It's September, which means that most music nerds are deep into their "Albums of the Year" process. I'm no different. I've got about 15 drafts of my list, and the name Unknown Mortal Orchestra appears on most of them. The Portland-via-New Zealand band's eponymous debut alternately recalls Led Zeppelin, Prince, RZA, and Paul McCartney, and it's near the top of my list. Pitchfork liked it, The Onion A.V. Club thought it was okay, and Dusted Magazine hated it. But everyone had something to say about it.
In other words, the band is exactly the kind of band that Charlie Levy's Stateside Presents has been booking since 2001, a band with a national presence and the potential to be a "big deal" indie act but not a band guaranteed to fill the house. Unknown Mortal Orchestra is scheduled to play the second night of business at Levy's new downtown venue, Crescent Ballroom. The venue is a bold move for Levy, and much anticipated, joining the Danny Zelisko's recently opened Foundry on First as a new mid-size venue in downtown Phoenix.
Levy is giving me the "grand tour." Nothing is finished just yet. The garage doors that face out onto Second Avenue have just been installed, and stacks of lumber litter the area that will be the lounge. There's sawdust sprinkled everywhere on the bare concrete floors, and a lone work light illuminates the floor in front of the stage. It's not quite a "ballroom" yet, but Levy is beaming with pride.
Unknown Mortal Orchestra is scheduled to perform Tuesday, October 4, at Crescent Ballroom.
He points out the wall behind the lounge stage, a pale, ghostly green. It's the original coat of paint from the building's days in 1917, when it was built as a garage for motorists on Van Buren Street. "I saw that and I said, 'Leave it,'" Levy says of the unique color. "Leave it" is the theme of Crescent. Levy says the design plans called for a back-to-basics approach. "Strip it down to the bare bones," he says. "Make it nice, but not too nice. I want it to still be rock 'n' roll."
He shows off the reclaimed wood that lines the back bar, adjacent to the stage ("We found this wood in an old Phoenix factory") and excitedly explains where bands will be able to set up their merch, with wire hangers and a glass display case — "instead of just a folding table," Levy says.
Levy walks me through the kitchen, where Chris Bianco of Pizzeria Bianco and Doug Robson of Gallo Blanco will oversee hiring and kitchen operations. The staff of The Vig will oversee front-of-the-house operations.The lounge at Crescent Ballroom will be open from 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. every night of the week and always will be free of charge to enter, Levy says, hoping to attract the happy hour crowd. The big culinary names accent Levy's ambition, as does Crescent's October schedule, which features music every night, including local and touring DJs, bands, and solo acts in the lounge.
I ask Levy what prompted his move. Why now, with a struggling economy and Phoenix's notorious reputation when it comes to live music?
"I found this place," he says of the building that until recently was Bentley's Nightclub. "It's tough in Phoenix [to find the right location]. Either it's too expensive, has no character, or it's off the beaten path." Crescent doesn't seem to suffer from any of those issues. It's located one block from the Van Buren/First Avenue light-rail station, and the vibe of the building is impressive, even in its unfinished state.
But will people show? Unknown Mortal Orchestra is emblematic of the kind of acts Levy books — an act that is exciting to music writers and indie fans, but risky to promoters as a band that commands crowds in big cities, but not necessarily in Phoenix.
Levy is well aware that Crescent Ballroom could be spectacular, or a spectacular failure. "All we can do is do our best," he says, a wide grin under his perpetual five-o'clock shadow. "It's like that Charlie Rich song, 'Let the Chips Fall,'" he says, laughing. "I'm going to 'Let the chips fall where they may.' Or is it 'lay'? I can't remember."
Keep Phoenix New Times Free... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Phoenix with no paywalls.