness.

Best Of Phoenix®

Best Of