Music Features

The Rebel Lounge Marries the Past and the Future of the Phoenix Music Scene

The Rebel Lounge in central Phoenix.
The Rebel Lounge in central Phoenix. The Rebel Lounge's Facebook
In the past, we've published "Better Know a Venue." This regular column highlighted the coolest and coziest places to hear live music in Phoenix any day of the week. Now, in the wake of venues reopening across the Valley, we're refurbishing the feature slightly. Here's a chance to reacquaint yourselves with the clubs, theaters, and venues that continually define the city's robust music scene.

It's hard to believe that The Rebel Lounge has only been open since 2015. In the subsequent years, the venue has played host to innumerable concerts and become an important local institution. More than that, several local bands have identified the space as a kind of "home base" for their growing careers.

It helps that it's always had history built directly into its very walls.

The Rebel Lounge occupies the former home of the iconic Mason Jar. "I think that connection is really cool for quite a few reasons," says Jeff Taylor, who handles marketing and talent-buying for the venue. "Obviously, we explain the history in a way that helps build our brand of who we are now. It helps give us a connection to the roots of our music community in Phoenix."

Taylor went on to say that owner Stephen Chilton, who also operates Psyko Steve Presents, chose the space for having the "bones" of a proper venue. The history is just a bonus.

"Sometimes, somebody in the band doesn't get the memo that the room they're playing in Phoenix is the room that they used to play at 25 years ago," Taylor says. One time, he adds, a crew of construction workers "lost their minds ... they had no idea that the club they're working at was the one they used to party at in the '80s."

But Chilton and company haven't just been building off the history of one famous spot. Chilton's booked shows all across the Valley for some 20-plus years. Taylor, who came to work with him after time spent at The Rhythm Room, says that having this venue was an essential step forward.

"He [Chilton] was doing 100 shows a year and having to rent out a 300-person room, so it made sense financially to talk about having a room," Taylor says. "And it was something he was even talking about a decade ago."
Because, as Taylor explains, the mission statement of Rebel Lounge is ultimately an extension of Chilton's own work: find ways to better support the artists.

"You're only in charge of so much [at other venues.] Maybe marketing the show in advance and doing the hospitality or buying dinner for the band. That's something that's always been really interesting to Steve: having more control over it and making sure you give the artists the best experience."

In the end, a lot of that effort is about growing alongside local talent.

"Maybe [bands] are only playing to 20 people, but hopefully our staff is going to be treating them the same way as if they were playing to a sold-out room," Taylor says. "When those bands grow from 20 tickets to 100 tickets to 200 tickets to selling out the room, that is why those folks feel like this is home base. We don't just want to be tagging along for the ride because a band makes money now; you want to be supporting good art."

That "power" also means they can promote more diverse lineups.

"We do have more control and could definitely use that to pick and choose what we prefer to be on our stage," Taylor says. "We don't necessarily want to be a room that only does one thing well, and we want those crowds and those artists to feel comfortable. You can walk in and see Shooter Jennings one night and the next night see [local artist] Ramirez."

Even with that level of diversity, though, Rebel Lounge is a midsize venue. As such, the staff recognizes the venue's status in the larger music community.

"We're involved in taking [bands] to the next level," Taylor says. "The hope is that even if they sort of grow beyond this, they'll always keep Rebel Lounge as that central focus, or they'll return to it. The baton is handed off from Rebel to Psyko Steve Presents, who is taking it to the next room that makes sense, whether that's Crescent Ballroom, The Pressroom, or The Van Buren."
click to enlarge Don't forget a face mask on the first date. - THE REBEL LOUNGE/FACEBOOK
Don't forget a face mask on the first date.
The Rebel Lounge/Facebook
As such, Rebel Lounge and other local promoters often work in tandem, booking shows at one another's venues, for instance. That collaboration has been especially important the last 18 months as venues worked to keep the lights on. Even as Rebel books shows through 2022, they've needed their local partners to tackle this ongoing challenge, including fundraising campaigns and addressing COVID.

Taylor says in regards to safety, it's been a "very drawn-out, ongoing conversation about how much we do or don't enforce." But a decision was made in mid-August when Rebel Lounge, and other local venues, announced plans to require either proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test.

"Some days, this feels right. Some days, it doesn't," Taylor says of the decision. "I think what ultimately ended up giving us the encouragement and support to make this decision was really the linking of arms with the venues around us."

There's been some "negative" feedback from locals about the mandates. (Taylor says it's been a "challenging few weeks as the person that has the keys to [the] social media.") But at the end of the day, the decision wasn't just about "doing the right thing," but also about the venue's long-term future.

"And again, it's not even exclusively about the public's health; it's also about our business," Taylor says. "We feel like this is something that we need to do in order to do as much as we can to combat the possibility of having to shut down again. Because last year was really an extreme challenge for our business."

Part of protecting their business has meant expanding. Last October, the venue joined forces with the folks at Reap & Sow to open a coffee shop within Rebel's space. While the plan is to keep the coffee flowing, Taylor says it's not an entirely fixed concept.
click to enlarge Reap & Sow Coffee Bar has opened inside The Rebel Lounge. - CHARLES BARTH
Reap & Sow Coffee Bar has opened inside The Rebel Lounge.
Charles Barth
"We like what they contribute to our business and it's the right role in the community," he says. "There's a lot of work that went into it last year, and there's going to continue to be work with it." The effort is worth it, Taylor says, as the venue figures out ways to better compete.

"I'm not even a guy who drinks a lot of coffee, but it made sense to just not be the one thing anymore, because that's not what people are always going to need from it," Taylor says.

That sense of uncertainty is at the heart of Rebel's continued "recovery" process. For one, there's been staffing changes, with Taylor leading an all-new crew. While that means big changes operationally, it's also a bonus in deciding the venue's long-term offerings.

"We don't have any hard rules of what we no longer book, but we're definitely always having conversations about it," Taylor says. "Like, 'Hey, now that we have time, we have the opportunity to do it this way. Maybe we finally give that a shot.'"

At the same time, however, those shifts mean the staff are still trying to decipher larger lessons from the pandemic.

"A lot of the big-picture lessons are still tough to tie a bow on right now," Taylor says. "Because ultimately, what we do six months from now completely depends on our ability to encourage folks to get vaccinated and to be safe right now."

As such, the Rebel Lounge staff are focused not on their legacy but rather what they can do right now at this unique point in time. But even that can only further the venue's place in the grand scheme of local music.

"I think that the only real answer I have to that question [of the future] is that we'd like to see us playing a positive role in obviously providing entertainment to our community as we've always done, but really shifting it," Taylor says. "Moving the needle on the conversation of keeping people safe." 
KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Chris Coplan has been a professional writer since the 2010s, having started his professional career at Consequence of Sound. Since then, he's also been published with TIME, Complex, and other outlets. He lives in Central Phoenix with his fiancee, a dumb but lovable dog, and two bossy cats.
Contact: Chris Coplan