Joe’s Grotto brought a great deal of music, metal and otherwise, to the local masses during its quarter-century run, which kicked off in 1994. Fittingly, the legendary bar’s lengthy streak of rock ‘n’ roll excess ended just as it began: with owner Joe Grotto rocking out onstage.
On October 26, 2019 — a year ago this week — hundreds of heshers packed the north Phoenix club for one last party. Six local bands unleashed an unholy cacophony on two stages inside Joe’s Grotto that may have reached the rock gods themselves. Amps were turned up to 11. Mosh pits ensued. Faces were melted. Devil horns were thrown. The long-haired guitarist and his band Drunk Otis capped off that final rock show with a stretched-out set filled with unforgettable moments like Grotto strutting about the stage, vamping for the crowd, and performing lively comedy-rock songs.
A similar scene had taken place during the bar’s opening night, albeit with Grotto clad in just his underwear. As the place grew from a neighborhood joint where Grotto and his pals gathered to drink and debauch into a local rock destination, so did the stature of bands who performed there.
Early on, it was cover bands. Then it became a favorite spot for notable Valley acts like Pelvic Meatloaf, N17, and St. Madness. Soon it was one of the pillars of the Valley's metal and hard-rock scenes. Famous names would sometimes gig there, too: Otep, L.A. Guns., Ted Nugent, and the Valley’s own Alice Cooper.
In honor of the one-year anniversary of its closing, Phoenix New Times spoke with some of the many musicians who played Joe’s Grotto over the decades. Read on, rock on.
In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Joe Grotto was “just this wild musician” and guitarist who could be found gigging at any number of bars and clubs around the Valley and having a good time while doing so.
Joe Grotto, owner, Joe’s Grotto: I played music my whole life. Before I bought the bar, all I did was play out all the time, mainly at places up and down Cave Creek Road or out in Scottsdale. I had a real happy band with fun songs, and I always loved the vibe of bars, people getting drunk, having fun. I always thought if I didn't make it big in music, I would start a bar. Way back when in the '80s, all the musicians were just out partying and snorting coke together, going, “Yeah, I'm going to open up a bar someday,” and I eventually did it. And when I hit 38, I was like, “You know, I don't think I'm ever going to be a rock star,” so I hit up an uncle, and he loaned me the money to start the club.
Joe’s Grotto officially opened in spring 1994 at the Paradise Valley Oasis strip mall inside a small space that had seen many bars come and go over the years.
Grotto: I knew the area pretty well. I was a regular around there at [now-defunct bars] like The Loft and the Golden Spike, so my name was known in that part of town. I found the place [that became Joe's Grotto] and when I walked in there, I was like, “This is it.” I just knew. It’d been home to a few different bars with like nine different owners in the eight years before I came along. The last one was a country bar called Levi's and it was a crazy place. They had cocaine all around and they were shooting each other out in the parking lot.
When I opened, there used to be a couple of mirrors, a little hallway, and a couple of pinball machines back there. It was a little congregating place for people. There was this tiny stage that was stuck over in one corner. My old band, Sneak Attack, played the first few months I was open. We did all these '70s, '80s, and '90s rock covers. On the first night, I walked onto the stage in my underwear.
Grotto: The first two years were a learning experience, to say the least. There was a lot of drinking. I would just sit there just trying to figure out what to do to make things work. I was supposed to get a $150,000 loan from my uncle but it wound up being just $100,000. I never went to college for business. I was the idiot up on stage trying to make people dance. I was working 14 hours a day. I'd bartend, I'd clean ... just do everything myself. I eventually started [booking] cover bands because I had to run the bar more. Then I had more original bands coming in.
Fourmy: Some of my best memories of going to Joe's Grotto didn't really include my band. I'd go there and watch -Itis. They were my favorite band I ever saw there, and they were from Colorado Springs but would come down here and play all the time in like four-day blocks.
Grotto: I was booking four bands a month. They would play Thursday, Friday, Saturday each week. Bands like Dr. Ruth, Whisper Alley, and -Itis. We started having a lot more locals playing, too. People would just come out to party no matter what the band was. We started doing birthday shows, anniversary shows, stuff for charity. The bar started doing well enough to where I would make those [benefit] shows and go on the air with [former KUPD radio personality] Dave Pratt and donate money to his charities. Things were just really going good then. I was dating a Dallas Cowboy cheerleader at the time and I'm not a really good-looking guy [laughs].
Fourmy: We started playing there in like '96. We've played on special occasions there, like New Year's Eve. It also was kind of a tradition for us to all show up there on Christmas Eve because he'd wind up closing early and go to the casino, and we'd all get together to have a few drinks.
Grotto: In '96, I went out to Burbank, California, with my friends for a dart tournament and then headed to Vegas for a couple of days. I had $200-$300 on me to have fun and I won $75,000 at Caribbean stud poker. And then Joe's became a whole lot of fun after that. I bought myself an acoustic guitar and I put the rest into the club. I built a new stage, changed the PA out, and that's when things started to pick up after a while. I eventually thought, “I'd love to try and help someone get further with their music,” so I focused on bringing in up-and-coming local bands.
Fourmy: The sound was always good. They had a decent-sized stage. There were just some really good vibes in there. It was like the home stage for a lot of us. Just a good rock 'n' roll atmosphere.
Larry Mac, former KUPD on-air personality: It was just always a fun place. I was hanging out there in the late '90s and early 2000s when I was living in Phoenix. No matter what day of the week it was, I could drop by there and see a great local band. Saw Crushed there, saw St. Madness there, I remember seeing Pelvic Meatloaf there quite a bit. Joe became a fixture to the local [metal] scene. It was where a lot of local musicians hung out.
Grotto: I always just tried to book shows and keep the doors open and create a vibe so I never really thought about what people thought about me too much. I just tried to keep things rolling.
Fourmy: In the '90s, the real big place in town for hard rock that everybody loved was [now-defunct Tempe venue] Boston’s and then Joe's took its place after the turn of the century and it was Joe's for a really long time. And after [now-defunct rock bar] the Mason Jar closed [in 2004], Joe’s got even bigger.
Clinton Rackley, vocalist and guitarist, Fatal Malady: The first show we ever played was at Joe’s Grotto in the summer of 2006. There were a lot of people there, we were super nervous, and our guitar player, Dustin Yares, actually threw up in the bathroom about five minutes before we went on because he was such a wreck. He only had five strings on his guitar, because back then we were poor and broke and he couldn't afford to get new strings. So we played that whole show with no low E string.
Michael Gilbert, guitarist, Flotsam and Jetsam: I took a hiatus from [Flotsam and Jetsam] for a few years and I had a cover band that turned into an original thing called Five Knuckle Slingshot around like 2007. Once a month, or every other month, we'd play there. Joe would let us rehearse in the club before the shows and was always kind to us. It was definitely the place to play and a focal point for metal in town for a long time.
Penton: Joe hired great staff, especially the guys running sound. We always sounded like Bon Jovi when we played there. It was like an arena show in a bar.
Rackley: The sound was actually better in my opinion than some of the bigger venues around town that were more “professional, national venues.” Part of that was because you get to know his guys. Jeremiah DeWitt, who went by “Joker,” was a long-time sound guy there, and he just understood all of the bands. Joker would come to shows that he wasn't even doing the sound on and he would get to know the bands. Then also, with Paul Sarsfield on doing the lights, it had more of a concert feel to it than a bar.
Gilbert: He always had the best-sounding PA and it was definitely set up for bands. He's a musician himself, so he didn't skimp on anything. Some of the clubs we've played around the U.S., they don't seem to give a shit about that stuff. Joe, he just put money into it and he made sure it was all top-quality sound and was a nice place to play.
Rich Ornelas, vocalist and guitarist, 2 in the Chest: That stage was huge. It gave you a sense that you actually did something. The first time we hit that big stage it felt like such a big deal. The ambiance of the whole place was just great. It was one of those places you can't reproduce. Everything was perfect.
Grotto: I wanted to add more room and another stage so we could have shows where we'd have 19-20 bands in one day, one after another, like, bam, bam, bam, bam. And we added a TV on the outdoor patio where people could watch who's playing while smoking and not miss anything.
Janet Blankinship, local promoter and longtime Joe's Grotto patron: There was an exercise place next door to Joe’s that had pole-dancing classes and Joe took it over to make his place bigger. Before they did the floor you would see these round holes where the poles used to be. He put out an announcement on social media asking for people to come down and do sweat equity and help build the new bar and stage. So many people came out to help.
Katt, bassist, Element a440: Everybody from the music scene came in, chipped in, and helped build that stage. Helped him redo whatever needed to get done. How many club owners could say that in any city, much less Phoenix?
Blankinship: Once the remodel happened, there were many events where bands played one after the other with no breaks in the music to load out their gear, like with the big AnneFest shows that [local promoter] Anne Ramirez put on at Joe's. You could alternate stages and keep the music flowing. The sound of metal would just bounce all around the club, no matter where it was coming from inside. There was no time for people to take a breath. It was just a nonstop assault. It provided tight set times where you had eight or nine bands, back and forth. It was amazing.
Mike Gaube, former KDKB on-air personality: Joe’s became huge for the metal scene, especially when he made that second stage and he could stagger the stages back and forth, which helped out a lot. He always had Fridays and Saturdays that pretty much were for the local metal scene. He'd had other stuff, too.
Gaube: There were all these memorable shows at Joe’s through the years, like Uli Jon Roth, one of my favorite guitar players. Doyle played there, and L.A. Guns. The big thing was, it was also really a good place for local music. I really got into the local music scene and I really got behind it with my KDKB show [Headbangers at 11]. I used to get two local bands, have them each play one set, and then I brought in my rock star friends like "Wild" Mick Brown from Dokken, Ted Nugent when he was in town, and George Lynch when he used to live here. They'd come in and jam with these bands.
Grotto: A bunch of big rock bands played there, like UFO and Men Without Hats, which was my favorite. The Outfield played there once, and they came back the next night and were my backup band for open mic night. Uli Jon Roth stole one of my coffee cups. Glen [Benton] from Deicide loved my Hot Toddies. Alice Cooper got up and sang a few songs with his kid [Dash Cooper] and his kid's band [CO-OP]. So many bands that it's hard to remember them all.
Gilbert: I live on the other side of town, so it wasn't easy for me to hang out there. But every time I did, Joe would always have a Budweiser and a shot of Jäger for me as soon as I walked through the door, and he just kept bringing the shots. Every time I went to Joe's Grotto, I had to get a ride home.
Grotto: I was always the first one there to greet the bands during the day for load-in. I'd have hot coffee ready for them and all that. And we'd just sit and talk, musician-to-musician. For me, it was a blast. I got to talk to everybody, even if I didn't know about their band. They could be Jason Bittner [of Shadows Fall] or Jason Bittner's roadie. If you look up "longest crowd surf" you'll see a video of Shadows Fall doing it at Joe's Grotto. It's amazing. And when you get to the point where he gets a shot of Patron, that's me giving it to him. That's my hand. Nights like that were amazing.
Katt: It was one of our favorite places to play, like a home away from home, and Joe would let us get away with murder. We played a show where we eviscerated [Element A440 vocalist] Halo during one song using actual cow guts. And I didn't anticipate what it was like [having guts] on my hands while I was playing bass, so I put them down and kind of kicked them away and didn't remember them until the next day. Joe probably remembered them, since they stunk up the place and he forgave us.
Gilbert: When Flotsam and Jetsom played Joe’s Grotto [in 2016], that was one of my favorite Arizona shows that we've ever done. We were looking forward to seeing what the draw was because sometimes it's hit or miss in Phoenix for us. It was the first show we did in Phoenix that was super-packed. And ever since then, it seems like we have tons of people. So I attribute it to Joe's Grotto being a part of that.
In October 2019, Grotto announced he was closing his bar after more than 25 years in business.
Grotto: It just got to where it wasn't fun and I just got worn down by everything. The bar just wasn't supporting itself anymore. Even when we were doing national acts with promoters, we lost all of our day crowds because they needed the entire bar to set up for their shows all day and night. I also had landlord issues. They’d let the plaza get run down and weren't giving me much support. The parking lot was horrible. It was filled with [potholes], and there weren’t lights in my marquee, so it looked like we've been closed. I'd been thinking about [closing] for months and started looking for a new location. Then it got to a point where I didn't care if I found a new place or not. I just didn't want to put up with it anymore.
Blankinship: It really sucked to see it go, but I totally understood what Joe was going through. It left a big hole in the metal community that hasn’t been filled since.
Grotto: I'm in my 60s now. I was 38 when I opened the bar. Big difference. If I ever do find a new place, I’ve got to find someone that could help and has the same enthusiasm and passion for music that I do. People used to come talk to me about business deals, and they hated it because I didn't do anything for money, I never have. It would drive them crazy because I've always been about the music. It may never happen. I may end up opening Joe's Laundromat instead, or a car wash or something [laughs].