Cover Story

9 Downtown Phoenix Venues for Local Bands to Grow Into

Local smooth operators Moonlight Magic onstage at the Crescent Ballroom.
Local smooth operators Moonlight Magic onstage at the Crescent Ballroom. Michelle Sasonov

From the Trunk Space to Comerica Theatre and The Van Buren, it’s easier than ever to see great live music on a nightly basis in the heart of our sprawling Valley. But what about bands who want to play downtown? Where should you play — and more importantly, where should you start?

Imagine you’re a member of a brand-new band looking to play their first show. Sure, you could reach out to Danny Zelisko, and try to get on as an opening act at a show he’s promoting at Comerica Theatre (it won’t happen), or you could reach out to the good folks at The Trunk Space, Last Exit Live, or The Lost Leaf, and ask politely for an open weeknight slot.

Brannon Kleinlein has played a role in building the downtown scene by taking a small, and slightly funky venue formerly known as the Ruby Room, and turning it into Last Exit Live, one of the better venues to play in town due to its great PA and subtle, yet comfortable ambience. In a somewhat prescient 2015 interview with Phoenix New Times, Kleinlein described how the downtown music scene was growing.

“Now, you can conceivably play your entire career in downtown,” he said, citing venues including Lost Leaf, Last Exit, Crescent Ballroom, The Pressroom, and the Orpheum among the career-spanning stepping stones. “… Five years ago that was impossible. And that’s kind of a huge difference: You could put any size show in Phoenix now.”

Three years later, there is even more opportunity.

For new bands, especially those who don’t have a built-in fan base from other bands the members may have played in, starting out at one of the smaller, more intimate venues downtown is the way to go. Our advice? Take as many gigs as you can get, at first, and start growing a fan base. As the crowds start to increase and your stage presence improves (don’t worry if it doesn’t feel super-great from the beginning), start being more selective about the shows you book, and spread out your bookings a bit as well. Nothing can stop a fan base from continuing to grow like overexposure.

Local-scene vets are excited about the new opportunities downtown as well.

"It's been really heartening to see so many venues opening downtown that cater to live music, and not just venues but great venues run by people who care about music, growing a music scene, and giving an audience a good experience," says Phoenix's own Cait Brennan, a singer/songwriter who released one of the best albums of 2017, called Third (Omnivore/Warner).

Longtime Valley concert promoter Rob "Fun Bobby" Birmingham also sees the vital downtown music scene as more than just a slew of great venues. The talent level in town has risen to meet the available stages.
"There's this desert loyalty, and sense of community with legendary, established bands who encourage and advise the new kids out here,” Birmingham says. “We live in a climate that is downright brutal five months of the year. I think we stick together and support and collaborate with each other better than a place like San Diego, with it always being 75 degrees.”

There were always good bands, though, and good — even excellent — downtown venues in the past. However, some of the early venues were more about atmosphere than comfort or sound quality.

Punk, noise, and art rock acts have had various venues to play downtown since the 1970s. Some may remember the Subcultural Arts Center, which hosted a variety of shows in the late 1980s.

There was also the Silver Dollar Club (where Butthole Surfers, Green Day, X, Fugazi, and SNFU all played), Theater Triad, The Firehouse, Vivians (a short-lived punk venue), and Thought Crime, to name places where bands at almost any level could get a gig. And the Orpheum, Comerica, and Talking Stick Resort Arena (originally known as America West Arena) have consistently hosted big-name acts.

But for local bands looking to find their way, there hasn’t always been a variety of venues, in terms of size and customer base, to go from being a band that is barely out of the garage to one that is attracting significant media attention.

"The downtown music scene has went from 0 to 60 in a very short time,” says Jim Andreas of No Volcano. “It doesn't seem like that long ago that Modified (Arts, which was hosting music from 1999 to 2010) was one of the only downtown venues to have shows on a regular basis. Now you have so many options ... I have lived downtown for 15 years and couldn't be happier.”

So in no particular order, here are the best venues to play downtown right now, beginning with places for a band that's just getting started:

click to enlarge Jade Helm at The Lunchbox. - MICHELLE SASANOV
Jade Helm at The Lunchbox.
Michelle Sasanov
The Lunchbox
4132 East McDowell Road, #7
[email protected]
Capacity: 100
Contact: Dannie Levie

While The Lunchbox is technically not in downtown Phoenix, it has the kind of aesthetic that fits perfectly with this list. For newer bands and veterans wanting to try out some new material in a place that oozes DIY, The Lunchbox has a “by the scene, for the scene” vibe that creates a safe space for unsafe thoughts and riffs. Jackie Cruz from Man Hands and Jade Helm says it best: “Places (like The Lunchbox) feel like home, and the shows are always fun.”

The Lunchbox is perfect for bands on their way up or looking to try out new material in a small, welcoming room.

Bands to watch for at The Lunchbox: Man Hands, Nanami Ozone, and Weird Radicals.

The Trunk Space
1124 North Third Street
[email protected]
Capacity: 125
Contact: Steph Carrico/Robbie Pfeffer

Even though The Trunk Space moved from its longtime space on Grand Avenue in 2016, the spirit and vibe of the DIY venue is safely rooted in the staff of volunteers who keep it alive. Steph Carrico, who has managed Trunk Space for many years, keeps the shows running smoothly, and makes the most of one of the more interesting locations to host shows in town. If you see a show at Trunk Space, you honestly can tell your grandmother “yes” when she asks if you’ve been going to church.

Trunk Space is another great place to work out new material, set up a show for a touring band you want to trade shows with, or just be part of a really great scene, no matter how experienced your band is at this point.

Bands to watch for at Trunk Space:
Playboy Manbaby, The Breakup Society, and Andy Warpigs.

The Lost Leaf
915 North Fifth Street
Capacity: 149
Contact: Tato Caraveo

Blink and you miss it, The Lost Leaf has both a killer selection of beer and a knack for hosting great punk, garage, jazz, eclectic, and indie rock shows. It’s very intimate, but if you’re not looking to actually see a band, there’s always plenty of room to hear the band in the front area of the bar or outside. The Lost Leaf is a great place to book your first downtown gig, and bring all your friends, as long as they’re over 21, as the bar does not do all-ages shows. Bands split a portion of the bar sales, so there is never a cover charge.

Lost Leaf is great for new and established bands looking to squeeze into a tight room and make some noise.

Bands to watch for at The Lost Leaf: Battered Suitcases, Sugar Thieves, and Fatigo.
Last Exit Live
717 South Central Avenue
Capacity: 300
Contact: Brannon Kleinlein

One small thing that Last Exit Live has that many other similarly sized venues do not is a curtain. When you are getting ready to play some music, loading in your gear, tuning up, etc., it's nice not having to worry if you’re flashing the crowd some plumber’s ass if you bend over. It’s a small touch, and when there is a great sound system to play through as well, a place like Last Exit Live quickly becomes a venue for bands to look towards as a place they want to play.

Bands to watch for at Last Exit Live: Japhy’s Decent, Banana Gun, and Captain Squeegee.

The Rebel Lounge
2303 East Indian School Road
Capacity: 325
Contact: Stephen Chilton

Out of the ashes of the Mason Jar, Stephen Chilton resurrected one of Central Phoenix’s most revered spots by creating the Rebel Lounge. It’s cleaner and sounds better than its predecessor ever did, even if there are no 75-cent kamikazes. Like The Lunchbox, Rebel Lounge is not technically "downtown," but local and national bands continue to make history in one of the bars that every band has played on their way up and down the proverbial rock-and-roll ladder.

New bands can put in some work as an opening act on one of the many great bills Chilton puts together on a regular basis, and then work their way up to headlining the Rebel on a weekend when they are ready.

Bands to watch for at The Rebel Lounge: Hogjaw, Autumn’s End, and Sorxe.

click to enlarge The entrance is in the alley. Valley Bar is a great escape. - TOM REARDON
The entrance is in the alley. Valley Bar is a great escape.
Tom Reardon
Valley Bar
130 North Central Avenue
Capacity: 480 total, 250 in Music Hall
Contact: David Moroney

You enter through the alley door and walk downstairs into a cool labyrinth of music, booze, and damn good food. What could be better? Valley Bar has been making the downtown scene better since 2015, and with a killer sound system and crackerjack staff, it’s a great place to both see and play a show.

Local bands should have their act pretty well in order before taking on this killer stage. Once you've proven yourselves to be able to draw a decent crowd, you'll be ready for Valley Bar.

Bands to watch for at Valley Bar: The Darts (USA), Rebel Set, and Scorpion Vs. Tarantula.

Crescent Ballroom in downtown Phoenix. - BENJAMIN LEATHERMAN
Crescent Ballroom in downtown Phoenix.
Benjamin Leatherman
Crescent Ballroom
308 North Second Avenue
Capacity: 550
Booking: David Moroney

What can you say about the venue that really put a charge into making downtown a viable location again for great music events?

“Charlie Levy is a genius,” Rob “Fun Bobby” Birmingham says. “He has been producing great shows since he wasn't old enough to drink.”

Levy and the team at Stateside have been putting on great shows at Crescent since 2011 — and they haven’t slowed down since. The downtown venue has excellent food and good prices on their booze, making it a great destination to see some of the best bands on the planet.

Valley scene veterans and up and coming stars are the bands ready for Crescent Ballroom. You know you're doing pretty good when you get to headline this fantastic bar.

Bands to watch for at Crescent: Fairy Bones, Jerusafunk, and Bear Ghost.

click to enlarge In case you forgot where we are. - TIM VASQUEZ
In case you forgot where we are.
Tim Vasquez
The Van Buren
401 West Van Buren Street
Capacity: 2,000
Contact: Jeremiah Gratza/Charlie Levy

In its first year, The Van Buren has quickly ensconced itself in the hearts of Phoenix-area music lovers. What’s not to like about a gorgeous, barn-like venue with great sound, plenty of bar space, an ample smoking patio (if you still have that vile, disgusting habit — wink, wink), and the best green rooms in the state. Located in the heart of downtown, The Van Buren brings another option for Stateside Presents to bring larger bands downtown who might have gone to the (vastly inferior) Marquee, or (wonderful, old-time Phoenix landmark) Celebrity Theater in the past.

The best of the best local bands will get to grace the awesome Van Buren stage. If you play here during your first year as a band, you're doing something very, very right.

Local bands you might see at The Van Buren: Phoenix Afrobeat Orchestra and anybody else lucky enough to open a big show.

click to enlarge Mary J. Blige at Comerica Theatre. - KELSEE BECKER
Mary J. Blige at Comerica Theatre.
Kelsee Becker
Comerica Theatre
400 West Washington Street
Capacity: 5,000

Comerica is easily the best midsize to large venue (more than 2,000 seats) downtown, and while you won’t see a lot of local bands gracing the big stage, the sound blows away any of the other big venues. Comerica does a great job of running events so the usual hiccups with bigger shows are few and far between with this jewel in the heart of downtown. Any place that is good enough for Steve Martin and Martin Short is A-OK in our books.

Local bands need to put in their work and eat their Wheaties to play Comerica Theatre, but make it happen, boys and girls, and earn your slot.

Dream show at Comerica: We’d love to see Jimmy Eat World there with Meat Puppets opening, and because they do a lot of comedy events, we’d like to see Leslie Barton as the MC for that one.
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Tom Reardon has written for Phoenix New Times since 2013. He's been in several notable bands over the last 25 years including Hillbilly Devilspeak, North Side Kings, and the Father Figures.
Contact: Tom Reardon