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.

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Best Way to Hear Your Favorite Local DJ

Recordbar Radio

When Jake Stellarwell first started developing Recordbar Radio in 2019, he envisioned the locally focused internet radio project, studio, and retail spot as something to "bring DJ and independent underground music culture in a bit tighter while bringing everyone together in a meaningful way." He turned out to be more prescient than a needle-dropping Nostradamus. When the pandemic pressed pause on the Valley's music and nightlife scene for the better part of a year, Recordbar helped fill the silence with video and audio YouTube livestreams of local DJs, producers, turntablists, beatsmiths, and selectors laying down a wide variety of sounds at the central Phoenix studio. (MCs, bands, and musicians have also been featured.) After launching in April 2020, the Recordbar crew began inviting in artists from various scenes, running the gamut from crate-diggers like Djentrification and Johnny D. to experimental electronic artist Terminal 11 to techno-loving freaks like Disco Zombie. They've broadcast close to 500 livestreams thus far, and later this year, Stellarwell says they'll debut a new location that also functions as a coffee shop, record store, beer and wine bar, and full-fledged venue. "We're trying to make Phoenix a bit more of a dynamic, interesting, and culturally relevant place to be," he says.

Doug Hopkins may have shuffled off his mortal coil some 28 years ago, but he's still a part of the city where he made his name as a musician. A vibrant, 8-foot-wide painting of the late Gin Blossoms songwriter and guitarist adorns the cinderblock wall outside Tommy Gwinn's home in Tempe and is part of the Valley Rockstar Memorial, a mural series he launched in 2020 to honor prominent local musicians who have died. Alongside Hopkins are portraits of guitarist-vocalist Lawrence Zubia, Linkin Park frontman Chester Bennington, keyboardist Vince Welnick of The Tubes, and Mike Condello, the bandleader for The Wallace and Ladmo Show. There are seven paintings in all, each created by Mesa artist Gina Ribaudo. As Gwinn told us earlier this year, the project is a way to keep the memories of these local legends alive. "Someone told me once that everybody dies twice: The first time is when they pass away and the second is when everybody forgets who they were," he says. "And I'm trying to help keep the second one from happening as much as possible." Amen, brother.

What did you most miss during the pandemic? Indoor dining? A trip to the mall? Grocery shopping without fearing for your life? For us, it was live music. So we were grateful to Paul and Julie Kent, Tempe neighborhood activists who very quietly lined up acoustic acts and sent out the low-key word about a series of socially distanced, outdoor performances. It felt so decadent to grab a mask and a beer and wander down the street to the George Ditch to listen to music. We loved being able to tip the musicians (most of whom really suffered with no venues open) and most of all, to just feel normal for a bit, transported by music performed in several spots around the 'hood to keep the crowds tiny and the tunes flowing. We hope the world never shuts down again, but if it does, a return of Ditch Sessions would be an acceptable silver lining.

A great person once said, "When the going gets tough, the tough get weird." That's certainly been the recent M.O. of Robbie Pfeffer, the frontman of longtime Phoenix indie rock band Playboy Manbaby. Over the last year-plus, Pfeffer has blown up big-time on TikTok, whether on the band's account or working with the Maricopa County Democratic Party. Pfeffer's presence on the "children's dancing app" sounds unlikely until you see his videos. His combination of bizarre antics and visuals, paired with relevant musings on Arizona's political landscape, somehow works, and his deadpan humor and general vibe make these clips informative, entertaining, and even a little edgy. Pfeffer's rise as an unlikely social media star is great for Phoenix, bolstering our reputation as an artistic haven. But mostly, it's a victory for Pfeffer, who was able to expand his career options in a way as to build on the weird and wonderful art that he's made over the years. It's like having your cake and eating it too (but in, like, one of those super-viral mukbang videos).

The 2021 NBA playoffs were a highly emotional time for a lot of us. As our Phoenix Suns plowed through the competition toward what seemed like an inevitable NBA championship, we all dealt with our nervous energy in different ways. As one example, Tempe music legends the Gin Blossoms blew off a little steam by engaging in a Twitter war with a smartass Denver Nuggets fan. After the Suns trounced the Nuggets in the second round of the playoffs, the Gin Blossoms were the halftime entertainment during Game Two of the Western Conference finals against the Los Angeles Clippers. "Leave it to the Suns to book the third shittiest band ever," tweeted @VicFang1o. "Who did your Nuggets book tonight?" the Blossoms fired back. That could have been the end of it, but @VicFang1o just wouldn't stop poking. "This @nuggets season is now about as relevant as the Gin Blossoms tbh," he responded. The Gin Blossoms clapped back by saying they were playing "one more game of the Western Conference Finals than the Nuggets." The back-and-forth jabs continued, with @VicFang1o's trolling comments getting increasingly lame. In the end, he faded back into obscurity and the Gin Blossoms spent the summer on tour, so we know who the real winner is here.

Earlier this year, when music venues hadn't reopened and we were jonesing for some live, local music, only one thing took the edge off. The Way Back Sessions is a weekly YouTube series featuring host Adam Carter, camerawoman Kat Carter, and outgoing sound engineer Brian Pristelski, along with a rotating cast of musical guests. Over the course of 90 minutes or so, viewers get a livestreamed performance interspersed with interview questions and banter between Carter and the musicians. Carter's enthusiasm is infectious; you can hear him screaming in the background for beloved local acts like Banana Gun, Snailmate, Wurmfur, The Real Fakes, Chrome Rhino, Wyves, The Woodworks, and Big Finish. Beyond giving us a crash course in what's cool in the Phoenix music scene, The Way Back Sessions personalizes the concert experience for viewers; we come away from each episode knowing more about the people we see on stage at shows. Carter says he has big plans for the show, including getting regional and national acts into the WBS studio. We can't wait to go along for the ride.

Bikini Lounge
Benjamin Leatherman

Speakeasy spots, rowdy saloons, dingy dives, and new Arizona-forward cocktail lounges currently comprise the Phoenix bar scene — but this historic tiki tavern is still tops. The Bikini Lounge is a well-loved neighborhood bar — okay, dive — in the Grand Avenue Arts District. And though it's old Phoenix, we're not too worried it's going to get run out of the burgeoning downtown scene. It's too much of a fixture. Open since 1947 and named for Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands, it's one of the last of the first-wave tiki bars that were popular in the midcentury Valley. The cash-only haunt is also known for a lovable but stern longtime bar staff. Bikini was remodeled in the 1960s and is still adorned in Tom Cooper murals (most iconically, the topless woman above the bar), a bamboo-walled back patio, and even a tiki-themed bike rack.

Highball

Great creative cocktails. Minimal theatrical bullshit. This has become a rare combination in the age of the themed or otherwise grandly designed cocktail bar. Highball lasers in on drinks with zero distractions. Libby Lingua and Mitch Lyons' dim, copper-plated bar features cocktails as exciting as any in town, building from complex mixed bases of cognac and apple brandy, uniting unalike ingredients like coconut matcha and fernet, and infusing rum with Fruity Pebbles. If you think you've sipped it all, post up and try a riff like Amongst the Trees (a spice-tinged, fruit-layered paloma). Or order something wholly new, like Pardon Anything (cachaca and graham cracker?). Even the wine offerings and shots are next level.

Even now, even in its unlikely digs sharing a building with The Grey Hen and Century Grand, UnderTow immerses you so deeply into its imaginative vision that, looking out a "porthole," you can almost feel the "ship" riding the waves. Why is this the best reboot? Because it preserved one of our best bars through stormy waters. During the pandemic, UnderTow moved a few dozen yards from its previous spot inside a Sip Coffee & Beer. The tiki-style experience remains excellent and one of hospitality group Barter & Shake's crown jewels. Rums, tequilas, and other tropical-leaning spirits take the stage. Flavors call to mind teal waters and giant sunsets. Tiki drinking doesn't get better.

Don't let Sunbar's distractions — the pinball room, the outdoor patio bar, its small convenience store — fool you: The soul of the place is the cavernous nightclub-like venue in the heart of the property. It's equipped with an enormous dance floor (the largest in the city), a premier PK Trinity Sound System (the only one in Arizona), a wall-sized LED projection screen, and multiple VIP areas. (Did we mention the massive laser light shows?) Since opening in 2019, Sunbar has been a major dance destination in Tempe, luring in throngs of patrons with its over-the-top amenities and high-profile DJ/producers in the mix every weekend via its connection with Relentless Beats, the Valley's most prominent EDM promoter. Sometimes, being bigger is better, and in the case of Sunbar, it's what makes it the best club in town.

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