Welcome to the first installment of "Better Know a Venue," a regular column highlighting the coolest and coziest places to hear live music in Phoenix any day of the week.
In Phoenix, past, present, and future frequently share real estate. At 914 North Fifth Street, what was once the site of Max’s Sausage is now home to The Lost Leaf, one of Phoenix’s most progressive venues for local art and live music.
Owner and artist Eric Dahl opened up The Lost Leaf in 2004 near Seventh Avenue and McDowell Road, sharing a building with the now-shuttered Emerald Lounge. After the landlord refused to negotiate a long-term lease, Dahl relocated the venue, opening full time in March 2007. These days, SideBar occupies that building on McDowell.
Local artist Tato Caraveo was recruited in 2008 to oversee the booking. He says that from the very start, The Lost Leaf was breaking new ground in metro Phoenix.
"It opened at a time when there wasn’t much of anything downtown," Caraveo says. "Except for maybe Trunk Space or Modified Arts. There wasn’t much craft beer at that time."
There's always tons of suds, but not nearly as much space. The venue is akin to a one-bedroom apartment, with an entire bar and ample tabletops crammed into the abode. Yet there's a certain charm in those old wood features, like sitting in a friend's extended kitchen, drinking beer and sharing stories over music.
Caraveo agrees with a description of the venue as "a house show with better beer," adding, "We’re not a professional gallery. This used to be a little house with a bar, and it still kind of is."
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Because of that perpetual house show vibe, The Lost Leaf is a haven for many up-and-coming artists. Whether booking a concert or gallery, Caraveo says the venue focuses on "building artists from the ground up. There’s just not enough smaller venues for these smaller acts."
Part of helping these acts is providing better pay. Caraveo says the venue is an outlier by splitting the bar with artists, giving more than $250,000 to artists in 12-plus years, according to their website. That's especially impressive given, across more than 4,600 shows, the venue’s never charged for tickets. That commitment, Caraveo says, is born out of Dahl’s larger experience in the arts scene.
"We’d seen some galleries take as much as 50 percent," Caraveo says of fees. "We’re here for the artists who haven’t done a show yet, who are just still getting on their feet. Our goal is to be a mom-and-pop business."
Lost Leaf's hospitality also extends to touring acts. The owners enjoy helping "bands who don't have a following here, or friends, or a fan base," with many acts subsequently returning every few months. When asked if that fosters competition with larger venues like Crescent Ballroom and Rebel Lounge, Caraveo says, "We’re on completely different levels. We’re just a neighborhood bar."
Admittedly, it's a local hang that’s helped break quite a few local artists, chief among them KONGOS. The sibling rock band started playing at Lost Leaf around 2009, and since then it’s become their de facto home. Caraveo even did the album art for 2016's Egomaniac.
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"Lost Leaf was the place we learned our chops," says bassist/singer Dylan Kongos. While the sheer proximity to fans initially proved "intimidating," Kongos said the venue "has such a good vibe when you get 30 to 40 people in," usually a "hardcore group of fans who are up for all sorts of music."
The band's returned in recent years for acoustic shows and album release parties. Despite their continued national presence, KONGOS believe that Lost Leaf remains essential — a sentiment other acts likely echo.
"We've played tiny clubs and huge stadiums," Kongos says. "Lost Leaf has a special atmosphere, and it's not accidental. It's the owner's intentions. It's among the most fun, and it always stands out in my memory."
The Lost Leaf. 914 North Fifth Street; 602-258-0014; thelostleaf.org.