Phoenix, AZ

Why Live Music in Small Phoenix Venues Matters

Vanessa Torre

Music is intimate. Seeing it should be, too.

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There’s no huge stage. No major lighting design. The green room is probably weird. There’s most likely a smoke machine and a handwritten setlist taped to the floor.

You know if they’ll play your favorite song because you can see the set list. They’ll give it to you after the show.

A couple of years ago, I remember everyone posting on social media about the U2 show at a huge Arizona Federal Theatre downtown. Now, I have nothing against U2 but I have a lot against arena shows. I come away from them cold. There’s no intimacy. If I corporation has to pay top dollar to get their name on the venue an artist is playing, I'm out.

It’s loud and crowded. You can’t see the band, even projected on a big screen. If there is any nuance to the performance, you miss it. I don’t want to miss that. I want the good stuff.

Jason Isbell was playing at The Van Buren, also in downtown Phoenix, which fits a few hundred people place the same night. I know where I would rather be.

There are moments you get to experience at a small concert that you will never get in an arena show. There’s a feeling of being part of something bigger, and much louder, than you. It’s art. It should be seen up close.

The best show I have ever seen was played to a group of 200 people. It was general admission and standing room only.

In a small venue, you can stand three feet from a speaker and come away with your hearing intact and your soul freed.

It was American Aquarium at Rebel Lounge in Phoenix, on Indian School, and I had never seen them play before. But, man. That music.

I will say one thing about BJ Barham, the band’s frontman. That man plays music with such joy that I would travel great lengths, anytime, at whatever cost, just to see him do it.

I’m not talking about just having a good time. I’m talking about getting to see him look at the guitar player and smile as if to say, “Yeah, they pay us to do this.”

It was like they were little boys who just got away with stealing a piece of candy and no one was ever going to catch them. Pure joy.

You feel that.

On occasion, you realize you’re part of someone’s greatest moment. That one story someone is going to tell for the rest of their life and you see it unfold.

We have a group of guys in Arizona, The Cole Trains, from a small town in the Eastern part of the state, who have been making good music for a number of years. This last summer they took to Studio 606 (owned by no other than Dave Grohl) to record their first full-length album. Cody Canada came out and played on it. So did the guys’ parents. Musical families. What’s better than that?

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To put all of this in perspective, one of the band members, TJ Taylor, has a little boy named Cody Grohl Taylor.

The first time they played after cutting this album was at Rockbar in Scottsdale. They opened for Cody Canada. There was a beautiful moment when TJ had to turn his back to the crowd and take a minute. It was one incredible moment.

We all just watched, and grinned ear to ear, as he took a handkerchief out of his back pocket and wiped his face.

You feel that.

I've watched Conor Oberst and Pheobe Bridgers perform a song called Chesapeake to a room so quiet at Crescent Ballroom you could hear a pin drop. It touched me so deeply I cried. And I have no idea why other than it was that beautiful and that perfect.

It was like it happened in my living room. Nothing else seemed to matter in the entire world, and no one else seemed to exist, in that three and a half minutes.

I get to keep that moment forever. It was a gift.

The size of a venue has nothing to do with how big a band is and it sure as hell has nothing to do with how good they are. But, it has everything to do with what you leave with that night.

There have been times I have stood in a crowd of strangers in a small place and been moved by music so real and so raw that it heals you. It seeps into you and becomes part of your makeup. I have seen bands play so hardcore that you think the place might burst into flames.

This is what life’s all about, isn’t it? Healing and raising a little hell. I’ll take it any chance I get.

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Flaming pinball, nerd, music lover, wine snob, horrible violin player. No, she won’t stop taking pictures of her drinks. vanessaltorre@gmail.com IG: vanessaltorre Twitter: @vanessaltorre

Phoenix, AZ
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