Recently, I spent a week in Chicago, walking the streets of Wrigleyville, trying to find all the locations where they shot The Dark Knight, and eating way too much pizza (I thoroughly recommend the mac n’ cheese slice at Dimo’s). When I wasn’t nursing blisters from over-walking or grogginess from over-eating, I took part in another of the Windy City’s great attractions: live music. From Jukebox the Ghost at Lincoln Hall to Killer Mike and El-P at the Bottom Lounge, and the endless rows of smaller clubs blasting jazz and dance music into the wee hours every day of the week — it was overwhelming. But like all great vacations, it ended way too quickly and I was snapped back to reality when I headed home to Phoenix. The worst part wasn’t reacclimating to the time zone change or the dry heat; it was that I had left a musical Mecca for, literally, a musical desert.
For those who have never lived in or even visited Arizona, you may think I’m underestimating the amount of music in the Phoenix Metro area. There is a diverse local scene, with everything from ranchero to hip-hop and even a sizable punk and pop-punk contingency (Jimmy Eat World and Authority Zero hail from this great state). We’ve got plenty of tiny clubs and venues, not to mention our fair share of arenas and amphitheaters, all filled on a regular basis. And, to a certain extent, the musical hum that fills every nook and cranny of big cities can be found in Downtown Phoenix, albeit on a much smaller scale and usually just on Friday and Saturday nights. I won’t condemn the city I grew up in, but as a lifelong citizen makes you realize there’s one great truth working against us.
While we’ve had everyone from Wilco to Elton John come through town, many major artists vastly ignore the state of Arizona. We’re on the way to California, but bands either never make the trip or visit so infrequently they may as well not even bother in the first place. That neglect stings the most, like being looked dead in the eye as you’re picked last for kickball. In recent years, the reasons to further ignore Arizona as a musical hotspot have grown thanks to the controversy of SB 1070 and the resulting musical embargo by artists under the Sound Strike banner. That piece of legislation may have failed miserably, but its impact has left the state feeling like Sun City circa 1985.
At least South Africa can enjoy the occasional breeze.
For the most part, local venues have done whatever they can to soldier on, maintaining channels of communication to bypass the immigration and race issues to make the state a music-minded tourist destination. Despite these efforts, I haven’t noticed an uptick in the number of musical options. The same drought defines the culture of this city, and sometimes, I can’t help but feel Arizona will never divert A-listers and rising up and comers from California.
Still, as I sat on the Midway tarmac headed home, assessing where I was and where I was headed, I didn’t get mad or envious (for very long) about my cultural lot in life. I had an epiphany about my hometown and its musical offerings: It ain’t half bad. In fact, there’s so much it offers that I never adequately realized before. All it took was a week spent half a country away to finally understand that.
The Small Pond Experience
While Arizona is a lone dirt road compared to the Chicago’s super highway, there’s one major upside to being a smaller city with an even smaller musical range: It’s easier to make connections with musicians. Take, for instance, local pop-rock outfit Kinch. Before they started more regular nationwide tours within the last couple years, you could see them play several times a week at local venues. After a while, you begin to make this neat, insulated connection with the band, as if they’re playing just for you and a few select friends who also happen to be fans. It’s one thing to have a rapport with a band who frequents a big city regularly. It’s a totally different thing when musicians you enjoy or feel are special randomly come to BBQs or date your best friend’s cousin.
More than that, though, cities like Chicago and New York City are Blog Capitals. In these bigger cities, bloggers’ influence and taste-making shape people’s willingness to follow crowds and shape their tastes to the most buzzworthy and popular. In a way, that kind of mentality creates a hive culture, where people flock to see bands based partially on the number of attendees and the corresponding sense that they must be good or they wouldn’t have such a following.
Inversely, Arizona has that same kind of reaction, with bands like Andrew Jackson Jihad becoming popular because of increased attention; but we also have fewer bands and fewer shows, which makes splintering less possible. That lack disappoints on the surface, but really, it’s more a blessing than anything. For better or worse, there’s a shared mentality between Phoenicians I’ve talked to that if national blogs don’t pay attention to our town, why should we adhere to their musical marching orders?
I hope I’m not alone in thinking that being a destination for bands would be an achievement, but we’d miss out on that interactivity and connectivity we have with bands who currently grace our state’s stages. As it is right now, that bond perpetuates the work of countless groups and individuals across Phoenix to make Arizona’s concerts generally memorable and worth it. It’s nice to even think about that possibility after years of feeling like I lived in a stagnant pond.
A stagnant pond with tons of laser tag arenas.
You Don’t Know What You’ve Got Till You’re On Vacation
As a child growing up in Central and Southern Phoenix, I was surrounded by Mexican music. I couldn’t walk down the street, drive in a car, or get a breakfast burrito without hearing energetic NorteÃ±o music. It’s second only in my life to my own record collection. During my seven days in Chi-town, I didn’t hear the music coming out of store fronts, or played in restaurants, or blaring out of car stereos, and I missed it. It had nothing to do with how much I like the music itself (some of it’s fun and danceable, but I’m neither neither a fan nor a detractor of the movement). Instead, it was all about how that sound has– again, for better or worse– influenced and soundtracked my entire life.
It’s like that for a lot of people in towns and cities across the country: local or regional genres you hear every day, creeping into who you are as a music consumer while going to a friend’s house or various parties or just during your daily commute. It could be that the music I listen to reflects my ambient noise, even if it means my personal world is relatively NorteÃ±o-free because it inundates my life outside my personal space. Either way, it impacts who we are and why we gravitate toward certain music. Now, I think I enjoy certain soundscapes because of NorteÃ±o, whether it’s that saxophone wail or even interludes reminiscent of the Grito Mexicano. We don’t realize how important the sounds and intricacies of our local community are until we’re in a foreign scene.
Chicago and similar cities don’t have that same kind of personal impact. Like the food court at a mall, these empires provide an endless opportunity to eat many things at once from across the culinary spectrum. Arizona is more like the mom and pop restaurant: It doesn’t matter whether the food is better or not, but that you can feel like an integral part of its success. Mr. and Mrs. Giuseppe need the money you spend on possibly middling lasagna and the commitment to local establishments, as do Arizona’s bands, venues, and promoters.
Pepsi Amphitheatre in Flagstaff. Jealous? (photo courtesy of Spady Photography)
A Closing Word On Identity
When people ask me where I’m from, I usually preface it by saying I was born in New York before admitting I was raised in Arizona. After Chicago, those days are over. I’m ready to call Arizona my true home state. We’re a region of instability, where cultures battle it out for supremacy while trying to fuse their sensibilities into something new (how else would one explain Arizona’s prominent Latin hip-hop community?).
We’re similar to many other cities in our love and embracing of every possible genre, yet our approach to music is, in and of itself, approachable. We understand the imperfections and inadequacies and accept them as badges of honor, something to be respected before progress can be made. We see other cities alive with music, and though we’re secluded, our passion for the power of life-altering art burns just as brightly.
As an extension of that, I always want to feel like an outsider. That feeling of isolation makes Arizona. We’re not just seekers and hard workers, but we’re people who relish the fact that we’re separated from so much of the world by both literal and figurative desert landscapes. We reach out and make connections on our own time, maintaining our signature emotions and worldviews, emphasizing the importance of art as a means of transcendence.
Oo, Arizona; You’re the magic in me;
Oo, Arizona, You’re the life-blood of me.