Friday, April 13, 2018

Flagstaff's historic downtown district hosts a happening music scene

If anybody was watching me, they must have wondered what I was doing. There I was, tearing posters for local band shows off of one of the many areas in Flagstaff where the posting of band flyers is permitted. In the post-internet age this is a lost art. Hodgepodge notices with found art images, all kind of retro looking, with amazing amounts of creativity involved, wild in typefaces of all kinds, including kidnapper style, cut from magazines and newspapers, as if the articles were art forms in themselves. They are all over the place. Sometimes in sedentary layers at a kiosk. Tons of ten by 15 inch notices, usually for shows with not one but three bands listed with names you have never heard of, and probably never will again.

But I started collecting them. I'd go around, ripping them off. Not because I'd been recruited by the leader of the No-Fun Patrol, but because they were beautiful signs of life. What kind of life? Of an emergent music phenomena otherwise described as a "scene." One features some kind of Wright Brothers era flying machine for a show at the Hotel Monte Vista for Rose's Pawn Shop and Gravity Well, while another has a cartoon image of the Route 66 frontage of the Fire Creek Coffee Company as a promo for four bands, Sol Drop, Tiny Bird, Good Ol Joel, and a sister act from Phoenix, Fairy Bones. Still another has a picture of a nice lady in black and white from the Ozzie and Harriet era with pearls on, inviting you to see Four Cornered Room, ABC Sports and Nice Trip! The point here is that out of just three sheets of paper worthy of an exhibition at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Arts, nine bands have been named. Nine! Eight of them Flagstaffian.

And on any given day of the week at these old-tech portals for your attention, on the bulletin boards off coffee houses and in shop and restaurant windows all over town, dozens of these primitivesquely decorated sheets are signs of the emergence of three or four times as many bands. Which means, by the laws of power trio or drum, bass, guitar and lead singer multiplication, there could be 100 musicians in town, probably a lot more, who have somehow managed to pick up a musical instrument and became suitably proficient on stage and play for at least a little money.

Who are these people? How does this happen? And what, exactly does it mean?

Cultural anthropology such as this reminds one of another time and place. In era now regarded as "legendary." In this case, Tempe, Arizona during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Before Mill Avenue was Hooterized into a collection of slick establishments, turning the area into what Bruce Cockburn once sang of as "Fascist Architecture," such haunts as Long Wong's, Chuy's, the Sail Inn, and, off the beaten path, the grungy Sun Club ... these places were all supportive of a vibrant music scene. What was necessary for the growth of a period that served as incubators for such bands as Dead Hot Workshop, the Meat Puppets, the Refreshments and the Gin Blossoms was two things. One, mom and pop clubs that prioritized and believed in creating a local music scene, and, two, vast numbers of college students spilling out of the dorms from the east onto the main drag of Mill.

Also, places were far more permissive of band flyers. But Tempe now has been Urban Outfitted to death over the decades. And what was once a haven for guitar-toting bands is now a glittering hub of pulsating lights for the electronic dance music crowd. 

Many of the musicians from that alternative era heyday now appear as their grizzled selves in dowtown Scottsdale, at such places as the Old Town Tavern, and the Rock Bar. But they are not really places for college kids. The Old Town Scottsdale haunts are really for people who are too old for rock'n'roll (but they don't know it yet), too young to die.

There is still a lot of music to be heard in Phoenix, but it's scattered round town. There is no centralized "scene."

But in dowtown Flagstaff, the music soup is ready. There are at least a half-dozen places where local bands can play and be loud. The growth of the student population at Northern Arizona University has reached a critical mass to the point there is an audience ready and willing to drift into the Victorian mining era architecture zone of historic downtown Flagstaff to hear live music. It says a lot when one of the biggest retailers downtown is a music store, as well as the fact there are custom guitar shops nearby.

Music is a priorty in a place where pedestrianization puts the pedal to the post-punk metal. You know you have a great music scene when each First Friday you can stroll down the street and peer into the windows of the building fronts and pick and choose from a variety of music styles. So the soup is ready. Get it while it's hot.

What will kill this kind of cultural percolation? The inevitable invasion of corporate chain stores, bars and restaurants, something the real politic of Flagstaff has been able to, for the most part, avoid in the downtown sector. And watch out for the No Fun Patrol. Those folks who fail to see the beauty of graffiti, or, don't provide ample spaces for those crazy quilt spots for the placement of those flyers for the band shows. That will be apparent when there isn't some friendly business owner available on site to say, sure, you can put that sign in my window, with the Scotch tape ready to roll.

This column originally appeared in Flagstaff Live.

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