All photos by Summer Travis
Thanks to a thriving arts scene and a hefty smattering of Arizona State University humanity majors, the music community in the greater Phoenix and Tempe area boasts a strong core of dedicated artists and fans. The Valley of the Sun has become infamous for independent local festivals, mom-and-pop record stores, and sweltering summertime house shows packed far past capacity with overheated fans. As a desert expatriate who fled to colder horizons for a New England education, I miss Phoenix and its powerful little music scene—the triple-digit danger of overpacked basement shows, the outdoor showcases in the dead of winter, the snuggling of speakers between saguaro cacti. The friendly faces of the DIY scene. The fact that, for whatever reason, ska hasn’t died over there yet.
The heart of the greater Phoenix area’s music scene really lies in smaller venues like Trunk Space in downtown or the nomadic Parliament in Tempe – local sanctuaries for up-and-coming acts and all their friends. Lately, though, veterans of these fan-favorite spaces have graduated to bigger, more substantial venues like Crescent Ballroom, a bar-meets-courtyard-meets venue that’s hosted indie staples like Of Montreal, The Generationals, The Growlers, and Devandra Banhart, among others.
Graduating to this stage are local darlings Playboy Manbaby (whom I have written several love letters to, including this one and this one).Three weeks after their jaunt through the horrors of a non-Southwestern winter during their first east-coast tour ever, the band performed with more attitude, confidence, and technical aptitude than ever.
Frontman Robbie Pfeffer, armed with a new pencil-thin mustache and fresh arsenal of inter-song quips, was his usual restless and animated self and worked the larger-than-usual space with ease and professionalism.
The crowd consisted of mostly Trunk Space regulars and friends of friends, making for a rowdy gathering that devolved into a frenetic mosh pit within half a song (though no one was complaining).
Phoenix natives Andrew Jackson Jihad capped off the night with a wholly well received hour-and-a-half set. Though longtime AJJ fans will recognize the combination of band and venue from their 2013 album Live at the Crescent Ballroom, I went in a sonic blank slate, totally unfamiliar with their woodwind-heavy set-up and cultish following of flannel-wearing sad boys.
Within three seconds of their high-energy set, I found myself assessing the lead singer’s 2000s-era indie garb (Buddy Holly glasses, dirty button-up, tattoos, acoustic guitar with untrimmed strings), the bearded double bass player, and the army of bright-eyed boys with patchy beards yelling along every word, and I thought, “Huh, I didn’t know indie rock was still a thing.”
AJJ is strikingly reminiscent of late-2000s Death Cab and Decemberists, thanks to a shameless dad-rock aesthetic and classic marriage of acoustic sound and literary lovelorn lyrics—which, though surreal to re-encounter, is always a sonic comfort food for me. Suddenly, it felt like 2009, when “indie” still kind of meant something.
The night closed on a note of breathless pride for the Phoenician scene, with tousle-haired teenagers pink-faced from crowd-surfing and much mingling of friends and band members by the merch tables. For Playboy Manbaby, the night was a glorious homecoming; for Andrew Jackson Jihad, a welcome return to their roots to punctuate a national tour. For the rest of us, it was a celebration of Phoenix and all the hidden musical gems it has to offer.