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Tiny Desert, Big State: A KJZZ Concert Series Lures Arizona Bands Out Into the Wild

Losjones recording their Tiny Desert Concert for KJZZ.EXPAND
Losjones recording their Tiny Desert Concert for KJZZ.
Amanda Luberto

Musicians often want their music to sound natural. But how often do they record a concert a few steps away from a chicken coop?

On a chilly January afternoon, the members of Losjones are doing just that. They’re standing around a rusted old truck at The Farm at South Mountain, waiting as members of the team at KJZZ’s Tiny Desert Concert series — senior producer Kaely Monahan, engineer Dario Miranda, and producer Amanda Luberto — prepare to film and record their performance.

“Can I hear the loudest thing you’re going to do?” Miranda asks Steve Jones, the band’s leader.

Jones smiles and gently strums his guitar. “That’s pretty much it,” he replies.

If the clucking chickens weren’t causing enough problems, a flock of ducks is now quacking in the distance. A few moments later, a car alarm shouts from the parking lot nearby.

“That doesn’t sound organic,” Jones quips.

After a few more checks of the camera and sound equipment, Jones, guitarist Craig Wallach, and mandolin player Marconias (yes, just one name) begin playing “Flophouse Fairies,” a folk-song tale about St. Elmo Bar in Bisbee. Their smooth harmonies drown out the din of animal noises. “Get yourself in from the rain,” the trio sing into a microphone.

Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ’s The Show, the public radio program that has aired the Tiny Desert Concert series intermittently since 2014, walks up to listen. When the song’s done, she can’t resist commenting on the vocal poultry.

“It’s going to be rooster-y,” she says. “One came at us.”

“One of them was in rhythm with the song,” comments Miranda.

“We found a new drummer,” says Jones with a laugh.

“That was a fowl joke,” Miranda retorts.

As Luberto notes, filming in outdoor locations can be challenging — during their Tiny Desert Concert here, The Haymarket Squares needed eight takes due to the rain — but it adds a differentiating factor from the Tiny Desk Concert, the popular NPR Music segment that inspired it.

Many in the crew mention Sarah Ventre, the founder of Girls Rock! Phoenix (and a former Phoenix New Times contributor) when asked about Tiny Desert’s origins. Years ago, Ventre had an internship in Washington, D.C., with All Songs Considered host Bob Boilen. One of her duties was assisting with the Tiny Desk Concerts. When she later came to KJZZ, the station already was looking for a regular local music series, so she was able to offer up a little inspiration.

Though KJZZ is best known for playing jazz after 8 p.m., Luberto and Monahan cast a wider genre net for Tiny Desert Concerts. Luberto is always on the lookout for a location that matches the sound of the band. She recalls how a glass exhibit at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art complemented the dreamy techno-pop of MRCH, and the satisfaction of filming The Technicolors’ Brennan Smiley inside an empty Crescent Ballroom. In one eye-popping video, the crew filmed the local pop-punk group Sundressed at the top of South Mountain.

Listening to Jones croon about how “the mountains have dissolved” during “Red Tile Revolution,” it’s clear that his band is a natural fit for Tiny Desert Concerts. His lyrics tell a story about a time and place that no longer exists in the Valley, with all the rampant development going on.

“We want to make sure the band sounds good as well as looks good,” says Monahan. “The places where we film have been very receptive to playing in their space.”

After Losjones finish “Red Tile Revolution,” a song about the local bohemian commune The Baseline Mansion, Wallach and Marconias start to pack up their equipment. Jones and the KJZZ crew head toward a tin-roofed building west of the chicken coop for an interview. Gilger and Jones sit and chat about the stories behind his music. His story is not unlike other local songwriters. After steadily playing in rock bands in Tempe since the ’90s, he stepped away from music because he felt there wasn’t enough money in it. But it kept calling back to him. He picked up his guitar and started writing and performing folk songs as Losjones.

“[Gilger] made me think about things I hadn’t considered,” Jones says a few days later. “Some of my answers surprised me.”

Monahan and Luberto emphasize that above all else, they are looking for local musicians like Jones with personal and lyrical stories to tell from diverse points of view. In the case of songwriter Raquel Denis, singing about her life as an Afro-Latina in Arizona and the experiences her community faces became the story. “Sometimes it’s about their journey, or what they’re saying in their music has some depth,” says Luberto.

Both Luberto and Monahan have a wish list of bands they would like to do a Tiny Desert Concert. Monahan wants local icon Roger Clyne; Luberto is crossing her fingers, hoping to book The Maine.

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“The whole point is to highlight what we have here in Arizona,” says Monahan. “I feel like we get overlooked, but there are so many cool things happening here.”

Adds Luberto of our state, “Once you’re in, [the music] is so plentiful.”

Tiny Desert Concerts are available online at kjzz.org and on the radio at 91.5 FM.

Editor's note: In an earlier version of this story and in our print edition, we spelled Kaely Monahan's first name Kaley. We deeply regret the error.

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