Despite rumors to the contrary, April 3, 2004, wasn’t the day that the music died in Tempe. It was the date when the plug was pulled on fabled Mill Avenue rock club Long Wong’s, though. The heartbreaking event signaled the end of the city’s biggest live music era, but not a death knell for its scene. Nor were any of the closures that shuttered other prominent Tempe venues in the ensuing years.
The pulse of live music in the east Valley city has ebbed and flowed considerably over the past four decades, from the immense popularity of the Mill Avenue sound around the time that the Gin Blossoms cracked Billboard’s Hot 100 charts with “Hey Jealousy,” to the fallow period following the shuttering of Long Wong’s.
Tempe’s music scene has weathered many ups and downs over the years, including the current pandemic, but it will ultimately survive. Will it ever ascend to the height of its '90s heyday again? Probably not, but that’s not to say it won’t continue to develop new bands and musicians.
As is the norm in any city, venues tend to come and go. Some are felled by progress. Others are victims of the ever-changing whims of patrons or the fickle economy. All these outcomes have taken place in the Tempe scene over the past several decades, proving that the true constant is change.
That’s the spirit behind the following look back at 25 venues that defined live music in Tempe over the last few decades. It illustrates the changes that have occurred in the city’s music scene and also provides a current glimpse at what became of many famed spots.
Dooley's/After the Gold Rush/Electric Ballroom1216 East Apache Boulevard, Tempe
Currently: New School for the Arts & Academics
Long before its current status as an arts charter school, this uniquely shaped structure served as a series of music venues featuring a “who's who” of the music world. In the '70s and into the '80s, the 700-person establishment was called Dooley's and had gigs by the likes of Devo, Tom Petty, Elvis Costello, The Kinks, and Blondie.
Many of these shows were booked by local promoter Danny Zelisko, as he spent his embryonic years in the concert business bringing in acts to the venue shortly after launching his now-defunct Evening Star Productions in the mid-1970s. He continued bringing in shows after the venue changed owners and names twice over the following two decades, becoming After the Gold Rush in the early '80s and the Electric Ballroom in the early '90s.
The property's concert history ended in the late '90s, due in part to an alleged sexual assault by the rappers of Onyx. (The incident led to the liquor license getting pulled by state officials.) The New School for the Arts & Academics purchased the property in the early 2000s.
Boston's910 North McClintock Drive, Tempe
Currently: Elite Cabaret Gentleman's Club
Described by former Phoenix New Times scribes as an "east Valley rock mecca," Boston's was a shabby dive with plenty of verve. It was owned by Al Nichols, who ran the place with his three sons, Corey, Keith, and Jeff. Shows took place on both its indoor and outdoor stage and included a lot of local bands getting their start.
The well-remembered Tempe bar, which operated from 1991 until 2002 and was a hub for rock, punk, alternative, metal, ska, and indie. Search the web and you'll see an enviable list of touring acts that hit up Boston's during its run, including The Specials, Napalm Death, Jesus Lizard, Rocket From the Crypt, Flogging Molly, Weezer, Slipknot, Mike Ness, and Jello Biafra.
Following Boston's closure, it became a Latin dance spot called Club Macarena for a bit, only to eventually go vacant again. In 2009, it reopened as 910 Live, a combination nightclub/venue that mixed live music with DJs, including a notable gig by a pre-breakthrough Skrillex in 2011. By 2013, the main room was transformed into a gentleman's club known as Elite Cabaret. The expansive back patio has gigs once in a blue moon, which keeps Boston’s rock ‘n’ roll spirit alive.
Hayden Square Amphitheater404 South Mill Avenue Tempe
Currently still operating
Back in the '90s, Hayden Square in downtown Tempe boasted a small nexus of venues sharing a symbiotic relationship and groove with the Mill Avenue scene. Situated around a Fourth Street cul-de-sac, its cluster of now-defunct bars was a stomping grounds for musicians, including Balboa Cafe, Chuy’s, and Edcel’s Attic.
At the center of Hayden Square was a modest outdoor amphitheater. Performances were common throughout the 1990s by alternative bands (Soul Asylum, Garbage, They Might Be Giants) and hard rock acts (Stabbing Westward, Deftones). Phish also put on a memorable gig in 1994 attended by thousands.
These days, the area is referred to as “Hayden Station” (because of its proximity to a light-rail stop) and is still used for occasional gigs, like when the Gin Blossoms returned to their roots and played during 2014’s Tempe New Year’s Eve Block Party. Last year, it hosted the Hay Day Music Festival with sets by Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers, The Pistoleros, Wise Monkey Orchestra, and The Hourglass Cats.
Hollywood Alley2610 West Baseline Road, Mesa
Currently: AZ Fitness Plus
Over the span of 25 years, this “ultra-chic pissant hip dive bar” located on the border of Tempe and run by the Wincek family was a much-beloved bar, restaurant, music venue, arcade, and second home to many drinkers and Valley musicians.
Within its well-worn walls — which were famously covered with peeling movie posters, old LPs, and other ephemera — an impressive variety of talents both local and touring performed for the delight of crowds both large and small. Another draw was the lineup of homemade recipes created by Rachel Hrutkay, the grandmother of the Wincek family.
Hollywood Alley closed in 2013 because of financial issues faced by the Winceks. Shortly after its shuttering, it was stripped of every single bit of memorabilia by its proprietors and regulars and was completely remodeled by the property owners. After operating as a secondhand store for years, it’s now a local boxing and yoga facility called AZ Fitness Plus.
Red River Opry730 North Mill Avenue, Tempe
Currently: Marquee Theatre
A decade before Marquee Theatre opened for business in March 2003 at the corner of Mill Avenue and Washington Street, the expansive building was the domain of country crooners and down-home sounds. In 1993, the venue debuted as the Red River Opry, a family-oriented place with auditorium seating and a theatrical-style revue called the “Arizona’s Country Music Show.”
At the time, New Times writers described the performances as a “scripted blend of family-friendly crossover country and pop, punctuated with a bit of comedy.” Yee-haw. Long after the Red River Opry headed for the last roundup, the property became the concert hall we all know today, sans the seating, and all the heaping helpings of cornpone. Since becoming the Marquee, it’s put on upward of 2,000 concerts.
Yucca Tap Room29 West Southern Avenue, Tempe
Currently still operating
The Yucca Tap is a survivor. It’s withstood economic downturns, evolving tastes, and is seemingly getting by during the current COVID-19 crisis. One of the reasons is because the bar, which has been owned by the Hu family since the early ‘70s, has changed with the times. A 2009 expansion added a craft beer/whiskey bar and kitchen while an adjacent arcade came along in 2018. Meanwhile, the main room at the Yucca has remained largely the same, right down to its wood-paneled walls. And if they could talk, they’d spin tales of the countless gigs that have happened here.
After featuring a few different house bands on weekends, the Hu family started presenting local live music in 1989, including many of the famed acts that put Tempe on the map. Current owner Rodney Hu can rattle off a rundown of some of the more well-remembered bands that played at the Yucca, such as Flathead, Spinning Jennies, The Pistoleros, Satellite, and The Refreshments. And as new groups were born, the bar offered up its stage to each, ranging from Grave Danger and The Black Moods to The Format (who performed a memorable acoustic set in 2005).
Edcels Attic414 South Mill Avenue
Currently: GLOW Shots & Cocktails
Need proof of the ever-evolving state of Tempe’s nightlife scene? Look no farther than this second-floor spot, which has previously been known as The Upstairs Pub, Ziggy’s, Vintage Bar & Grill, the Coconut Club, PA Connection, and the BAC Lounge over the years. Its longest stint was as Edcels Attic (or Edsels Attic, depending on the source) during the decade-long stretch from the mid-’80s to mid-’90s.
Live music was on tap nightly from a rotating selection of bands, running the gamut from the blues-oriented Chuck Hall and the Brick Wall to the Bruce Connole-led alternative ensemble The Strand. Longtime owner Ed Chiongbian and Cely Bossany, who purchased the place in 1986, also frequently booked artists like Walt Richardson and Morningstar, the Zubia brothers, and Brides of Science.
Devil House/Club Rio430 North Scottsdale Road, Tempe
Currently: The Watermark Tempe
Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, this spot along Scottsdale Road just north of the Salt River was a major rage haven for ASU kids and 20-somethings. It debuted in 1981 as the Devil House, and later became Club Rio, offering a mix of theme events (like its Saturday foam parties) and DJ nights throughout its 23-year lifespan.
Club Rio’s party-hardy infamy was due in no small part to its cheap and plentiful drinks, which led to both good times and bad decisions during its run. (Onetime Arizona Cardinals quarterback Jake Plummer got in trouble back in 1997 for allegedly fondling four women inside the club.)
Besides serving as a notorious nightspot, Club Rio was a popular concert venue, especially during the 1990s and into the new millennium. Countless acts from that era gigged at Club Rio, including Bad Religion, Porno for Pyros, Green Day, Jesus Jones, Ben Folds Five, Korn, System of a Down, and Soulfly.
After later becoming the Arizona Beach Club for a spell, the club was torn down in the mid-2000s, and the property has become The Watermark Tempe, a $150 million mixed-use development.
Tony's New Yorker107 East Broadway Road, Tempe
Currently: American Legion Post 138
This property along Broadway Road just off Mill Avenue started out as a church, then became a nightclub before a noteworthy stint in the late ’80s and most of the ’90s as Tony’s New Yorker.
The Italian restaurant and its attached lounge were graced by many legendary Tempe musicians, including bands like the Piersons, bluesman Hans Olson, and the late Doug Hopkins. In fact, the troubled Gin Blossoms songwriter and guitarist reportedly played his final gig at Tony’s alongside Olson in late 1993 shortly before taking his own life.
These days, music still echoes through the building, as it’s now an American Legion Post 138. Artists and bands occasionally perform inside the large and lively bar, which is a favorite of neighborhood folk, former servicemen, and a variety of biker types. Like with any American Legion Post, however, membership is required.
Eastside Records217 West University Drive, Tempe
Currently: HQ Vape & Smoke
Though not technically a music venue, the original location of Eastside Records on University Drive was an epicenter and meeting ground for the local music scene for close to 20 years. It also hosted more than a few shows in its day, both inside the store and out in the parking lot.
One of the biggest was a rowdy performance by surf/space rock act Man or Astro-Man? in 1995 that forced the landlord to ban future gigs at Eastside for a lengthy period of time. And though it wasn't as uproarious, the final night at Eastside's original home prior to its closure in 2010 featured Grave Danger and other locals performing in the aisles.
After its closure in 2010, neighboring smoke shop HQ Vape & Smoke (an iconic Tempe business in its own right) expanded into the space and doubled its size. Eastside co-owner Michael Pawlicki opened a few different pop-up versions of the store around Tempe over the past decade before settling on a space inside the Double Nickels Collective near the Yucca Tap Room.
The Oxbow/Murphy's Irish Pub1810 East Apache Boulevard, Tempe
Currently: Tempe Tavern
The squat cobblestone structure located just east of McClintock Drive on Apache Boulevard may not be the oldest existing building in Tempe, but it does happen to be the oldest one currently operating as a music venue. In 1919, almost a century before it began hosting everything from punk and death metal to hip-hop, the building was the E.M. White Dairy Barn. It later was transformed into a commercial establishment in 1930 and later became a series of restaurants and bars.
Before it was Tempe Tavern, the property was the Oxbow in the 1940s and the New Oxbow Tavern in the 1970s. Throughout most of the ’90s, it served up many a pint as Murphy's Irish Pub before its closure in 2001. A decade later, its current proprietors refurbished and remodeled the joint in 2011 into its current look.
Big Surf1500 North McClintock Drive, Tempe
Currently Still Operating
This iconic Tempe water park is nothing if not historic. Having opened in 1969, it not only is the longest-running attraction of its kind in Arizona but also features the first-ever wave pool in the U.S. In the 1970s, people turned out in droves for a number of outdoor concerts by noteworthy acts.
Fast-forward to the present, and the water park still is giving up space for concerts. Steve LeVine Entertainment put on three separate editions of its Soundwave music festivals in 2011 and 2012 at Big Surf, while the annual Wet Electric has brought in such noteworthy DJs as Dillon Francis, Diplo, and Flux Pavillion each year since 2013.