By the Time I Get to Phoenix: Courtney Marie Andrews Is the Biggest Star in the Valley's Blooming Pop-Folk Scene

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When she returns from her summer tour, Blades plans to meet with Mark Kramer, who sought her out through MySpace. Kramer is a former member of the Butthole Surfers and has produced Ween, GWAR, and Daniel Johnston. Kramer and River Jones Music are planning to co-produce another record for Blades beginning in August.

All this for a southern Florida girl who's lived in Phoenix for only 14 months.

In cities with more established cultural scenes, Andrews and Blades might've achieved national success without leaving home. However, in a place like Phoenix and its environs, the pair's career advances are starting to max out the area's humble resources.

"If Courtney were in Seattle, she would have been signed to a bigger indie label by now," Jones says. "There just aren't any bigger indies in Phoenix."

Because there's only so much that one person can do, River Jones has been forced to give up some responsibilities. Andrews and Jones are no longer booking shows, and the label has become more of an artist-development company that tries to take its talent to the next level, à la Andrews' upcoming appearance on the new Jimmy Eat World record.

As a result, other do-it-yourself outfits like The Color Group (which promotes local pop-folk concerts) have tried to pick up the slack. A number of wanna-be labels are attempting to fill the void, too. However, Jones says, they soon realize that they are in over their heads. Jones says these well-meaning labels, many of which are run by people in their early 20s, call him frequently for pointers.

Also, there's no a central venue right now to showcase the music.

For example, on a recent Friday evening, Andrews performed at Hidden Elements Studio. It was only her second gig in town since December 2009. The only reason she played at the warehouse space (accessible only by traveling down a neighborhood street, through a large and confusing parking lot, and into a smaller, concealed lot) was for an art opening, although most of the walls were bare with several 5-foot-tall portrait paintings of African women resting against one wall.

When Andrews finally started playing, seven people were in the audience. Toward the end of the set, she debuted a Dylan-esque ditty chronicling all the places she's traveled to and played at along the West Coast. By then, a few people wandered in, bringing the grand total to nine.

An Andrews performance has become a rare occurrence since Modified Arts passed on the indie-rock game. Days after December's folk festival, longtime Modified owner Kimber Lanning handed the reins to Adam Murray and Kim Larkin; the husband-and-wife team decided to make the 10-year-old venue mostly about visual art.

Shows like the one at Hidden Elements are a far cry from the packed affairs that Modified hosted. About the change, Andrews says, "Modified made me feel like there was a music scene, but now that it's gone . . . I don't know. Modified, for me, was the first venue I thought of when you think 'Arizona music venue.'"

Many artists on River Jones Music, including Andrews, are scrambling to find a spot to showcase their new songs in a live setting. Other spaces have appeared in Modified's stead, such as the Hello House — where nine residents attempt to put on haphazard shows in the space's living room — as well as Fractal on Grand Avenue and The Dressing Room on Roosevelt. However, none possesses the grit and soul of Modified.

Another venue mentioned in the fray is the long-established Trunk Space. The six-year-old spot on Grand Avenue, which occasionally hosts pop-folk acts, tends to feature a wider variety of genres than Modified showcased. There just aren't enough open dates on Trunk Space's calendar to accommodate all the artists performing this type of music.

In the past, some talented local musicians have found it necessary to skip town. On the other hand, some Phoenix-area groups – including Jimmy Eat World and Greeley Estates – have seen nationwide success without leaving.

Local show promoter Stephen Chilton (a.k.a. Psyko Steve) doesn't think that local musicians need to establish themselves in more so-called culturally relevant cities. Instead, he says, Phoenix-based bands need to hit the road more often.

"I think it's possible for Phoenix to foster this scene, just as long as some of the artists go on tour," Chilton says. "The only reason we hear about bands from Austin and Portland is because they get their name out there on a professional and national level. Phoenix needs more of that. You can talk about how great a local band is, but if they never leave, who cares?"

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Steve Jansen
Contact: Steve Jansen