Tempe on a Friday night. Mill Avenue, the main drag, is a warm, yeasty environment, alive with frat rats, gang wanna-bes, packs of young women from the dorms and mom-and-pop tourists in the kind of ugly madras shorts that only Ohioans bring to the desert. A shaggy transient toting a garbage bag perches on a wall and rolls a cigarette. Cruisers look expectantly out of car windows while 15 different car stereos thump like artillery. Although the Tempe music scene is a shadow of its former self--more clubs closed than open--music still echoes down Mill.

Inside Long Wong's, at the corner of Seventh Street and Mill, Dead Hot Workshop has lurched into its set. There's no stage at Long Wong's. Everything--band, PA system and one large bouncer with earplugs--is crammed into the front corner of the shoebox. Above the band, ceiling panels are covered with graffiti, some of it memorializing the Gin Blossoms, who once held court here. Behind Dead Hot Workshop, there's a window with a view of Seventh Street and the 6 East Bar, an infamous dive where bands working at Long Wong's go to slam drinks between sets.

The rest of the place is packed with humanity, contorted in every shape imaginable, trying to see the band.

Squeezing into Long Wong's for a Dead Hot show is the quintessential Tempe-music experience. For nearly a decade, this closet has been the locus of the Tempe scene. And for the past few years, Dead Hot has been that scene's most promising act.

"Sometimes," guitarist Steven Larson, 27, muses, unsmiling, "it seems like Long Wong's is the only place we've ever played."
On this night, the band starts in its usual way--slowly. The musicians seem scattered, half-awake, half-stoned, not together. Although the juices begin to flow near the end, the first set is stillborn.

After the break, vocalist Brent Babb, 25, gets on a roll. His outbursts are a band trademark. Usually depending on the quantity and quality of pot he's just smoked, these extemporaneous harangues can be hysterically funny, slyly sardonic or really stupid. Tonight's stream of consciousness mixes George Bush-bashing, Russian political upheavals, whole-wheat tortillas, profanity, the perils of vocalists who talk too much and the wisdom inherent in Frank Zappa's autobiography. On a good night, Babb's spiels balance the verbal boners with hit one-liners. This particular rant is working. Even the band is laughing. Babb concludes with a hillbilly-inflected "Don't fergit to tip them waitresses."

The ice is broken. Babb's straining tenor segues into the opening line from a song titled "A," the band's best pop tune: "Walked from here to hell today. . . ."

After "A," bassist Brian Griffith tears into the figure that underlies the most requested of the band's "jam songs," a bass-driven, almost-metal mosh driver called "CHOAD" (pronounced "CHO-AD"). The exercise in irresistible rhythm picks up speed when drummer Curtis Grippe joins in, followed by both guitarists. The band achieves the kind of groove that only comes from hours onstage together. On top of that, the members are smiling. It's not that these guys have to pose. They like each other, and they love playing together.

"Sometimes, we hear bands bitch about needing a couple months off," Griffith explains. "Man, we go crazy if we only play once a week."
No one knows how many gigs Dead Hot has played in its five years together. "Hundreds," says Grippe, who, at 29, is the old man of the group. "Thousands," Griffith, 27, counters. "Nine and a half zillion," says the genetically hyperbolic Babb.

Whatever the exact number, Dead Hot Workshop is easily the workin'est live act in the Valley: three to four nights per week, three to four sets per night. The pace has turned this quirky alternative-punk band into a powerful, well-oiled live machine that never fails to draw a crowd and is ripe for the record-label picking.

But it's a fine line between ripe fruit and rotting fruit. After years as a big apple on the Tempe scene, Dead Hot has yet to find any takers, or--to hear the members tell it--to take any finders.

Despite the band's healthy indifference to corporate dues paying, success appears to be creeping up on Dead Hot Workshop. Two small artist-management firms, Louis Levin Management and Mike's Management Limited, made serious offers. The band has talked with both the Epic and Interscope labels.

Dead Hot Workshop is approaching a crossroads. The band will either finish its current CD project, stop playing hard-to-get, get its management act together, sign with a label, make an album and become a national act or, by default, its members will keep their day jobs and become the house band at Long Wong's for the remainder of this millennium.

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Robert Baird