Phoenix Afrobeat Orchestra @ Valley Bar

Valley Bar 11/14/15

Valley Bar 11/14/15

As usual, downtown Phoenix parking leaves something to be desired, and on a Saturday night, that’s no joke. We were lucky enough to find some parking only seven blocks away and felt we were doing pretty good. When we approached the San Carlos Hotel, I knew we were near, but I had never been to Valley Bar. For those that don’t know, it’s a bit difficult to find. It’s in an alley, around a corner. There were dumpsters, and double doors, with no sign. I thought it might be the entrance, but I wasn’t sure. There was a guy sitting next to the doors.

Valley Bar 11/14/15

Valley Bar 11/14/15

“Is this Valley bar?” I asked.

“It sure is,” the guy responded.

“Wow. You really have to be a special person to even find this place!”

Valley Bar 11/14/15

Valley Bar 11/14/15

“Well, aren’t you special?” he asked without hesitation. I laughed and opened the door, which led to stairs that descended into what I would soon find out to be one of the most unique places I had ever been in Phoenix. Valley Bar is reminiscent of what you might find in Nashville or San Francisco or somewhere that has 100 year old buildings. Once you have arrived, the idea that you are in Phoenix quickly fades.

There are games to be played: darts, skee ball, pool, shuffle board, and a pinball machine. The bar is a curved, semi-circle ordeal with silhouette animation overhead, which is quite fanciful and amusing. If you don’t want to sit at the bar, there is a fine selection of tables and chairs, including a couple couches. I sat at a couch that had a painting of Rose Mofford hanging above it, which made me feel at ease and at home, and reminded me that in fact, I am in Phoenix. We ordered drinks and promptly drank those dranks and returned for another round. Soon, some other people that we didn’t know came around and sat down with us. The party ensued. A couple gals raged about Taylor Upsahl and how good she is. We mingled, people talked. The bar was buzzing.

Taylor Upsahl

Taylor Upsahl

I noticed people were heading to the stage in the next room. I realized it was time for the music. The thing about me and bars is that once I enter one, time usually just goes away. I just don’t care what time it is from the moment I ask the bartender for my first drink. I don’t look at my phone unless someone texts me. I don’t want to know what time it is. And once I have a buzz, it’s all gravy. Time is just a bummer at that point. Rather than looking at the clock, I look for indicators. Like when people are heading for the stage.

First up was Taylor Upsahl. During the set, there were some sound problems and she handled it in stride, and made the crowd feel warm and fuzzy – a sign of a good performer. She gained my respect and I will be looking forward to hearing more from her.

There Is Danger

There Is Danger

Next up was the band that I was really there to see: There Is Danger. Their songs are quite amazing. Some people might describe it as Shoegaze, others might say Indie-pop. I don’t know, and I don’t care. It’s one of those bands that I don’t want to define. I don’t want to diminish it. It’s the kind of stuff I like if I’m not into listening to hard stuff. It’s like Califone meets Calexico. Maybe. I don’t know – maybe with a little New Order for the cherry on top and a drizzle of Passion Pit. That’s just my take. Either way, it’s dreamy, dreamy stuff. It’s like laying in bed on a lazy Sunday morning with the person you love. Their performance was fantabulous, but I’m biased.

There Is Danger

There Is Danger

After their set, I went to make a pit stop and get drinks and the bar was slammed. This place was busy. When I got back, these crazy guys were playing music in the crowd. I thought there was a spontaneous jam session like I remember when I lived in Berkeley or like when I went to Dead shows. These crazy peeps walked by me… And oh! There was Henri Benard! When I saw Henri, I realized that this was decker.. They played and sang as they walked towards the stage. I immediately recognized this performance technique that has been used by many, including one of my all time faves, House Of Freaks. I love when the band interacts with the audience, so decker. had my attention immediately. They continued to lay down a set with scorching energy that was infectious, despite my original reservations. Brandon Decker, the front man, dropped a pile of dynamite on the stage and let the embers burn. Fantastic showing for this band.

After that sizzling set, and a moment to get more drinks and shake it off a little, Phoenix Afrobeat Orchestra came on. From the first note, I was mesmerized. It was like they were slowly weaving a spell on the audience. The heady, dripping honey filled tones drenched the audience. On the 3rd or so song, I had to put my camera down, turn around to wrap my arms around my date and got down to some groovy business. Swaying my hips and jerking my shoulders like I was shirtless in a Puerto Rican festival, doused with Rum and feeling the rhythms of another world, half way around the globe. I turned around again to watch the singers swaying and moving which made me more dizzy than I was before. I turned around again to face the crowd and moved my hips. The music moved me with the energy of life and brass and beat and bass. Bam!

Element

November 19, 2015admin Comments Off on Phoenix Afrobeat Orchestra @ Valley Bar
FILED UNDER :band , events , nightlife , performance

Otro on Wednesday

It has been a long month so far, and at the time of this particular outing, it was only the 5th. It was Wednesday and I was hungry like a lion. My lovely partner had just flown in from a taxing trip and was toiling at her office. She suggested we meet for dinner, and it was my duty to pick a place.

Margarita

Margarita

I could have picked any number of excellent establishments that we frequent, but I was in the mood for something new and I was aware she would be as well. I expeditiously pulled up Google Maps and began my hunt for something good. It had to be somewhere I had never been, not fast food, not fine dining… but something quality and something deelish. After a short examination, I stumbled across Otro Cafe. I went to the web site. It looked good! Oh, and bonus, it looked like they have Flamenco on Wednesdays and it just so happened to be that day. I went to Google Street View to remind myself of the area, and sure enough I’ve passed this place many times. I have never thought much of it; the shopping center that contains Otro isn’t all that appealing to my eye. It’s an older building with not much character on the outside. Just a few doors down is an O’Reilly Auto Parts – not impressive. In the past this building had just blurred into the background, along with the hundreds upon hundreds of other nondescript store fronts that scroll past my glazed over eyes as I drive through the endless grid of Phoenix. But the menu looked great, along with many vegetarian options, and a full bar, and prices seemed reasonable. I decided we would meet there. I sent a text and I was out the door and on my way!

I walked in at 5:30 – just enough time to catch the last 30 minutes of Happy Hour. I started off with a Hibiscus Sour and my date had a Margarita; later she had another one because one Margarita is never enough. We ordered chips and guacamole. I’m a big fan – I actually make some really great guac myself, so it’s important to me that guac is good. Because when guac is bad, it’s really no fun to eat it at all. I was thrilled when this stuff hit my mouth – it was fantastic! It wasn’t your usual guac. It had some augmented flavors that you don’t usually taste; just little accents that set it apart from others. I could tell right away that they put this food together with care. Our server explained that their ingredients pull from many local sources and that they put an emphasis on fresh ingredients. I couldn’t wait to get into a main dish.

Paella Mexicana

Paella Mexicana

Otro Cortado

Otro Cortado

The whole restaurant is open. The kitchen is behind the bar and from the dining area, you can see across the whole restaurant – from end to end, North, South, East, and West. You can see all the action as it happens. People watching? Heck, yeah! Watch away! Watch diners, watch the bar. Watch the kitchen. Everything is organized, clean, and you can see it all for yourself. There’s nothing to hide here.

I ordered the Otro Cortado salad, in the small size because I was hoping to fit in a Torta which never happened. I ended up being full after I drank my second drink, a Four Peaks Sunbru (excellent Kölsch style Ale) and that ended my dreams of the Torta. The salad was a slam dunk, with the sweetest kale I’ve ever tasted, cabbage, egg, cheddar cheese, avocado, corn nuts (wow!), arugula, and tomato in a delectable creamy dressing that puts the exclamation point right on top of this masterpiece.

A masterpiece?? Yes, and I don’t usually say that about salads. We are talking about food that uses fresh ingredients and the right combination of flavors to create a balance that you don’t normally encounter. Especially with salads. Here’s my thing about salads: it’s usually a bummer ordering them at restaurants, especially chains and meat-centric establishments because those places don’t take salads seriously. It’s difficult to find places that consider it a main dish, and even some of those places don’t make them correctly in my view. I’m not saying that salads are the end all be all, but if you are going to bother to make a salad, for the love of food, make it correctly!! The first thing is, if they use iceberg lettuce, then you may as well forget about it. Using iceberg is your indication that salads don’t even exist in that particular restaurant. It’s just not acceptable. But that’s an obvious point and if you don’t understand that, then you might as well move along because none of this is making sense to you by now. One of my biggest peeves and my main salad rule is this: You should never have to chop a salad while you eat – AKA you should never have to use a knife. When the pieces are too big to fit in your mouth, you have a crappy salad. There really is no way around this rule. It makes or breaks a salad, regardless of any other metrics. The Otro Cortado nailed this in spades. Everything was bite sized and ready to devour, which is exactly what I did. It also didn’t hurt that the flavors owned, but we’ve covered that.

My date ordered the Paella Mexicana and reported that it was outstanding. The ingredients included chicken, pork, chorizo, saffron rice, and seasonal vegetables. The veggies were crisp and the spices were well balanced, just the way it should be. The flour tortillas that came with the dish were light and tasty. Once again, this is well thought out food, with attention to detail.

Flamenco!

Flamenco!

By this time, we had eaten and I was taking my time trying to figure out if I could fit in that Torta – a lost cause, but I needed to let the tummy rest and I could see the Flamenco group getting ready to go on. In a moment, Flamenco Por La Vida started to play. Right off the bat, I was mesmerized. It really made me wonder why I didn’t go to more Flamenco performances. The energy was off the chain. The rhythms were tantalizing and feverish. We watched. And watched. And watched some more. Pure enjoyment. Pure food, pure entertainment. Best Wednesday in a long time.

I should also mention that our server was excellent. She did all the right things, none of the wrong things. She knew when to show up and when to give us space. She knew how to talk and be friendly and make us feel at home. We will be back.

Flamenco Por La Vida

Flamenco Por La Vida

Flamenco Por La Vida

Flamenco Por La Vida

Flamenco Por La Vida

Flamenco Por La Vida

 

Visit Otro Cafe at 6035 N 7th St, Phoenix, AZ 85014

August 8, 2015admin Comments Off on Otro on Wednesday
FILED UNDER :Gastronomique , nightlife , performance
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Lantern Festival – Year of the Ram

Lantern-Festival-037

Chinese Face Changing

There isn’t a large Chinese community in Phoenix; especially not for someone such as me, who spent way too much time living in the San Francisco Bay Area, where Asian culture in general is ingrained and celebrated. In the Bay, you can walk down any given street and have a good chance of running into a Vietnamese Restaurant, an Indian Sari shop, a Tibetan gift shop, a Chinese herb shop, and a Korean church, all within ten minutes of each other. I might be exaggerating, but only slightly. The point I’m making is that I was raised in a community that had a very accessible Asian community and culture – a place where you could pop down to a random park on Sundays and join in on some Tai Chi practice. Living in Phoenix, it is one of the few things I miss about the Bay and it’s one of my few complaints about this valley – the lack of cultures beyond sports bars and steak houses, so to speak.

I’ve been wanting our very own Chinese New Year Parade, here in the valley for as long as I’ve lived here. A big one. A big, giant Parade that lasts all night, filled with firecrackers, dragons, Kung Fu, flags, and floats. I grew up on this stuff, and have the best memories of it. As a matter of fact, the Chinese New Year might be my favorite holiday. It has all the elements I like: fun, fun, and more fun without the hassles and guilt that Christmas, Easter, and Thanksgiving bring us.

Chinese Cultural Dance

Cultural Dance

Last week I went to the Lantern Festival, held at Rio Vista Community Park in Peoria, AZ. It’s not a wild parade, like I’m accustomed to, but it was definitely a good time for someone who wants to celebrate the New Year. This event is filled with lanterns, actually huge wire frame sculptures covered in transparent, colored material, and lit up to dramatic effect. Also at the festival were food and gift vendors, a wishing tree, acupuncture booth, calligraphy booth, and a stage for all kinds of performances including Kung Fu, Tai Chi, and traditional music and dances. Of course, there was a performance with one of my favorite instruments, the Gu-Zheng. It is reminiscent of the Hammered Dulcimer, but it is plucked, while the player can also bend notes by pulling on the strings with the left hand. The Face Changing dance was fun, and the dancer freaked me out a little when he jumped off the stage and came right up into my face – about a foot away. I was so shocked, I forgot to take a photo. My favorite, however, was the calligraphy. I’ve always like the look of Chinese writing and I find it to be an amazing art form.

I had a blast and hope that this festival keeps growing!

Chinese Calligraphy

Calligraphy

Dragon Dance

Dragon Dance

Lantern Festival

Lantern Festival

Lantern Display

Lantern Display

Kung Fu

Kung Fu

 

March 9, 2015admin Comments Off on Lantern Festival – Year of the Ram
FILED UNDER :events
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