Best Midsize Music Venue 2022 | The Van Buren | Nightlife | Phoenix

The Van Buren hits the sweet spot for music venues: small enough that you can actually see the action on stage, but large enough that the many concerts that happen there feel like big events. We love the fact that the venue is housed in a midcentury car dealership, because it makes The Van Buren feel deeply connected to Arizona, as do the desert-themed murals next to the stage. Just in the past year, The Van Buren has hosted Mongolian folk metal outfit The Hu, alt-country crooner Orville Peck, indie rock darlings Wet Leg, '90s heartthrobs Hanson, and so many more. We like to head downtown early and kill some time before the show by playing pinball at the adjoining Stardust Pinbar before heading inside to hear some of today's most exciting musical acts up close and in person.

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Just to be clear: We mean the performance space formerly known as Arizona Federal Theatre. The downtown Phoenix venue got its fourth name in 20 years a few months ago, but our enjoyment of the concert experience hasn't changed. The 5,000-seat theater always provides top-quality sound whether we're watching Maynard James Keenan's Puscifer project get weird or listening to Olivia Rodrigo enchant thousands of teenagers (and their parents). One thing we love about Arizona Financial: The location of the merch booth allows the line to wrap up the staircase to the second floor, keeping those attendees out of the way of those of us who are just trying to get a drink or reach out seats. Add in plenty of parking, light rail access, and lots of dining and nightlife options before and after shows, and it's clear why Arizona Financial Theatre is our pick.

Andrew Marshall

It can be hard to keep track of the revolving door of stadium name changes in metro Phoenix, but what's now called Desert Diamond Arena you know as Gila River Arena, the erstwhile home of the Arizona Coyotes. Whatever its moniker, Desert Diamond Arena is our favorite place to see the big shows, artists such as Pearl Jam, Billie Eilish, and Harry Styles. Its prime location as part of the Westgate Entertainment District in Glendale means we've got plenty of places to choose from for pre- and post-show drinking and dining. But there are good food and beverage options inside the arena as well. New this year at the arena is the Ella Dean Sensory Room, a space for guests who may have sensory issues (including people with autism, dementia, PTSD, and other conditions). Attendees can take a break from flashing lights and loud music to decompress for a bit. We love a music venue that takes care of its guests.

We live in an era where irony is almost second nature, as if the only way to live in this world is under a protective layer of detachment. But that's not the style of Chrome Rhino. The band's entire existence (all three years of it) has been marked by a willingness to embrace the silly and the joyous across the board. Whether that's dressing in animal onesies for a music video; calling themselves bright and shiny; or embracing '80s pop and ELO as influences, Chrome Rhino are a source of joy in a scene that often favors intensity. But they're not just about having a great time on their records or during one of their many jovial live sets — there's a depth and deliberateness to the band that rounds out those silly sentiments into music that proudly wears its heart on its jean jacket. It's all of that together that makes Chrome Rhino important, and a real shot in the arm for Phoenix bands who want to make having fun seem deeply essential and transcendent. So come for all the gimmicks and the razzle-dazzle, but stay for a band that knows the real joy is making music that moves you.

A band composed of 12 people is either going to be a musical triumph or an unholy mess. In the case of Goldwax Revival, it's definitely the former. Formed by Phoenix music scene veterans Ryan Probst and Pete Gonzales, Goldwax Revival was named after an obscure 1960s Memphis record label that released soul music by underappreciated artists, and includes a horn section and a trio of backup singers in addition to keys, drums, guitars, bass, and vocals. The original mission was to bring to life forgotten soul songs, a plan which came to fruition during the band's first show, a wall-of-sound, bring-the-house-down set opening for Phoenix Afrobeat Orchestra at Crescent Ballroom in March. The group laid dormant for a few months, then did a dramatic pivot for their next show in June at Tempe nonprofit venue Unity for Community: a four-song set of Beyoncé covers. Rumor has it that they're working on some original material and planning one more show before the end of the year. We can't wait to see what they do next.

The list of artists from Arizona who have gained national attention is all over the place, genre-wise. But if we're looking for a musician that exemplifies multiple styles, there's Sydney Sprague. Her music represents a solid cross-section of Phoenix sounds, with hints of alt and emo and a heaping helping of folk. And it's taken off in all the right places, as the young singer's played festivals like Governors Ball and Innings Fest, and toured with Dashboard Confessional and Jimmy Eat World. Amid all that new attention, either in interviews or her TikTok account, Sprague remains ever-charming and eternally humbled — the kind of star you'd want to represent our city and the artists and humanity it encompasses. Plus, she's not ready to rest on her laurels, and based on new singles like "Think Nothing," Sprague's future is just getting brighter. She called her debut LP maybe i will see you at the end of the world, and it made sense given the weirdness of our times. But maybe she's making music for the end of one world and the start of another, a place where acts like Sprague exist beyond geography in a place for deeply meaningful art.

Phoenix has such a huge, multifaceted local scene that it's often hard for any one act to rise above the rest. But if one band deserves to be on more folks' radars, it's No Lungs. The noise-pop project of local singer-songwriter Austin Cooper, No Lungs have been going more or less steady for the last few years (though Cooper has taken breaks over that span). It helps that there's a certain charm about Cooper: some slacker vibes and genuine wit that feel compelling in the frontman. And that the band's live show stands firmly in the realm of ramshackle punk while still feeling slightly playful and centered on the songs themselves. But more than anything, it's the actual music, most recently the band's excellent What You Didn't Want to Happen Is Happening Right Now. Here, Cooper blurs the line between alt, power-pop, punk, and indie rock — but more than any song witchcraft performed here, it all feels just utterly compelling and life-affirming. It's a feeling you won't find everywhere.

As this issue goes to print, the award-winning, Phoenix-based rap artist Mega Ran should be back in the Valley after touring the Midwest and the East Coast. The former middle school teacher turned full-time musician, whose given name is Raheem Jarbo, rhymes about geek culture, and everything from pro wrestling to video games is fodder for his fire rhymes. His latest collaborative project with Penny the Great and Slopfunkdust, Protoculture Season, is a meld of music tracks (on vinyl or digital format) and merch based on the influential Macross (a.k.a. Robotech) anime about robots and vehicles made using technology from a crashed alien spacecraft. But whether he's writing diss tracks about Alex Trebek (may he rest) after the game show host called people who listen to nerdcore music losers, penning a memoir (Dream Master: From the Stoop to the Stage to the Stars came out in late 2020), or lighting up local stages, we're always impressed with what he has to offer.

Jake Stellarwell is uncompromising and outspoken in his beliefs. He doesn't consider himself to be a DJ and refuses to use the title. He loathes the term EDM. And he thinks Phoenix's music scene is populated by artists who have significant potential. While some may disagree with Stellarwell's beliefs, few would argue he doesn't know his craft. Over the past 11 years, he's exposed locals to artists and music they aren't familiar with in his deftly crafted mixes and at events he's promoted. Through previous parties such as Rebel Disco and Push Push, he's featured such genres as deep house, nu-disco, boogie, and no wave. Underground artists like influential house/techno goddess the Blessed Madonna, U.K.-based indie dance duo Psychemagik, and Jacques Renault have been showcased locally thanks to Stellarwell and his cohorts. His moves away from the nightlife scene are also significant. In 2019, he worked with DJs like Julian French and Davina Griego to create Recordbar Radio, a multifaceted project that includes streaming sets by a variety of Valley DJs and musicians. "We want to make sure that Phoenix DJs, [artists], and [producers] are getting an opportunity to showcase their talent, perform their craft, and have it be broadcast on the internet so that it can reach whomever, wherever they are," Stellarwell told Digital Future in 2020. And it's making our scene all the better.

Yes, technically speaking, this album did come out in late December 2021. But it's so good that even we're willing to ignore the realities of the calendar in order to celebrate a true career high for this long-time band of wacky rockers. At the most basic level, the music here is just great; "Steve, Television Salesman," for instance, is a totally bonkers, extra-riotous punk rock jam. But the album flourishes because the whole band taps into the unlikely TikTok career of frontman Robbie Pfeffer, distilling all that post-millenium world-wide-weirdness into deeply political songs. That includes "The Feeling I Get When Petting a Dog," which feels about as close to a modern-day mantra as we'll ever get, and "I Blame You," which is a Devo-esque sendup of right-wing politics. It's all these coalescing ideas and energies that make Toxic Positivity what it is: a chronicle of life in the 2020s, detailing the power and personality it takes just to get by each and every day. Beyond that, it's a clear roadmap for this band's future, and a sign that they're a band of kooky, utterly profound musical gurus.

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