Like other local music scenes, live hip-hop in the Valley took a hit last year when the pandemic forced gigs to go virtual or evaporate altogether. Once crowds could attend shows again, hip-hop promoters, artists, and fans flocked to Aura in Tempe. The 9,500-square-foot Mill Avenue club has become a go-to spot for the genre. Why? Its amenities are conducive to the needs of the scene: The large main room can host superstars like Wifisfuneral one night or work in tandem with a side stage in Aura's lounge for local mini-festivals the next. Its bookers work with promoters both small and large (Justus Samuel of Respect the Underground swears by the place). The top-notch sound system means you can hear every bar being uttered, even if it's a mumbling SoundCloud rapper on the mic. And, unlike other local venues looking to maximize liquor sales, Aura will sometimes run all-ages shows. Younger fans can get a taste of the fun while teenage performers get the opportunity to shine, like when 17-year-old Phoenix rapper Xander (a.k.a. XaniMonsta) brought the place down in August.
Why does Q & Brew keep racking up awards from us as the Valley's best billiards joint? Chalk it up to the place's straightforward focus on pool, drinking, and not much else (save for a few pinball machines by the front door). The rates are cheap ($5 per hour on the regulation-sized Brunswick Gold Crown tables, with free games from 3 to 6 p.m. on the 8-footers), the staff behind the tuck-and-roll leatherette bar aren't stingy with pours, the cues and other equipment are well-maintained, and caricatures of billiards legends like Ralph Greenleaf and Willie Mosconi adorn the walls. Speaking of history, Q & Brew has been in business since 1968, and given its popularity, will keep hustling for years to come.
Picking the best jukebox in town is no easy feat. Options are pretty limited, as old-school, non-internet machines are a dying breed. Those still left around town are all great in their own right, but no matter which one you chose, someone's going to disagree. Shady's jukebox outshines its CD-slinging brethren and earns our nod because of its sound quality (crystal-clear jams come from the well-maintained machine) and the depth of its curated and rotating selections. Flipping through the pages of the juke is like digging through the crates at a choice used record store as you encounter disc after disc of diverse options, rarities, and obscure gems. Art punk and psychedelic space-surf. Japanese ska and Chicano rock. French New Wave and weirdo soul. And in between, there's R&B from Etta and Aretha, hard-to-find albums from local indie and soul artists, and "grab bag" compilations occasionally included by the staff. We're sure hipsters, music fanatics, and culture junkies will all agree with our pick. Anyone who doesn't can find us feeding bills into the box down at Shady's if they'd like to debate.
The thing about karaoke is that just because you like to sing, it doesn't mean you actually can sing. None of that matters, though, 414 Pub & Pizza, where karaoke happens every night and the crowd cheers you on no matter what you sound like. There are hundreds, if not thousands of songs to choose from, and in the COVID-19 era, the staff members hand out cute little microphone covers to keep you safe while you sing. And if you're just there to watch, you're still going to have a good time due to 414's full bar and well-executed menu of pizza, salads, and appetizers (we love the Pizza Styx, kind of a stuffed breadstick/elongated calzone thing). You can catch us there on a Tuesday or Thursday for the $4 drink specials, getting a little liquid courage in us before we belt out a tune.
Cruisin' 7th Show Bar & Lounge owners Lynn and Mike McGarry took advantage of the pandemic to do some renovations and redesigns. We're talking floors, walls, ceilings, and a majorly upgraded showroom with a raised stage and fresh neon throughout. But the vibe, and the regulars, are still the same. Cruisin' 7th Show Bar & Lounge dates back to 1977, when it was located just north of Roosevelt Street and Central Avenue and called (appropriately enough) Cruisin' Central. The bar changed its name upon its 2003 move to its current location, where its calling card is painted across the standalone building: "The Best Drag Shows in Town" (the bright sign sits atop a rainbow-colored pole). More cool features? Cruisin' opens at 6 a.m., offers daily drink specials ($3 bloody marys till noon, $5 cocktails all day), and really does host killer drag shows. But most importantly, the McGarrys have built at Cruisin' 7th a second home to many, but especially members of Phoenix's gay and trans communities.
Located in the Melrose District among antique shops and other LGBTQ clubs, Boycott Bar gives lesbians a safe and cool place to hang. Boycott's team of DJs spins the latest pop and dance hits, and bartenders pour cocktails as strong as the women that pack the dance floor on weekends. The clientele represents a diverse array of females, from androgynous types to bois and lipstick lesbians, and everyone is made to feel welcome. And of course, there are karaoke nights, for those who consider themselves dancers and singers (or who just want to bust a tune out on the mic). There aren't many pure lesbian bars left in the country. We're glad to have this one in our own backyard.
So here's what we love about Yucca, a fixture of the Tempe music scene since the '70s: The bar draws local and national acts in all genres — in the space of a week, you could catch a touring punk band, nervous locals at an open mic, a metal showcase, and some Tempe desert rock. Show up a couple of times, and you'll get to know the staff and the regulars, ensuring that there'll be a friendly face or two any time you go. Drinks are cheap and strong and the bartenders keep them flowing. And when you need a break from the musical onslaught, you can step over to the lounge side of Yucca, where you can take a breather and grab a bite to eat (we like the gold wings and the bulgogi bao).
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.