Listen up, rock fans: The next time you're stuck in the nosebleeds watching your favorite guitar god rule a six-string at an arena show, we've got something for y'all to ponder. And no, it's not that you should've been quicker on Ticketmaster's website.
Rock music, to riff on the words of noted punk scholar Iain Ellis, might best be enjoyed while up close and personal with a band and experiencing all the spilled beer, dripping sweat, noise, and energy that comes with such an experience. In other words, everything you wouldn't get to experience while sitting in the upper deck, viewing your favorite rock star through binoculars.
Elis, in his book, Brit Wits: A History of British Rock Humor, was referring specifically to the UK-based "pub rock" movement of the mid-1970s, when bands such as Eddie and the Hot Rods and Dr. Feelgood preferred gigs at "small bars for small crowds" that were more raw and real than overblown, overpriced, or overcrowded stadium concerts.
Sounds like something we can get behind, since we're more partial to smaller, more intimate gigs available via the many rock bars (a.k.a. gin joints, neighborhood taverns, or dives where rock and its multitude of subgenres take a particular focus) of the Valley.
Sure, we also dig epic concerts at the more cavernous arenas, theaters, and concert halls of the Valley, but it's the rock bar shows that have more of a potential for memorable times. After all, you tend to feel more personally involved with a band or artist when not sitting 25 rows away.
They also offer a chance to become early adopters of up-and-coming local acts, interact more with musicians, or maybe buy 'em a shot. At the very least, you're close enough to gank the setlist or grab a selfie with your favorite rocker.
We checked out the dives, dumps, and drinkeries around the Metro Phoenix rock bar scene and selected the 10 best places where rock 'n' roll and its many flavors are a big thing -- and the band's no more than five feet away.
Rock bars in Tempe have become an increasingly rare commodity, what with spots like Long Wong's, Stray Cat, Big Fish Pub, and The Sail Inn all going down for the count in the last year. Frankly, that makes us appreciate Tempe Tavern all the more, especially given that it hosts local rock in all its glory three to four nights a week -- ranging from the punks of LightSpeedGo and harder acts like Daughters of Fission to the more indie projects like Japhy's Descent and The Woodworks. The ample drink specials (such as $3 well cocktails and $2 PBR drafts every night), its quirky bottle cap and cobblestone décor, and the fact it's mere stumbling distance from a light-rail station are also big plusses.
Dave Grohl, Perry Farrell, and Billy Idol can all be spotted nightly at Rockbar in Scottsdale. Not in the flesh, mind you, but rather in the form of poster-size photographs hanging above its leather VIP booths. As you might've guessed, rock is revered at this two-story Craftsman Court bar, which is why there's memorabilia and autographed drum heads everywhere, nonstop alternative and metal music videos on the TVs, and a tastefully sleazy and neon-filled aura worthy of a Sunset Strip club of yore. Everything's centered around the enormous elevated stage downstairs where hometown heroes like Howitzer, The Black Moods, The Dead Eyes of London, and Tuesday night resident Shawn Johnson go full-tilt boogie while their sounds spill onto the side patio and up into the rooftop lounge and waitresses in the Suicide Girl mold keep everyone well lubricated and in a mood to rock out.
Still boasting the same uniquely mid-century architecture it's had since the '50s -- give or take a few dozen shingles -- Rips is a remnant of another era. Same goes for the soundtrack inside, which is often of an equally throwback nature. Sneering rockabilly hepcats seemingly alternate weekend performances with old school punks, while Latino-oriented Smiths tribute Los Esmiths drives out from L.A. to play homage to Moz and Marr every so often, sometimes as guests of the long-running '80s New Wave/Britpop dance party Shadowplay every third Friday.
Some things to keep in mind before heading into The Lost Leaf for a night out: Better arrive early, order your beer or wine with haste, and stake out a spot if the group you're keen on seeing is a popular one (read: Wooden Indian, The Love Me Nots, or Nintendo cover project Minibosses). Otherwise, you might wind up only hearing them instead.
That small patch of real estate that qualifies as an audience area inside the Fifth Street drinkery fills quickly -- even more so on First Fridays or whenever any favorite of local web-board The Shizz or one of the hotter acts on Rubber Brother Records is in the house. It's been this way since The Leaf's early days in 2007, when both Andrew Jackson Jihad and KONGOS used to visit, eons before either shot into the stratosphere. It speaks to the abilities of co-owners Eric Dahl and Tato Caraveo, both musicians themselves, to pick the good ones when they see 'em.
Thanks to in-house audio engineer Brian Stubblefield, even the loudest sounds at this 200-person rock bar don't get that loud. While the calendar leans more toward indie offerings and touring bands brought in by Stateside Presents, jam-happy acts, veteran jangle-poppers of the Greyhound Soul or Tramps and Thieves variety, and many Tempe favorites are frequent visitors. The drink menu is also strictly beer and wine at the moment, but word has it that a full liquor license is in the works, as is an expanded patio.
As evidenced by its name and the fleet of chrome-laden hawgs outside and out back, , , John McCormack's Indian School Road joint also groks rock. It's is a rip-roaring dive with a flair for rock. Besides being home the hardscrabble Harley crowd, it's also big with rock 'n' rollers in the garage, punk, glam, and classic vein, all of who perform in one cramped corner of the bar. They've all made their mark on the place in some fashion, whether it's the slew of framed t-shirts from bands adorning the red and black walls or the hordes of dollar bills decorated by regulars with missives like "ROCK 'N' FUCKING ROLL!" affixed to the ceiling, both of which helps illustrate Chopper John's cheap thrills and boozy spirit.
Despite its infamy as a hesher Valhalla, the rock repast on tap at Joe's Grotto is not limited exclusively to metal, heavy or otherwise. On any given night, its jet-black walls might also be soaking up emo wailings, post-hardcore bombast, Southern rock swampiness, or pop-punk cheekiness. KUPD morning jock John Holmberg also has brought out his speed-metal project Sodomizing Linda once or twice. But no matter which band happens to be gigging at the Grotto, however, you won't miss a second of its set due to the towering main-room stage offering great sightlines throughout most of the venue, as well as a video feed of the performance on multiple HDTVs, even those out in the smoking area. And the finely tuned sound system and the pro technicians working the dials ensure that every single hot lick, epic riff, rambling choogle, or tortured howl rings out with remarkable clarity.
Rock 'n' roll has been at the very heart of this Scottsdale live music institution for decades, no matter what its been called. Up until the mid-1990s, it was goth and industrial sanctum The Atomic Cafe before a lengthy stint as punk and metal dive Chasers. However, it's not as easy to pigeonhole the place since its transformation into Pub Rock Live in 2012, as it literally features a little bit of everything, albeit with an emphasis on rock in all its varying forms. The mid-size venue has sufficient room for the crowds that accompany such big-name headliners as Kitten, Earth Crisis, The Menzingers, and Polar Bear Club, while still seeming downright intimate when someone like Ataris frontman Kris Roe pulls a solo acoustic set. It also frequently hosts all-ages shows, which should please anyone 18-and-over, while those of legal age will dig the decent pours.
If you're a local indie musician, it's almost guaranteed that sooner or later, you'll visit Rogue Bar, if you haven't already. Maybe for some of its ridiculously cheap cocktails, a few rounds on its pool table, or an eyeful of the notorious tangle of graffiti in the men's room that's as much outsider art as it is profane dissings. Divey distractions aide, however, it's likely you're here to either see or play one of many shows booked by owner Manny Tripodis, who turned the Rogue into a test bed, talent incubator, or wayward home for a legion of burgeoning bands -- be they folk-punk oddballs, intensely precise math rockers, self-effacing indie poppers, neo-psych noisemakers, or lo-fi garage fiends. And every second Friday, the fetish freaks of industrial dance party Cupcake! take over, proving nothing's too weird (or weird-sounding) for the Rogue.
Widely considered to be cornerstone of the music scene, Tempe's Yucca Tap Room earns the esteem of top rock bar in our book because of its sheer volume of quality shows offered nearly 365 nights a year, its great sound, and the fact that there's rarely a cover (and even then, it's never more than a 10-spot). Having acres of free parking outside, an enormous selection of intoxicants both of the high-end and low-cost kind, and multiple rooms and nooks located throughout in which to soak up the jams, socialize, or just hide out, also helps.
Owner Rodney Hu, however, has been trying to make the best even better, including bringing on Ben Talty (a talent buyer with the Mantooth Group) as a booker last year. The goal is to help beef up and diversify the Yucca's already stacked lineups with more touring acts. Given that in the span of a week, Hu's already showcasing such highly varied fodder as folk rock, art pop, noise punk, surf, acoustic funk, and such Bandcamp-worthy quirk as art nu-gaze and psych-fi, we're eager to see what sort of out-of-town curiosities await during our next night out at the Yucca Tap.
Find any show in Metro Phoenix via our extensive online concert calendar.
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