By Chris Barton, Co-Editor
Downtown Phoenix is quite small. Normally, this is kind of a bummer – we all want it to be a real city, a place with bustling streets and towering buildings. Instead, Phoenix’s designers left us with a toy city, the urbanist’s version of a dollhouse added as an afterthought. It’s fun to play with, but it’s no substitute for the real thing.
But for one night a year, Phoenix’s size becomes its best feature. For one night in mid-March, we don’t care that Phoenix is a baby city. Because during Viva Phoenix, the disappointing downtown turns into a musical amusement park.
Viva Phoenix is a one-night concert that takes over every stage, every venue, and every open space in Downtown. Over 100 bands play over the course of 6 hours, across a score of venues. It’s an event that could only happen in a downtown as diminutive and desolate as Phoenix: the small size lends itself to an ease of accessibility between the venues, and its relative idleness means that no one is going to complain when streets are overrun by the wandering concert-goers. The city’s vices turn into virtues for Viva Phoenix, and Downtown becomes a wonderland of music, art, and Lucha Libre wrestling.
I’ve made a tradition of Viva Phoenix, and I went to this year’s festival last Saturday. The line-up, as usual, was equal parts impressive and obscure. Girl Talk headlined at Comerica Theater, though no one was nearly as excited about them as about the second headliner: home-town heroes and cult-y sad boi band The Maine. This was a particularly significant year for The Maine: despite being a quintessentially Phoenix band (they met while undergrads in Tempe) and having attracted an impressively dedicated following, they had not played at Viva Phoenix any year previous. If you haven’t had the opportunity yet, I highly suggest catching one of The Maine’s shows around town – no band that I’ve witnessed is as unpretentiously fun as the Maine.
Nearly every year the headliners draw far less excitement from me than the bands and performers who sneak onto the docket and elicit an “OMG they’re still around?!” Last year, this award went to Coolio – and this year I was amazed and overjoyed to see that Tommy Stinson (previously of The Replacements (one of my favorite bands ever)) was coming with his new band Bash & Pop. Although I was born in the wrong decade to see the Replacements, being able to see Tommy and a replacements-ish band was still quite special. And it’s even cooler to get to see them playing in close quarters at a Masonic temple.
And its locations like these that really make the shows exciting. Sure, some bands played at actual venues like Comerica theater or Crescent Ballroom, but the majority of the shows were held in places that wouldn’t normally host concerts. Local band Bogan Via takes advantage of new spaces to show off their light shows, which work better in the airy Masonic Temple than a dark music venue. 2nd street in front of Crescent Ballroom always turns into a hopping open-air dancefloor – and this year it hosted a packed and rollicking show by Joyce Manor. This was a special year for me, because I finally got to see inside ‘The Pueblo,’ an unassuming cinder block cube positioned right in the middle of an ASU parking lot. The inside, it turns out, is a bit like a cross between an ice fishing hut and a recording studio.
Which brings me to my favorite part of Viva Phoenix: Punk Rock Alley. In an alleyway outside Valley Bar, behind a towering concrete skyscraper and next to all the dumpsters, Viva Phoenix hosts a steady stream of loud, jostling, fun, just plain lovely puck rock shows. And everyone knows, there’s no better place for a punk rock show than a dark, tatty back alleyway. Both this year and last year local legends Playboy Manbaby brought their funky style of trashing to the crowded ally, unleashing catharsis in a whole crowd of joyous delinquents and pissing off all the neighbors. And this year Puck Rock Alley hosted screaming softies F**ked Up, which proved to the a perfectly therapeutic way to end the night.
Viva Phoenix grows in size every year, adding larger venues and putting stages where you’d least expect them. This year’s festivities have come and gone, but fear not – I guarantee next year’s show will just as good, if not better. I hope to see you all there.