PHOENIX — In 1979, a venue opened in Phoenix off of Indian School Road. Indian School is just north of the I-10, a major east-west artery that connects Jacksonville to Los Angeles, and these days is accessible by using the 51 that The Format sang about in “Tune Out”. The venue was The Mason Jar. Low slung, it was never going to win any beauty awards; a theme that most Arizona music venues seem to carry to this day. The stage inside hosted some of the biggest names in the business: Nirvana. Tool. Linkin Park. The list of past performers is quite long and just as impressive.
Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end – at least temporarily. In 2005, the Mason Jar was closed, turned into a bar, and live music in Phoenix lost an icon. 10 years later, the old and the new met. The exterior – once so nondescript that there are next to no photos currently existing online – received a facelift. Inside, you’ll find two arcade machines sitting in the corner. You’ll also find a bar that houses an incredible local craft beer selection. Over it, painted on a beam, are these words: “Everyone can raise a glass and sing.” It is here that fans of Hot Snakes, Kills Birds, and Twin Ponies gathered; some to sing, some to raise a glass, some both.
Taking the stage first was Tempe-based Twin Ponies. They are an under-known band, with a quite enjoyable alt-rock sound that defies the norm. Much like one would change gears in a finely-tuned sports car, Twin Ponies is very good at shifting between tempos, excelling when it frequently picks up.
All four members are excellent musicians: Jordan Tompkins is a fantastic drummer who makes it look easy behind the kit, Phillip Hanna jumps between the bass and synth, Jacob Lauxman is a phenomenal guitar player, and Wayne Jones’ diverse vocals are impressive. There is poetry in their music and performances, and the four take great pride in their live shows (as they should) and they play quite a few shows in Phoenix. Their next Phoenix show is March 26th at The Lunchbox.
The best way to describe the next band – Kills Birds – is “intense in a very unnerving way”. The onstage persona of lead singer Nina Ljeti can be described as a bit terrifying – opening her eyes wide throughout the set, rarely blinking, looking completely unhinged and ready to come off the stage to fight you.
This only amplifies the uneasiness you feel when she smiles, as somehow the eyes above that smile seem to stay dead. Behind all of that are the raw, guitar ladened sounds of the band. The sound is heavy, though not overwhelming. It is an experience on many levels: sonically, emotionally, and visually.
Ljeti is fantastic as a vocalist, and Kills Birds is a delightful, if not somewhat disturbing, show to watch. She is also an impressive multi-talented artist — a successful filmmaker, actress, writer, and has previously performed in another band. Kills Birds continue to tour with Hot Snakes, and the final show will be on March 10th in Santa Cruz.
During the Kills Birds set, someone was standing in the middle of the venue talking so loudly that they could be heard over the music that Kills Birds was playing. It was impressive, but it illustrates a problem that plagues some venues: some fans forget that the people around them did not pay to listen to a TED Talk about their latest boyfriend or hookup. It would be like going to the Louvre and finding out someone taped a poorly-drawn stick figure over the Mona Lisa. It’s rude, and more importantly, none of us care what he said last night while you were watching Netflix.
Hot Snakes formed in 1999, a supergroup made up of members of bands that played post-hardcore punk and every form of rock known to man. Two of the band members — vocalist Rick Froberg and guitarist John Reis — started playing together back in 1986 in the band Pitchfork. Working together for over three decades leads to some magical musical chemistry. Froberg and Reis seem to know exactly what the other is thinking, and it translates into one of the best shows you could attend as a fan.
Reis interacts with the crowd in a way that provides a unique connection, both to him and to the music. At points, he would lean into the crowd to play inches away from a fan in the front row. At others, he would look into the crowd and quickly point at someone and smile. You came to watch a group of talented musicians, but you left feeling as if someone saw you instead. At one point, he stopped everything due to a dispute on the floor, mediating between a woman who felt the man beside her wasn’t being nice. He was forceful and a bit exasperated at the male fan who couldn’t really say much for his own defense. It truly is a breath of fresh air when fans get called out for their bad behavior.
Froberg is an excellent and passionate vocalist and guitar player. There is an element of frenetic rawness to his vocals — something that is matched by the guitar riffs and the delightful drumming by Jason Kourkounis. There is an urgency in the music, culminating in the song that got the biggest response from the crowd: “I Need a Doctor.” This sent some fans who were already dancing into a near frenzy. Unfortunately, the demographics at the show did not support a mosh pit – many of the fans grew up with the band, and having a career that spans over 20 years means it’s harder for some of the fans to mosh.
As the night drew to a close, the tour manager came out to thank everyone for coming out. When greeted by a heckler who said, “Who is this guy?” he replied, “I’m the tour manager, numbnuts, who are you?” It was a reminder that while everyone on stage is no longer in their twenties, it was indeed a punk show. It was loud, it was fun, and it was over too soon. The tour concludes in Solana Beach, CA on March 12th.
Photographer: Rodrigo Izquierdo
View Separately: Hot Snakes | Kills Birds | Twin Ponies
Photography © Reagle Photography
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