Compared to other cities in Arizona as well as the Southwest as a whole, the city of Tucson has always marched to the beat of its own drum. Long an important stop on historic trade routes, the city has benefitted from the confluence of cultures that have made it a vibrant city for the arts. Tucson’s prominence in the region led to it being chosen for the the site for the University of Arizona and, much like every major university city, this makes the city a draw for both aspiring musicians just cutting their teeth as well as major acts looking for large crowds.
In many ways, Downtown Tucson is the epicenter of the live music scene. Many of the city’s largest and most prominent venues are on or near Congress Avenue running through the center of Downtown. Anchored by the Rialto Theatre on the east side and the Fox Theatre on the west side, this strip is home to a substantial portion of the city’s larger shows and concerts.
The historic Rialto Theatre opened in 1922 and the Fox Theatre opened slightly later in 1930. Both seat just under 1,400 in their original configurations as movie houses and vaudeville stages. Again, sharing much in common, they both experienced unfortunate declines in the 1960s, narrowly dodging the sad fate of too many historic theaters. Abandonment and disuse led to discussion of tearing down both theaters before preservationists stepped in and organized efforts to save and revitalize both theaters.
The Rialto was first up for renovation, reopening with great fanfare in 1995. Though work was done on a modest budget, the venue was something of an institution in the Southwest and was able to attract diverse bookings like the White Stripes, Merle Haggard, The Roots, and Fugazi. The current era of the Rialto began in 2002 with another change in ownership and the merciful replacement of the antiquated and wholly inadequate evaporation-style air conditioning. After that major upgrade, the venue no longer had to close for summers and could truly come into its own, putting on more than 150 events annually from major touring acts to local film screenings. If you’re at all a fan of live music, odds are you’ll find yourself at one of those shows.
After suffering an agonizingly long period of decay, the Fox Theatre was purchased from its previous owners and the $14 million rehabilitation project began in 2002. Special attention was paid to preserving the venue’s “Southwestern Art Deco” decor and design elements, which led to its listing on the National Register of Historic Places upon its grand reopening on New Year's Eve in 2005. Much like its neighbor, the Rialto, the venue’s offerings go beyond music with comedy, film, and other performances. Bookings are diverse with the likes of Branford Marsalis, Ricky Lee Jones, and Morrissey all slated to play within the next several months.
Smaller venues include Club Congress, which is just across the street from the Rialto Theater. A more intimate alternative to the larger theaters, one can attend a variety of primarily independent local and touring acts. Just north of this strip on Toole Avenue are the smaller, arts-focused venues: Solar Culture and 191 Toole. Both of these spots serve as multi-purpose venues for music, visual, and performing arts, often taking chances on artists lacking broad commercial appeal. While welcoming to all, don’t expect menus and full bars (or any bar, for that matter). Independent music fans might also be interested to know Downtown Tucson is home to Waveland Studios, which is located just off of Broadway. Hometown heroes Calexico have recorded several of their records at Waveland along with the likes of Animal Collective, Robyn Hitchcock, and Devotchka.
In Downtown Tucson is the Historic Fourth Avenue district. With the Sun Link streetcar running right down the center of it, the Historic Fourth Avenue area is an important hub for artists and musicians. Long known as a forward thinking area that welcomes counterculture, the strip is home to many of Tucson’s smaller venues featuring new and upcoming artists. The easy going attitude is reflected in the musically adventurous venues that dot the strip.
Taking advantage of Tucson’s roughly 340 sunny days a year, Sky Bar is unique in that it takes care of its power needs with a large solar panel arrangement on the roof. Billing itself as Tucson's only “astronomy bar,” music fans can head up to the roof at night to make use of the venue’s stargazing telescope. In addition to the regular Wednesday night open mic, currently booked acts range from DJs to country and western acts to dreamy psychedelic music.
Flycatcher, formerly known as Plush, is a well-known stop on the DIY touring circuit that attracts independent acts as well as a cadre of local talent supplied, in part, by students from the university. The vibe is decidedly come-as-you-are, with dance parties and other non-live music events on off nights. The venue occasionally partners with the Rialto Theater to bring in larger acts and to host after parties.
The favored watering hole of (and employer of, in several cases) Tucson’s artists and musicians is Che’s Lounge on Fourth Avenue. Dimly lit, though festooned with colorful artwork from locals, the bar is a great place to meets friends, enjoy a drink, and catch some of the best local and up-and-coming acts playing in the city. The venue can be a bit boisterous and rowdy (in a good natured way) so don’t show up on a weekend expecting a quiet night out.
Just a few more stops along the Sun Link lies the University neighborhood, where the University of Arizona is based. Known for its beloved football and basketball teams, this 40,000-strong university also has a highly competitive school of music that features recitals by students, professors, and visiting musicians as well larger ensemble performances. Most public performances are either free of charge or, if not, very inexpensive to attend and are a great way to broaden one’s music horizons. Marroney Theatre, on the university's campus, is also home to the Arizona Repertory Theatre, which puts on at least half a dozen productions annually. This season the company’s musical choice is Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Evita”.
Game days for the University of Arizona Wildcats are not just a big deal for the university area, but the entire state. While both the men’s basketball and football teams are quite successful in their own right, the university’s marching band and pep bands are no slouches either. Adopting the bold motto “The Best Band in the West” back in 1936, the marching band, known as The Pride of Arizona, have done their part to earn that reputation. They have the distinction of being the band chosen to play at the first Super Bowl in 1967 and have been winning awards and turning heads ever since. As fall begins to yield to winter and the much-anticipated basketball season gets underway, be sure to turn an ear to the pep band, who are hard to miss in their bold red and white striped shirts at every home game.
All this should hit home the point that Tucson isn’t, by any measure, some sleepy desert crossroads. It is home to a vibrant and diverse community of musicians that have put in the work to make the city in a regional center of arts and culture. With so much going on, you can be sure someone, somewhere will be playing your tune in Tucson.