Downtown Phoenix's Last Exit Live Now Open

It's gonna be an action-packed weekend for Brannon Kleinlein. The 38-year-old will be busy overseeing the locals-only side stage at the McDowell Mountain Music Festival at Margaret T. Hance Park. It's certainly a major task that he'll have to juggle along with this weekend's debut of his new downtown Phoenix music venue Last Exit Live, which held its soft opening on Thursday night and will host a MMMF after-party tonight.

But if the Valley music impresario, who also puts on the Apache Lake Music Festival every year, is feeling stressed out about his workload, he's certainly not showing it.

Kleinlein was the very definition of calm, cool, and collected Thursday night as he hung out at Last Exit Live, interacted with patrons, and handled any issues that popped up over the course of the evening.

"I'll admit it's kinda crazy and a lot to take on trying to open a venue and put on a side stage at a major festival all in one weekend. But everything seems to be working out," he says. "It worked out with timing as far as the cross-promotional purposes with the doing the festival and the name recognition and opening the venue in conjunction with that. The fact its in downtown [Phoenix] for the first time and we're downtown seemed to fit together, so it was worth the extra work."

Kleinlein says that he's considering Thursday night's show -- which attracted an estimated 50 people and featured performances by locals Sara Robinson and the Midnight Special, Greyhound Soul, and Hunter Johnson -- as well as this entire weekend as a "test run" for the venue prior to its official grand opening in early April.

"It's doing exactly what I'd wanted it to do: get some bands on the stage, test out the sound system, get the bartenders going, and have some people in here," he says. "I wasn't expecting a packed, packed night or anything. If you throw a big event and get 300 people out for your grand opening, you're bound to have some problems, so it's good to work out the kinks."

Not that there were many kinks to be found at Last Exit Thursday night. Its sound system relayed Greyhound Soul's old-school jangle-pop and Robinson's husky vocals pretty clearly. According to Kleinlein, the only thing remaining to tackle at the venue is to give the cement floor a paint job and put up some additional exterior signage above the load-in door in the back.

While Kleinlein put in an extensive renovation of the building, which is located on Central Avenue south of downtown, it still shares some aspects with its former incarnation as the Ruby Room, which closed in late 2009. It still has its original dark-wood bar, there's still a flair for red décor -- including the classy floor-to-ceiling velour stage curtain that will be closed while bands load their gear in and out -- and the lighting is kept fairly dark.

It's by design, says Last Exit's production manager and sound guy Brian Stubblefield.

"We just wanted to do a whole lounge thing here. [Brandon and I] both like really dark bars," Stubblefield says. "I come from back east, and that's how some places are like back east. Out here, it's like every show is lit so bright. We had to strip it down, bring the lights down and give it a real lounge-y, intimate feel."

Other than the scarlet paint covering the walls and the blood red lighting that pierces the darkness and casts pools of crimson light, which sorta evokes the torrid and murky aura not unlike the old Monroe's basement venue, the décor is pretty spartan with less than a dozen tables available for patrons.

Such a minimalist feel was also part of the plan, says Stubblefield.

"It feels like there's nothing else distracting them except the band," he says. "There's no other crap, there's no pictures on the wall, there's nothing but a giant red curtain that opens up to a show. That's what people are here for and that's the reason behind knocking out the light and focusing on what's important."

Those in attendance on Thursday certainly weren't distracted by the performances put on by Robinson's crew or the other acts. The chanteuse seemed to enrapture as she and the rest of the band performed songs from their recently released self-titled album and pulled stuff out from their "cover bag," including a breathy rendition of The Beatles' "Come Together."

Near the end of their lengthy set, which lasted pretty much up until last call, Robinson seemed to get self-conscious about how long they'd been performing.

"Are we taking up all the stage time?" she asked. "Is anyone else jamming tonight?"

After a beat, a bearded middle-aged man offered a response.

"You can take all the stage time you want," he stated.

After the curtain closed on the Last Exit's first night, both figuratively and literally, the audience wasn't the only one satisfied.

"Tonight served its purpose," Kleinlein says. "We didn't promote it much except through Facebook, but people came out, as I'm hoping they will for each show."

But is he expecting to draw in the same folks that came out to Last Exit's previous incarnation in Tempe, which closed in 2009?

"A decent amount will come down, but it's been four years since that venue's been open. A lot of it's an older crowd that's moved on and there's a totally different kind of crowd now," he says. "Greyhound Soul brought in some of their fans, but a whole new crop of bands and whole new scene that's going to be here. It's also a whole different dynamic downtown too."

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Benjamin Leatherman is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times. He covers local nightlife, music, culture, geekery, and fringe pursuits.