Sound Bites ALIEN SHIPS SPOTTED OVER PHOENIX! The new year invariably inspires the media to melodramatically revisit a carefully selected handful of "pivotal" events reported over the course of the 12 months passed. Tired compendiums entitled "The Year In Review" are generally conspicuously self-referential and often self-congratulatory, coming off as something between a sales pitch and a state of the union/western civilization address: "These are the headlines (that we brought you), the stories that shaped your life." Readers and viewers who just a few weeks ago were complaining of boredom are left with their heads spinning, wondering how they managed to survive the maelstrom of modern living.

And as rapidly as the world turns, consider in particular the tweaked pace of the music industry on the national level--forget 15 minutes, baby, you have 15 seconds if you're signed and you're lucky. The quickstep, flash-in-the-pan barrage of bands, releases, soundbites, images--the flashcard quiz of commercial marketing is not indicative of, or applicable to, our more gradual home-grown scene. I proffer that in retrospect 1997 has proved a busy year of surprising and substantive consequence for music in Tucson, on all fronts.

On the local level, 1997 was the year of the Pioneering Spirit. Owing to the gumption and hard work of relatively few people, Tucson's music scene has witnessed significant changes. New venues, re-opened venues, new record stores, publications, production companies, radio stations--all of these efforts have the net effect of building Tucson's music infrastructure, thereby increasing accessibility as well as possibilities.

Revelation in the Tucson music scene is not going to result from high-dollar Hollywood junkets. Moses will not arrive in the desert in the form of a major label rep bearing contracts. Nor should we expect sympathetic divine intervention to miraculously deliver us from pissy whinings about how slow and overlooked our dusty little town is. Rather, let's acknowledge the progress made in the past year.

In my humble opinion, the single most inspired, original and creative endeavor in Tucson music in 1997 is Radio Limbo, at 103.3 FM. If you're not listening, you should be. It's The Shit for a host of reasons: Free speech, pure and simple. Anything goes, and often does. The programming covers the entire spectrum of music, with many great shows--Euphonophoria, Rachael & Racquel, The Cathy Club, Easy Action, The Break-Up Show, and all my other favorites that number too many to mention...At times banal, and often brilliant, 103.3 FM is amateur radio repartee elevated to high art. Or at least high kitsch. No tiresome commercials, no big promotions, no hidden agenda. Radio Limbo is a grass-roots, community effort, idealism intact, that gives voice and air to the diversity and breadth of Tucson's tastes. A grateful hats-off to all involved.

The year was a banner one for legally beleaguered venues--both the Luna Loca and the Rialto Theater reopened their doors after legal entanglements had closed both venues for months on end. In both cases, people dedicated to realizing their dreams held on by their teeth and persevered. My inner under-dog is wagging her tail.

1997 also claimed its share of casualties: The Empire Cafe remains a stylish memory, while the building is still boarded up, destroyed by fire. The Rialto Cabaret, originally conceived as a fund-raiser for the Rialto Theater Project, was a lovely space for swing dancing. The Cabaret now sits idle, as does The Rock. Never a flashy place to begin with, The Rock did not go down in a blaze of fury, allowed no outward signs of struggle, staged no benefit concerts or consciousness raising. Instead, business gradually slowed until The Rock stopped rolling.

Just about everyone who's even tangentially involved in the local music scene agrees on one issue: Tucson needs more venues. Which makes every closure that much more lamentable. Overall, though, the losses are far outstripped by the gains. The good news this year is that several new stages debuted around town: Skrappy's, Theater Congress, Double Zero with its fabulous basement, Nimbus Brewery, Rhino Pub, The Keys and the cavernous entertainment multiplex of The New West and Gotham. The majority of the new venues have established their commitment to local music, as well as touring acts, and several are open to all ages.

Umlaut Productions, in association with the Theater Congress and a variety of other small occasional venues like Toxic Ranch Records, has made an undeniably impressive contribution to the live indie scene by bringing in bands we'd otherwise be driving to Tempe to see. So, everyone at Umlaut, thank you for the Geraldine Fibbers, Modest Mouse, the Radar Brothers, Kepone, the Sugarplastic--and the list goes on.

Subvox Records is another welcome new addition to Tucson's community of independently owned, specialty record stores. Despite the rapidly growing hegemony of corpulent conglomerate chain stores, small shops with local character continue to emerge, thanks again to that pioneering spirit. The Sound Addict weathered its first full year of operation in 1997, to join the list of successfully carved niches that includes Last Wax, PDQ, Toxic Ranch and Hear's.

Another pioneering institution fresh in 1997, The Tucson Musician's Network works to create connections between local players and has sponsored benefit shows supporting local causes. CrossRoads, the locally produced folk and traditional music trade journal, also flourished in 1997, providing the Old Pueblo with regular national exposure and more information about folk radio play lists than you could ever need or want.

However you slice it, music in Tucson is on the move, and I don't mean to San Francisco or Seattle. All indications point to a year of increased opportunity in 1998, owing largely to the work of a few stalwarts determined to make it happen.

TEN FOR THE ROAD: Call me fickle, but my music preferences change, well, almost weekly, so to compose a list of 1997's "10 Best Releases" is a pretty sketchy business. Instead of sweating the pitfalls of that particular approach, I chose instead to list the 10 CDs that have done the most serious time in my CD player and would be first in the kitty for a road trip:

Yo La Tengo, I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One (Matador).

Ween, Mollusk (Elektra).

Folk Implosion, Dare To Be Surprised (The Communion Label).

Radar Bros., Radar Bros. (Restless).

Ben Harper, The Will To Live (Virgin).

Richard Buckner, Devotion + Doubt (MCA).

Robbie Fulks, South Mouth (Bloodshot).

Geraldine Fibbers, Butch (Virgin).

Calexico, Spoke (Quarterstick/ Touch and Go).

Bedhead, Transaction de Novo (Trance Syndicate). That last one is jumping the gun a little--Transaction de Novo was copyrighted and pressed in 1997 and is due on the streets in early 1998. This is one could be a sleeper, so watch for it!

LAST NOTES: First, a last-minute New Year's Eve update that came in too late to squeeze into last week's events guide: Dean Armstrong and the Arizona Dance Hands will play their 50th New Year's Eve gig at Li'l Abner's Steak House, 8501 N. Silverbell Road. Now that's an anniversary suitable for a Smucker's salute by Willard Scott. During the past half-century, Dean Armstrong and the Dance Hands have done everything from being Gene Autry's staff band for the first local TV station telecast to appearances on Nashville Now and the Today Show. Hell, they've been a band longer than rock and roll has been around. Ring in the New Year with Dean Armstrong and the Dance hands--one of Tucson's longest-standing musical traditions. Call 744-2800 for more information.

Bring it on! Big news to gladden the hearts of fans of Wafflebutt: THE BAND returns Saturday, January 3, to The Airport Lounge, 20 E. Pennington St. Their last performance at the Lounge was standing room only, and easily one of the Lounge's best in '97. Cover is $3. Call 882-0400 for more information.

The Mollys make one of their increasingly rare local appearances at 9 p.m., Saturday, January 3, at The Boondocks Lounge, 3360 N. First Ave. The Mollys have just released a new live CD Wanking Out West, which, although still unavailable in stores, will on sale at the show. Cover is $4. Call 690-0991 for more information. TW

--Lisa Weeks

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