Best First Friday Stop 2023 | Heard Museum | Megalopolitan Life | Phoenix

Downtown Phoenix's First Friday artwalk continues to increase in size, scope and chaos, but for our money, the one place we try not to miss lies just north of Roosevelt Row. Heard Museum, a world-renowned repository of Native American art, consistently offers some of the best First Friday programming around. In June 2022, it served up an all-Indigenous drag show in honor of Pride Month; this past January, to celebrate the opening of an exhibit about surfing, First Friday attendees witnessed a Hawaiian blessing and enjoyed Hawaiian music and dancing. Besides the special programming, First Friday is also a chance to check out the museum's excellent permanent collection and current exhibitions, an exploration that normally costs more than $20 per person. Best of all, the museum's First Friday hours begin at 5 p.m., meaning you can hit it first before heading downtown for the rest of your evening.

The idea of a "digital future" is often a dystopic one, à la "Black Mirror": brains uploaded to the cloud, swivel cameras following your every move. Yet local arts magazine Digital Future — which publishes a sometimes-quarterly print issue of photography, fine arts and literary work — is interested in the gritty art that exists, already, in our digital world, warped by it but also shaping it. The magazine presents work by local photographers and artists alongside essays on Phoenix's underground music scenes and subcultures, among other topics, all presented beautifully and minimally on big glossy white pages. You can find copies of the publication at hip locales around downtown Phoenix, like Futuro and Central Records, though the magazine often sells out quickly. Over the past year, Digital Future has proved an exciting new platform for up-and-coming Phoenix artists — charting out its own vision of the future, digital and tangible, in the city.

Despite the fact that Phoenix was built on Native lands and the state has 22 tribal communities, Indigenous culture isn't often something non-Native people in Arizona know much about. Remedy that by marking the calendar for the Indigenous Peoples' Phoenix Fest on Indigenous Peoples' Day in October, when Cahokia PHX transforms Roosevelt Row into a massive celebration organized by and featuring Indigenous culture and talent. Last year's second annual event — the first time it spread beyond Cahokia PHX's space — was a huge hit, probably because it offered so much more than most festivals. It spreads out over several city blocks, drawing thousands to enjoy collaborative and multifaceted experiences beyond the usual entertainment and booths. Last year included a fashion show, skateboarding competition, film screenings, live mural creation, food trucks, music, storytelling, exhibits, Indigenous vendor booths and more. And, unlike most festivals that take place in the daytime, this one starts in the late afternoon and goes well past dark, so you can hang out until the end to experience as many of the elements as possible.

Why do hundreds of thousands of Valley residents tune to local National Public Radio member station KJZZ on the daily? (Hint: It's not just to hear the smooth tones of "All Things Considered" co-host Ari Shapiro.) Some listeners want to stay dialed into local, national and international headlines. Others find it on the FM dial after dark for jazz and blues music. We're into weekend shows like "Snap Judgment," "The Moth Radio Hour" and "Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me!" that entertain and inform. More locals than ever have been tuning into the listener-supported KJZZ in recent years, helping it become one of Phoenix's top three stations, according to Nielsen Audio Ratings. It's not surprising, given the diversity and popularity of its programming, including "The Show," where co-hosts Lauren Gilger and Mark Brodie focus on local matters every weekday morning. It's just one reason why we'll keep KJZZ locked into our FM presets.

It's the little touches that make a theatergoing experience particularly enjoyable. When we go to a show at ASU Gammage on the university's Tempe campus, we appreciate that the concession prices are reasonable — even the themed cocktails created for each production. An upgrade to the outdated restrooms several years ago means that we're in and out much faster. But mostly, we've been going to Gammage for decades because it's the best place in town to see the plays and musicals coming out of the Great White Way. There's hardly a bad seat in the house, and each season Gammage offers some of the hottest touring productions, including shows like "Beetlejuice," "Six" and "Hamilton," the latter of which is coming back in 2024, FYI. And we're always happy to visit the building itself, a Frank Lloyd Wright design that's become a iconic Tempe landmark.

On the calendar of annual events in Phoenix, there are a few we particularly look forward to. And when spring takes a curtsy and gives way to summer, we begin to anticipate Ballet Arizona's collaboration with Desert Botanical Garden on one of its outdoor performances. This year's program, held on the grounds of the garden, was titled "The Rite of Spring," a world premiere by Ib Andersen, Ballet Arizona's artistic director. Modern choreography was set to Stravinsky's music, all backdropped by the mountains of Papago Park. Like all of Ballet Arizona's outdoor shows, the program was short but powerful, with the beauty of the landscape accenting the movement on stage. We can't wait to see what next year's iteration is.

The great burlesque revival of the late 1990s and early 2000s spawned local troupes worldwide, and this is the name to look for when you want to see top-notch talent in Phoenix. The performers reel in the audience with more than a ruffle of a feather boa or toss of the pastie tassel — they're all about making eye contact and creating a feeling of connection. Even better, Spellbound is not simply a "hot chick parade" but instead showcases people who have a variety of looks, ages and sizes. All exude the kind of body-positive confidence that makes spectators allies rather than simply onlookers. For an intimate show, catch the local leading ladies at the Grey Hen Rx in Century Grand every second Wednesday, where they put on a 20-minute cabaret-style show three times a night. For a bigger spectacle that includes national and international dancers and lasts two-and-a-half hours, check the schedule for almost monthly shows at The Grand in Central Phoenix.

Every two weeks or so at The Rebel Lounge, a hodgepodge group of poets file, one by one, onto the shabby, bright stage. This is the Ghost Poetry Show, a local poetry slam where slam poets, new and old, compete before a friendly audience. The group was started by a few local poets as venues began to reopen their doors after the pandemic. Their hope was to help revive Phoenix's literary scene, and revive it they did. In addition to the consistent, well-attended shows at The Rebel Lounge in midtown and sometimes elsewhere in the Valley, Ghost Poetry has created a thriving community of slam poets in Phoenix. The stage at a Ghost show is open to both newbies and seasoned poets, making the slam both engaging and decidedly welcome. Poets spill secrets, crack jokes, stumble a little. The passion and melodrama that's characteristic of slam poetry resounds in the small venue. And at the end of it all, the crowd chooses a winner — whose title will hold at least until the next slam comes around.

What do we love about Civic Center Library, the main branch of the Scottsdale public library system? The airy building is majestic without being intimidating. The selection of books, DVDs and CDs is excellent. There's programming for all ages and a wide range of interests, from storytime for toddlers to computer classes, film series and book clubs for adults. The children's room, designed to look like a fairytale forest complete with a castle with reading nooks, is one of the most charming places in the Valley. Rotating art exhibitions produced by Scottsdale Public Art mean that there's always something to look at besides the shelves. We love to make our selections and then find a seat near the enormous windows that overlook the Civic Center Lawn, where the book in our lap and the view in front of us compete for attention.

Weebs and otaku of Phoenix, rejoice. It's a great time to be a fan of anime and manga. Interest in the Japanese-born art forms is at an all-time high nationally and locally, and the number of cons in Arizona has tripled in the last three years. At the forefront of the anime boom in the Valley is Saboten Con, which serves up four days of vendors, artists, voice actors and cosplay over Labor Day weekend at the Sheraton Phoenix Downtown Hotel. Since launching in 2008, it's become Arizona's largest and longest-running anime event and has been synonymous with both local anime fandom and inclusivity. Organizers Greg and Stacy Fennell eschew gatekeeping at their event, welcoming casuals and newbies eager to embrace, explore and experience their newfound anime obsession. It helped Saboten Con's turnout swell, particularly this year when a record-setting 29,000 people swarmed the Sheraton and the nearby Renaissance Phoenix Downtown Hotel. There was also a new gaming and esports side event called SaboSlam, which Greg says is aimed at making the convention even more all-encompassing. "If you're into any part of [anime] culture at all, you're going to find something to do over the weekend," he says.

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