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The First Times We Realized We Loved the Phoenix Music Scene

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The Phoenix music scene may never be that of New York or Los Angeles, but the truth of the matter is that the city coughs up hundreds of talented bands that put out fantastic music each year. (To illustrate: We had 25 entries on our Best Local Albums of 2015 list).

The problem is that for most, local music is an outside-in scene. Unless our parents are musicians, the music we grow up with is not something that was made in town but by bands known around the country. To discover the community of artists creating music takes a first step, a defining moment where we realize that, yes — there are creative people locally capable of writing songs on par with anyone from outside the state.

So with that in mind, theNew Times music writers decided to tap our memories and share when we first realized potency of the local music scene.

Andrew Jackson Jihad - David Accomazzo
All I knew about Andrew Jackson Jihad (these days shortened to AJJ) before I saw the band in August 2014 was that people whose taste I respected loved them. That was enough for me to want to see for myself. I was new to the city and new to a job that required a deep knowledge of the local music scene, and I had already seen dozens of local bands by that point. But it didn't take long at the Andrew Jackson Jihad show at Crescent Ballroom to realize something was different. The entire ballroom contained an electric buzz; peoples' grins were a little wider than I was used to seeing. When the band took the stage, the crowd went nuts. From the first note, the audience gyrated and thrashed to singer Sean Bonnette's nasal, high-pitched warble. People of all ages, including a sizable number of scenesters who looked to be under 18, sang along to lyrics of songs that were five years old. I'd never seen a Phoenix crowd react so emotionally to a local act before. We'd even published a screed on how Phoenix audiences need to dance more just a few months before the show. But there was something special about the way Andrew Jackson Jihad interacted with the crowd that night, the way the band weaved together new songs and old while maintaining a punk rock edge. Ninety minutes later, I left Crescent with a deep appreciation of what the downtown music scene can spawn. I've been a believer ever since.

Stephen Steinbrink - Jason P. Woodbury
I don’t know how many house shows I saw at the Palace of No Malice in Tempe. They blur: the fury of Soft Shoulder, booming folk from Empire of the Bear, that time Sean Bonnette of AJJ (née Andrew Jackson Jihad) led a crowd of us through a kitchen sing-along of the Mountain Goats’ “This Year.” Similarly, I don’t know how many times I’ve heard The Who’s “Baba O’Riley,” but I know I never heard it the way I did the night Stephen Steinbrink — performing under the name French Quarter — performed it one night at the Palace. Surrounded by art punks and misfits, Steinbrink plucked an acoustic guitar, singing his own originals, “Little Mascara,” and then the Townshend epic. I sat on the couch, light from the porch overlooking 13th and Wilson streets streaming in through the window. That night he sang “I don’t need to be forgiven,” and all the Boomer grandiosity of the original faded away, revealing a song about the struggle to thrive. It took on special weight even in a room full of kids uninterested in heading to the Clubhouse or bars, before the light rail could take us downtown, gathered in this makeshift space as Steinbrink sang, “Let’s get together/before we get much older.”

Kongo Shock at Boston’s in Tempe - Benjamin Leatherman
Before it became a staple of alt-rock radio and MTV, albeit for a year or two, in the late '90s, ska was a bit of a lesser-known commodity enjoyed by those in the know. Specifically, the ska-punk hybridization of its third wave practiced by such bands as Less Than Jake, Mustard Plug, Goldfinger, Hepcat, and Mad Caddies, just to name a few. All of this was pretty much unknown to the wide-eyed 18-year-old who walked into bygone Tempe rock bar Boston’s in October 1994 for a gig by Skankin’ Pickle. And while the Bay Area-based ska band was quite good, the array of opening bands that evening, including local pop-punkers Plinko, were even better. That includes Kongo Shock, one of the Valley’s better ska acts, which was in its prime in those days and put on a great set. It had a tremendous effect on this particular writer, and acted as a gateway drug of sorts to Arizona’s vibrant ska and punk scenes of that era, opening his eyes and expanding his music horizons.

Greenwich - Mandi Kimes
I was very much a church kid in high school. If I was going to a show, it was either some big arena show like Fall Out Boy or a low-key church related show like David Crowder Band. I didn’t get a glimpse into the local music scene until a guy I went to church with invited me to his shows in a band he played in called Greenwich. He was in that band with the worship pastor of our church, but they didn’t sing worship songs, which I thought was cool. They used to play at the Sets and some comedy clubs and house shows around Mesa and Tempe. But I didn’t venture into Phoenix until February 2009, when my mom drove me and my friend, Austin, to see Greenwich perform at this awkward diagonal venue on Grand Avenue called The Trunk Space. It was while we were there that I felt part of this community of music lovers and appreciators. The staff was friendly, the crowd was more than just the usual people I saw at church, and Austin and I even got a photo taken in their vintage photo booth. Up until this point in my life, I was planning on being a teacher. But this show along with many other shows I was exposed to that year led me to choose my career in cultivating the music scene in which I would soon immerse myself.

Prowling Kind - Jason Keil
Growing up, I would read about music scenes in artistic cities: Seattle, Portland, Detroit. I was disappointed when I covered local music in Milwaukee. I often wrote about cover bands and Wilco clones, so I thought "scenes" were a figment of music writers' imagination. I had lived in Phoenix for about two months when my girlfriend (now wife) and I went to see The Prowling Kind at Crescent Ballroom. We walked in with some trepidation, but walked out floored. When lead singer Mickey Pangburn took the stage to perform songs from the band’s stunning concept album Tennessee, we knew we were hearing something special. The record chronicles Pagburn’s 15-year journey across the country with her mother to escape her ex-convict father. The single "Melted Together" is a highlight. We were eager to devour what Phoenix had to offer musically. That night, I knew I wanted to cover music in the Valley. I never wrote about the Prowling Kind (most of the band moved on to the project MRCH). Tennessee pops in my head every now and again. It still gives me chills and serves as a reminder of how great local music is in Phoenix.

Stuckmode, Comfort for Change - Lauren Wise
Most teenagers aren’t too knowledgeable about the depth of their local music scene, unless they or someone they know began a band in their garage. When I moved to Scottsdale during high school, I retreated deeply into my passion for music of the heavier variety. As I made friends who shared those same interests, I was introduced to the Phoenix music scene. What should have surprised me was the sheer volume of people involved — I had come from Kansas, where the scene felt limited and cliquey. But what impressed me was the talent of the musicians and how they supported each other. Bands played with bands of opposite genres; styles ranging from Brazilian to Southwestern to European were fused together. At the start of college, comfort came from this musical openness; this excitement to grow. And quite suitably, the first band that blew me away was called Comfort for Change.

While I already knew the five musicians who made up the progressive hard rock band, I’ll never forget watching them perform for the first time at the old Brickhouse in downtown Phoenix. I don’t think any of the members were even 21 years old, but they sounded like a band fresh off the road with Deftones, or Killswitch Engage, or 36 Crazyfists. The performance was unpredictable in the best of ways, full of unique rhythms, intricate riffs, and vocals that soared from Incubus-style melodies to Pantera-esque screams and growls. The place was packed with people of all ages, and this was just when social media wasn’t even that popular. Seeing that band made me realize the breadth of local talent, and the musical awareness and passion that band’s music instilled pushed me to learn as much about music as I possibly could. I could even go as far to say that it helped shape me into a music journalist I am today: One of my first published pieces on music was a feature interview I did with Comfort for Change, for the now-defunct MYFM magazine. Even though the band broke up in 2011, the musicians all went on to do extraordinary things, locally and nationally. That first show was more than 12 years ago, and while the scene has evolved so much during that time, one thing’s for sure: the music of Phoenix will only grow stronger until it gets some of the recognition it deserves.

JFA - Tom Reardon
In 1984, I was going to Deer Valley High School and there was a punk rock band called Response that was made up of dudes from the school and area. I didn't know of the guys yet, but I was really getting into the whole punk rock thing and knew Response had been playing some shows and probably knew my heroes at the time, JFA. I had gotten a JFA shirt for my birthday that year at Van's and wore it proudly (and probably hoping Response's singer, Kelly Douglas, now my friend, would notice and think I was cool). Anyway, there was a punk band from Greenway High School around the same time, Reckless Disregard, and while some people would argue about which schools football team was better, a few of us would often taunt each other at the local pizza place that was frequented by students from both Greenway and Deer Valley High Schools about which band was better. That's fucking punk rock, and for what it is still worth, Response was much better. It wasn't even close.

Haymarket Squares - Joshua Bowling
Growing up in East Mesa had its downsides — there wasn’t much to do, there wasn’t a regular place to go hang out, and there certainly wasn’t much to see in the evening once everything in town closed at 9 p.m. It also had its advantages, and I discovered those on May 4, 2012, at a now-defunct coffee shop, Lo-Fi Coffee, that shared a wall with the Nile Theater and hosted smaller-scale shows.

I went to see the Arkansas-based indie band, Listener, which was headlining, but I walked away equally as impressed with the opening local talent. Greeting me in the beatnik coffee shop were The Haymarket Squares. For each bluegrass chord progression, there was a mustached, bohemian band member to complement it. For every nihilistic folksy romp, there was an unequivocal flail against the institution. Although the songs rarely lasted longer than two minutes, the energy was so potent, it nearly stole the show.

The rock-infused punkgrass made me forget I was sweltering along with 50 or so other people on a summer night in a muggy coffee shop in Mesa — something only true talent can really achieve.

In hindsight, the show wasn’t anything out of the ordinary for the venue. But it showed me that even in the middle of Arizonan suburbia, art can thrive.

When In AZ... - Mitchell Hillman
I had been covering local music for about a year and a half when I got tipped off about the When In AZ... compilation that was going to be released. Up until that time, it had been a little touch and go finding local acts to write about, and the music community wasn't all that supportive of each other. Local luminaries Nick Kizer, Lacy Lester, and Rodney Hu, along with 55 local bands teamed together to present something unique, brilliant and pretty amazing — all for charity. The release was a massive effort across several venues within a few weeks, each spotlighting a selection of the bands, and they would play their cover of another local band with a full set of their own. After those release shows I never had to search for local talent again, I had the map for that time. Few of the bands exist anymore, but this set the stage for the wave that crested in about 2012, with bands like Black Carl, What Laura Says, Kirkwood Dellinger, Colorstore, Yellow Minute, Gospel Claws and so many more. Still, most of the musicians from former bands have come to found some of the best available today eventually forming Wyves, Citrus Clouds, The Gentle Hits, No Volcano and more. Even more amazing is that contributors like Dry River Yacht Club, Treasure Mammal, Courtney Marie Andrews, Lonna Kelley, The Sugar Thieves, Andrew Jackson Jihad, Sweetbleeders, and The Rebel Set are still going strong.

Kayla Clancy - TOSO
On a First Friday back in July, I visited a new DIY house venue that popped up on Roosevelt Street called the Void. As a low-key house venue, it didn’t stick around at that location for more than six months. One night local rockers TOSO came through and played a rowdy show in the dirt backyard on a handmade stage of cement blocks. Earlier, a band called From Mars played some psychedelic jazz-metal. TOSO’s electric live performance reminded me of all the reasons I loved local bands and shows. The Void offered such an inclusive and intimate setting. There were couches and a bonfire for people to lounge around, and a friendly mosh pit to get dusted in. The whole band got undressed and partook in some wild stage theatrics involving a bucket of water and a stuffed unicorn. Inside, people were painting art on the chalk walls, and every week there was a show to see. The community of artists and musicians in Phoenix may take some digging to find, but the reward is solid gold.

Space Alien Donald - Serene Dominic
"And on a night when I needed to feel young, he made me feel like I was hearing music for the very first time."

That was Jon Landau's famous Real Paper piece where he declared Bruce Springsteen rock 'n' roll's future.

I had a similar epiphany about Phoenix's future as a place to see live music and not feel so old and jaded. It was 2012 and the venue was Funny World. Having been to house parties where you got the stink eye for being on the wrong side of 22, I was happy to see Space Alien Donald swing the age demographic far in the other direction and obliterate it with his mirthful and weird set.

Similarly, I saw young bands like Dogbreth, Hug of War and Father's Day that weren't self-conscious or afraid to come off corny or foolish. I'll never forget when Drunk N Horny, armed with a megaphone and accordion, led the whole audience out in the street to sing the praises of Britney Spears, although I'm not sure now if it was Justin Bieber.

Anyhow, the whole group of about 30 people eventually detoured around the block to the New Times buildings and huddled in an alcove to sing this rallying cry about some fallible fallen idol. That night I felt there was a scene that was ridiculous, and I didn't feel ridiculous being in it. And Funny World, like Trunk Space, had a wholesome vibe to it as well that you wouldn't get in another big city.

Of course, as all scenes go, it's only a blip in time, but I have no doubt some other ridiculous scene that's not afraid to laugh at itself will emerge in its wake.

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