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Thriving: The History of the Downtown Phoenix Music Scene

by Cris Arellano-Port
Arts & Culture Bars & Nightlife Community Voices History Music & Events Spotlight Cris Arellano-Port April 5, 2023

“This is my song ‘Thriving’ in 60 seconds” –Upsahl.

 

The Phoenix music scene wasn’t built and debuted in 60 seconds (unlike the Phoenix-based artist Upsahl’s song recreations on TikTok). However, if you live in Phoenix, you are probably accustomed to the now notable venues, such as The Van Buren, Crescent Ballroom, Valley Bar, Rebel Lounge, Footprint Center, and Chase Field. You’ve most likely even seen shows at all of them. However, the Downtown Phoenix music venues and vibrant culture accompanying the artists were vastly different in their infancy. Opportunities to spend weeknights with friends to see notable artists were not as easily accessible, if at all. That said, where did this music scene come from? More importantly, though, who helped create today’s most prominent local entertainment venues?

The F.L. Hart Garage, built in 1917, housed automotive businesses throughout the years and is now a music venue and restaurant. Founded by Charlie Levy in 2011, known as Crescent Ballroom, it was a nod to Levy’s upbringing in New Orleans, also known as “Crescent City.”

Front facing image of the exterior of Crescent Ballroom and Cocina 10 at night. (Photo: Downtown Phoenix Inc.)

Levy reminisced on his initial experiences with concerts in Downtown Phoenix. “When I first moved to the Valley, I attended Arizona State University and lived in Tempe, which at the time had a lot of great local music. I did not visit Downtown Phoenix often. However, I remember seeing shows at the Mason Jar, now The Rebel Lounge, and the Silver Dollar Club. It felt a bit edgy and dangerous, which is always fun.” Building on the success of Crescent Ballroom, Levy soon opened Valley Bar, created as a homage to Phoenix with the Winnie Ruth Judd mobile art piece by Patch & Clarke, the Rose Room, named after Rose Mofford, who was the first female governor of Arizona, and a portrait of Jack Swilling, credited as one of the first founders of Phoenix. Levy would go on to open The Van Buren, an adaptive reuse project in the former Dud R. Day Motor Company building at Fourth Avenue and Van Buren, in 2017.

His inspiration for Valley Bar and Crescent Ballroom stemmed from Tucson venues such as Hotel Congress, Solar Culture, Plush, and the Rialto Theater. “I admired how they used live music and events to build a community around their venues. Then, I had the opportunity to open Crescent Ballroom in 2011 and thought it would be interesting trying that in Downtown Phoenix.”

Exterior photo of the Van Buren. (Photo: Van Buren Facebook Page)

Terry Burke, Live Nation’s President of Music for the Southwest Region, commented on the success and popularity of the concert venues as the pandemic slowed, “Coming out of COVID-19, we saw a huge resurgence of people wanting to attend a show. Nothing replicates the live experience, so the future is bright.” When asked about what attracts top-level talent and performers, Burke explains, “It’s the venues. Downtown Phoenix is home to some of the best venues in the State. Valley Bar and Rebel (a bit out of Downtown) are the starting point for many up-and-coming bands. Then, we have Crescent Ballroom that jump-started Downtown’s whole music scene.”

The Rebel Lounge Exterior Building Sign. (Photo: Rebel Lounge Facebook)

Suppose you head north of the Downtown Core. In that case, you’ll run into The Rebel Lounge. Owned by Stephen Chilton, better known as Psyko Steve, who helped create the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) and lobbied for the #SaveOurStages Act during the COVID-19 pandemic. Per Chilton, “In the wake of COVID, we got thousands of independent venues and promoters to effectively lobby for the #SaveOurStages Act to bring federal aid to the most impacted industry during the pandemic. The passing of that bill and the $16 Billion in federal aid to performance venues, promoters, movie theaters, and museums was the largest federal funding of the arts in U.S. history. How important that relief was to the live events industry coming back post-pandemic cannot be overstated. I was honored to be a small part of that. Thank you to Senators Kyrsten Sinema and Mark Kelly and Congressmembers Reuben Gallego and Greg Stanton for championing that legislation.”

Zona Music Festival of the Mingus Stage during Playboy Manbaby’s performance in the rain. (Photo: Zona Music Festival Facebook)

Chilton also was the curator and central orchestrator of the ZONA Music Festival and the 8123 Fest. Chilton started as a promoter at Roosevelt Street music venue-turned-art gallery Modified Arts, opened by the founder of Local First Arizona, Kimber Lanning in 1999. “The first show I ever was a part of in any way was a show I promoted myself at Modified Arts in 2000. Just some local bands, mostly from my high school. And It just kept going from there.” According to Chilton, the music scene in the early 2000s “Was very bifurcated between the huge A-list concerts happening at the arenas and larger venues, and the small DIY shows happening in warehouses, art galleries, and dive bars. There wasn’t much in between.”

Exterior of Modified Arts. (Photo: Modified Arts Facebook)

However, turning back the clock to 1979, The Rebel Lounge was known as The Mason Jar. It was founded by Clive Shields and sold to an eccentric Italian man known for his charisma and clogs: Franco Gagliano. At that time, the venue embodied, “I knew this band before they got big.” Being on the cutting edge of booking artists with great potential, Gagliano would lead the venue until the early 2000s to become an incubator for newer bands looking to make it big and get a foothold within the music industry. Now household names, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Guns N’ Roses, Nirvana, Rage Against the Machine, Kid Rock, Green Day, and many more have performed at The Mason Jar. The Mason Jar was reopened in 2015 by Chilton, who renamed the esteemed venue The Rebel Lounge; he continues this tradition, with many modern artists playing at the venue. “We have always had a significant focus on local acts and working with them, both on their shows and supporting national artists when we can,” said Chilton.

Nirvana concert at the Mason Jar. (Photo: AMT #1, Amateur Video)

Larger venues, such as Footprint Center and Chase Field, have provided even more access to more significant artists to play in the heart of Downtown. Ralph Marchetta, the general manager of Footprint Center, notes, “The success of the team (Footprint Center’s anchor tenant, the Phoenix Suns) creates a vibe that artists want to be associated with. We are the place to play in the market, and the success of the Phoenix Suns only increases our profile nationally.”

Footprint Center, Bud Light Music Fest, 2023. (Photo: Footprint Center Facebook)

As Super Bowl LVII activities rolled through Downtown in February, headlining artists such as Paramore, Imagine Dragons, and the Dave Matthews band performed at the Footprint Center’s ‘Super Bowl LVII Music Fest.’ Marchetta notes, “We were the epicenter of music for those three days, and the Super Bowl’s success, in general, is a huge boost.” Similarly, Arizona Diamondbacks President and CEO Derrick Hall shares, “It is exhilarating to see the emergence of Chase Field in Downtown Phoenix as a major concert venue. We have made meaningful and intentional investments in the growth and development of Downtown Phoenix, including the creation of Arizona Diamondbacks Events and Entertainment (ADEE), which, coupled with our hyper-focus on guest experience, is why I am confident in a very bright future for the continued growth of live music at Chase Field in Phoenix at global and national levels.”

Chase Field Downtown Phoenix

Chase Field (Photo Credit: Chase Field Facebook)

Downtown’s music culture has been shaped by the passionate musicians and fans who helped form the scene into what we know and love today. From dance halls and ballrooms to punk clubs and indie venues, our music scene has always reflected the city’s vibrant and eclectic spirit. Today, Downtown continues to be a significant player in the music world. Its venues and festivals are becoming some of the most respected in the country for budding and well-seasoned performers. While the Downtown music scene continues to grow, some would say,

“Yeah, look at me now … Straight out of Phoenix.” -Upsahl.