Crescent Ballroom revitalizes music scene in downtown Phoenix

On a cool Wednesday evening, light and groovy acoustic music drifts out onto Crescent Ballroom’s patio.  Photo by Noemi Gonzalez

On a cool Wednesday evening, light and groovy acoustic music drifts out onto Crescent Ballroom’s patio.
Photo by Noemi Gonzalez

A cool breeze swirls around the buildings of downtown Phoenix on an uncharacteristically chilly October night. Truth be told, this city after dark is a bit of a ghost town. Skeletons of failed, abandoned music venues and clubs scatter among gas stations, chain restaurants and vacant lots.

From at least one block away, the distant hum of voices and a thumping bass restores some life into the buzzkill. Crescent Ballroom draws a crowd. The small building consists of brickwork, wooden panels and the name in bold black letters printed across the front. The area feels less like a funeral as seasoned regulars and first-timers breaking curfew pack outside the entrance to see Los Angeles-based sister trio, HAIM, rock out.

This is HAIM’s first tour following the release of its debut album “Days Are Gone.” The album has already reached No. 1 in the United Kingdom, No. 2 in Australia and No. 6 in the United States. HAIM didn’t think it would make it out to Phoenix. Three years ago, before the birth of Crescent, it probably wouldn’t have.

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Somewhere, a man named Charlie Levy is smiling.

Much like a rock ballad itself, Phoenix’s music scene ebbs and flows. As the owner of Phoenix’s Crescent Ballroom and Stateside Presents concert promoter, Levy is restoring life into an industry that seemed to have reached an indefinite ebb.

Over the past two decades, Phoenix has stretched forward as a birthplace of musical talent, such as the Gin Blossoms and later Jimmy Eat World, only to bounce back into a yawn-inducing dry spell of “not much happening tonight.”

Levy is a 42-year-old quiet guy, with thick plastic glasses and an unassuming presence. When asked about his success in the music industry, he’ll nervously respond that he doesn’t like talking about himself.

He grew up in New Orleans, the epitome of a music town. Famous for its rich jazz culture and southern influence, this city remains a static hub for the arts. With a variety of shows to pick from each Friday night, Levy fell in love with live music. He fell in love with the vibe.

“Luckily New Orleans had a lot of clubs. At that time in New Orleans there really wasn’t a drinking age and they kind of let anybody in,” Levy says. “I’d plan my week around it.”

As he transitioned from the best scene around to ASU in Phoenix for college in 1988, the city’s music matched the feel of the desert — barren.

“I just felt there was a need for a mid-sized venue and mid-sized club,” Levy says. “There was this need for it.”

The back entrance to Crescent Ballroom is a familiar face to under-agers and a variety of musical acts. With its alley way and rustic feel, Crescent Ballroom combines an urban, clean feel with a grungy, rock 'n' roll persona.  Photo illustration by Noemi Gonzalez

The back entrance to Crescent Ballroom is a familiar face to under-agers and a variety of musical acts. With its alleyway and rustic feel, Crescent Ballroom combines an urban, clean feel with a grungy, rock ‘n’ roll persona.
Photo illustration by Noemi Gonzalez

Despite his passion for music, Levy knew he was born to work behind the scenes. In “Bigger Than Sound,” a documentary by Kayla Frost, Alex Gregory, Mugo Odigwe and Marissa Ochoa, he explains his phobia of the spotlight.

“I’m way too shy to ever go on stage. I don’t even like to walk on stage and like, pick up a cord,” Levy says. “It gives me the chills right now, thinking about that. I like to be in the back.”

Through staying behind the scenes, Levy has opened a mid-sized venue that faithfully shows love to local bands like Dr. Dog, while still booking the next hot acts. He’s provided Phoenix with a dynamic musical outlet. Not to mention, the kitchen serves a killer cheeseburger.

“I just wanted a place where people — anyone that enjoys music — can come, feel comfortable, get value for their money and have a good time,” Levy says. “And that’s it.”

More than just a place to unwind or grab a drink, Crescent immerses spectators in a world that’s been lost in the Phoenix area since music gems such as Long Wong’s and Nita’s Hideaway were liquidated. This renovated 1917 auto garage is for one type of person and one only: It’s for people who love music.

“The thing that happens when you see a really good live music show, it’s hard to describe,” Levy says. “People cry, people laugh, people say, ‘It was the best two hours of my week.’”

A city is only as alive as the people in it. These people need a place to gather. They need a cultural hub to meet, mingle, create and eventually inject an otherwise dead environment with life.

Jim Adkins, lead singer of Jimmy Eat World from Mesa, Ariz., has watched Phoenix bands and venues grow and die during the journey of creating his own successful music empire.

“I think about Crescent Ballroom…your art scene, your cultural scene, it sort of needs a hub like that. It needs a physical place where people can actually congregate,” Adkins says.

Adkins believes that it can’t happen in a vacuum. The people and the right infrastructure create an unbeatable combination for a music town. On the other hand, if there was truly some magic formula, Phoenix would probably be much more vibrant. Regardless, he says a physical scene is key.

“People can go downtown and see that they’ve entered something, that they’re part of something. It’s getting there,” Adkins says. “People will show up here and give a sh-t.”

Some have a more cynical outlook. Martin Cizmar is the arts editor at Portland’s Willamette Week and former music editor at Phoenix New Times. He insists there’s little hope for Phoenix as a cultural destination and that most Arizonans lazily sit around at home.

“The music scene for a city that large is not what it should be,” Cizmar says. “There’s really not that much music being made. It’s a challenging music scene.”

Despite this standpoint, even those with the most negative views of Phoenix can’t deny what Levy has done for this city, which is commonly bashed as a lesser Los Angeles, lacking tangible talent and ambition. Cizmar says Levy is the best thing to happen in this miniature Hades.

“Charlie has made a huge difference there,” Cizmar says. “He’s not just sitting back, waiting for things to come to him.”

The rise and fall of Tempe’s music scene

Let’s rewind to 1992. For the first time, the national music scene has a spotlight on the college city of Tempe. East of Phoenix, its true claim to fame is Arizona State University, what is now the biggest university in the country. The name “Mill Avenue” leaves every student’s and resident’s lips on an almost daily basis.

This stretch of a street included a series of blocks packed with retail shops, bars, restaurants and some of the best music venues in the Valley.

More importantly, Tempe was ruled by local bands along with some of the biggest names in rock music. The Piersons and Dead Hot Workshop played with the Gin Blossoms and eventually, Jimmy Eat World and The Format. Tunes were streaming, beer was flowing and people were coming. Levy saw an opportunity.

In “Bigger Than Sound,” Levy explains that he began booking shows for ASU his sophomore year after seeing an ad for a student music director position on his friend’s desk.

“As a whim, I just interviewed for the job. I think the girl kind of had a crush on me or something. I don’t know why I got the job, because I had no experience except going to see shows,” Levy says.

 Crescent Ballroom offers something for everyone: from the foodies with its Cocina 10 menu to music aficionados featuring local to national acts.  Photo by Noemi Gonzalez


Crescent Ballroom offers something for everyone, with its Cocina 10 menu for the foodies to local and national acts for music aficionados.
Photo by Noemi Gonzalez

Levy started working for what was then the biggest promoting agency in town, Evening Star Productions, and eventually branched off on his own to manage bands he had previously booked. His laid-back personality and easygoing approach to business made him an instant hit. On top of making a name for the artists, he looked for spaces where they could perform.

Curtis Grippe, musician and founder of Phoenix’s Stem Recording, remembers it as if it was yesterday.

“When Charlie first started doing live music, it was in a really bizarre time,” Grippe says. “It was fantastic in the ‘90s. It was absolutely super vibrant, and the scene was tons of national acts. You basically had between 10 and 12 major label bands within a 5 mile radius.”

One of Levy’s and Tempe’s biggest claims to fame is Nita’s Hideaway. What started as a little dive bar in the desert transformed into the number one place to go for live music. Levy worked with what are now considered huge rock bands such as Death Cab for Cutie and Modest Mouse when they first got started.

Laurie Notaro, author and longtime friend of Levy, says booking at Nita’s was a huge turning point in his career.

“One day, I don’t know if he went out for lunch, he probably went out there for a show, but I took Charlie out there and he eventually became The Piersons’ manager,” Notaro says. “It stopped being a dive bar and became completely the number one venue to play.”

Notaro notes a change that served as a catalyst and motivator for this music revival. It was the death of Tempe music legend and lead guitarist of the Gin Blossoms, Doug Hopkins.

Hopkins committed suicide early on in the scene. It was December 1993, but his passing left friends and influential musicians heartbroken.

“After he died, things just became very depressed. Very fragmented, and people just kind of, they were shocked,” Notaro says. “After Doug died I kind of faded away, I was kind of done with everything.”

Nita’s Hideaway and Levy’s presence, she says, brought the community together again.

Aside from Nita’s, the number one venue in the area was Long Wong’s, located right on Mill Avenue. Sara Cina worked at Long Wong’s from 1990 to 2004, when it closed. She says the loud music, big picture windows and surprisingly edible food made this bar what it was.

“On any given night, there were people walking back and forth and the music blaring out the door,” Cina says. “It attracts people, people stop and they watch. It was just a unique thing, because there were so many people down there for other reasons.”

Cina, much like anyone else you’ll talk to in Phoenix about music, calls Levy “my best friend.” She explains he was atypical in the sense that he had the artist’s best interest in mind. He got to know them.

“I met him way before Nita’s, we would work together. Also, when he did have Nita’s, and I was booking Long Wong’s, he was managing a couple of bands that would play at Wong’s,” Cina says. “He’s definitely a unique personality in the biz, for sure. Not your typical. Very behind the scenes, very shy from attention.”

Although Adkins admits Jimmy Eat World came a little late to the “Tempe party,” he remembers it vividly. Being a decade too young to frequent bars at Mill’s prime, he can still recall his position as bystander in the whirlwind of rock ‘n’ roll.

“From my perspective, it seemed like there was a pretty vibrant punk-rock kind of scene. That’s what I knew. That’s what I kind of first saw,” Adkins says. “Or rehearsal space parties. Or the handful or dozens of venues that would let us open up for people. Kind of through that I met Charlie.”

So there it was — Mill Avenue filled with bar-hoppers and bars filled with music junkies. Tiny Tempe finally had a place on the map.

Giving life to a quiet corner, Crescent Ballroom sits on 2nd Avenue and Van Buren.  Photo by Noemi Gonzalez

Giving life to a quiet corner, Crescent Ballroom sits on the corner of 2nd Avenue and Van Buren Street.
Photo by Noemi Gonzalez

Just as quickly as it flowed, the music began to ebb. Local bars started to close as a slew of Starbucks and Hooters buildings filled their spaces. Somewhere along the turn of the new millennium, morale and music sank back to its original state of “not much happening tonight.”

“Downtown Tempe became not Tempe anymore,” Adkins says. “It became a mall. Don’t get me started. Why have another mall when there’s a mall down the road?”

Cina explains that landlords and developers in Tempe had other plans for these dive bars and local joints. To them, this basically was a mall waiting to take form. Long Wong’s began to see the end in the early 2000s. With heavy traffic and the prime university location, people wanted to cash in.

“Our landlord at the time, he wanted to build a larger building with multiple stories,” Cina says. “So he was going to tear down that building, rebuild, and then we were going to go back in. We chose our date. We chose to close in April.”

To dig the knife in a little further, the destruction of this beloved spot didn’t even begin until a year after closing. Cina says it could have stayed open that whole year and nothing ever filled the space.

“It’s a big lot just sitting there next to Jack in the Box. It’s just dirt, sitting there.”

As the transformation continued, Nita’s Hideaway approached her demise. The city’s last promise for live music was torn down. Jeremiah Gratza, Levy’s partner at Stateside Presents, pins this closing as the true “something needs to change” moment.

“When Nita’s shut down, and then when Mill started growing into a more commercial area, the music scene in Tempe kind of died,” Gratza says. “There was a void that opened up that needed to be filled.”

What makes a music town? Is it ticket sales revenue, the number of local bands or simply the turnout at concerts each night? Turns out, it depends on who you ask. But there’s one thing everyone can agree on: a venue.

The birth of Crescent Ballroom

Levy always knew he wanted to open a mid-sized venue of his own. After being disappointed time and time again by clubs he booked at, he felt the need for Phoenix to attain his ideal spot — a music utopia. Not too big, not too small, friendly, good food and an absolutely insane sound system. This was Levy’s dream.

“I think I’ve always kind of kept my eyes open for a place to have a venue of my own,” Levy says. “But I was never in a rush and always figured that if the right place came along, great.”

Like all good things, Crescent didn’t come easy. Levy would bike past the former special events hall when he was in the area and longingly scope out the territory.

“It was stucco in the front and dropped ceilings and all the brickwork was covered with drywall,” Levy says. “I kind of looked in the big windows in front and thought ‘Wow, this would make a great place to have shows.’”

After some sleuthing, Levy found out that it was for sale, but had already been rented out by another person. He was two weeks too late. Two months later, he got a call from the owner who said the new guy wasn’t paying up. Levy hopped on a plane to meet the owner, now in San Diego. Their business deal was planned on a paper napkin.

“I flew to her house, and she had a big Indian food spread, and we literally went back and forth,” Levy says. “I met the family. On a napkin, we wrote down the deal. On a napkin. I felt like that’s like a mob movie or something.”

Levy took the napkin to his attorney, asked him to map out the deal and Crescent was born.

“It was a true handshake deal. I don’t think deals like that in this day and age happen,” Levy says.

Crescent Ballroom opened on Oct. 3, 2011. Artists such as Cold War Kids, Modest Mouse and Santigold pop up in big letters on the venue’s website. Just a few years ago, these names would be playing at a huge concert hall like the Marquee, if in Phoenix at all.

“A lot of bands I’ve worked with for 20 years, so when they find out that I finally have my own venue, like Modest Mouse, they’re like, ‘We want to play at your venue to support you.’ So that’s been really nice,” Levy says.

Although Gratza works with Levy at Stateside Presents as operations manager, he’s seen his share of concerts at Crescent. In fact, he’s there almost every night.

Photo by Noemi Gonzalez

With majority of the shows geared toward a 21 and over audience, Crescent Ballroom is the music hub that under-agers long to visit.
Photo by Noemi Gonzalez

“We’re going to have produced over 500 events this year. A lot of that is part in due to opening Crescent,” Gratza says. “We definitely have made it so that artists who would have normally passed over the market come through.”

As a local musician in bands like Ghetto Cowgirl and Here Come Cowboys, as well as a music producer, Grippe spends his fair share of time on the Crescent stage. Not all are created equally.

“It is a fabulous room. It is the best sounding room,” Grippe says. “It’s a one of a kind place. There’s three different dressing rooms, your sound on stage always sounds great. The best way to make a band play good is for them to think they sound good. There’s a trademark. It’s always a comfortable place to play and you’ll always sound good.”

It’s more than the music. Concert food is notoriously vile, but as in so many other ways, Crescent offers Phoenix’s exception. Levy even jokes that he’s more proud of the kitchen, Cocina 10, than the actual music. In fact, food gets Levy a little neurotic.

“We talk about where do we source the tomatoes from as much as we talk about who’s playing on a Saturday night,” Levy says. “How much slaw we should put on the fish tacos. There will be long discussions about that. I’m obsessed with the Lalo Burger, because I think it’s the best burger in Arizona.”

From the stage to the kitchen to the dressing rooms, Levy and his staff have painstakingly crafted each detail from dream to plan to action.

“We were talking about yesterday getting an old record player and tons of albums and putting them in the dressing room for bands,” Levy says. “So on the day they can pull records out and play like, you know it’s basically like going to someone’s house and here’s your record collection. ‘Oh wow, look at this cool Billy Holiday record. Let’s play it.’”

Michelle Moore is the general manager at Crescent, and she has seen the venue contribute to the Phoenix area on a wider, perhaps unexpectedly large scale.

“It’s contributed to the whole downtown scene. There’s a lot more growth, a lot more restaurants and houses being built,” Moore says. “Before, it was a little scary.”

Phoenix is a little scary. Yet, seven out of seven nights a week, a crowd gathers to this quaint, brick building.

HAIM rocks the room

It’s a Monday night, and hundreds pack into Crescent to see HAIM.

An anxious line forms outside the wide doors separating the bar from the stage. The second they open, crystal clear music floods out as the crowd floods in.

Levy’s venue is any music fanatic’s wonderland. With a wooden beamed ceiling, a first-class speaker system, bleachers lining the back wall and violet-colored lights pulsating down toward the stage, it’s enough to go giddy. And of course, just as he would have it, there’s another bar. One tall Blue Moon can and an opening act later, HAIM takes the stage.

HAIM’s agent, Adam Voith of Billions Corporation, explains in an email interview that, although Phoenix isn’t exactly a “no brainer” for artists to stop at on tour, Crescent is.

“Phoenix is a market bands drive through often,” Voith says. “Crescent was the natural choice in terms of size for HAIM, and it has a good reputation with touring artists and, seemingly, music fans in Phoenix.”

Of course, Voith and Levy go way back. He notes that he reached out to Levy about the show, and they share similar values in terms of ticket prices and capacity.

“Everyone seemed happy and excited to see what comes next in the market,” Voith says of the performance.

It’s an 18-and-up night, so a low metal gate divides the underage audience from the happily drunk crowd. High school students and others old enough to be their parents gaze up in awe from a view that would have cost triple the price at a bigger venue.

After lowering her bass from the air toward the middle of her polka-dotted black dress, a red-lipsticked Este Haim explains she didn’t think they would make it out to Phoenix on this first national tour. In fact, these California natives have never even been to the city.

A fan asks if they’ll come back to play again, and the blonde rocker shouts an enthusiastic “F-ck yes.”

The crowd gives appreciative hollers; live music has never felt so alive.

Needless to say, it was a sold out show.

Reach the writer at isabelle.novak@asu.edu or on Twitter @IsabelleNovak