It's 9 p.m. on a typical Saturday night, but it feels like New Year's at the Big Bang. Two dueling pianists are pounding out tunes. The crowd ― a mix of 20- to 40- somethings ― is loving it. Liz, Amanda, and I squeeze in at the last empty table. "I can feel my purse vibrating," shouts Liz, whose purse collection is a thing to be admired.
Tempe's pulsing Mill Avenue is playground to more than 58,000 Arizona State University students during the school year. If you're not one of them, Mill Avenue is probably not the first place you'd think of to while away a warm summer night. But the local music scene has matured in the last few years, the jangly pop of the 1990s giving way to jazz, rock, folk, and bluegrass. It draws a correspondingly more grown-up audience.
At the Big Bang ($3 cover Sun-Thu, $6 cover Fri-Sat; 501 S. Mill Ave., Ste. B-101; 480/557-5595), the dueling pianists know how to warm up a crowd. Five minutes into our visit, we women find ourselves in a sing-off against the men, with volume being the criterion for which sex earns a shot on the house. The song is Chuck Berry's "My Ding-A-Ling," and the men definitely win.
The next stop is Rúla Búla Irish Pub and Restaurant ($2 cover Fri-Sat; 401 S. Mill; 480/ 929-9500), just up the street. Along with a cozy interior, Rúla Búla has Smithwick's―a Guinness-brewed ale that's rarely found in Arizona―as well as some of the city's best bands. "I've been missing out all this time," Amanda sighs as we watch the Keltic Cowboys work their bagpipes, bass, and banjo. "I've never been out in Tempe."
A pub crawl requires crawling, so we set out for Rio Salado Brewing Company's Salt River Saloon (cover charge varies; 605 S. Mill; 480/829-6775). It's a small space, and the rock band's monster amplifiers do more than fill it. We resort to jotting notes on napkins to communicate: "Leave your hearing aids @ home," writes Liz.
Mill's End Espresso ($; breakfast, lunch, and dinner daily; 310 S. Mill; 480/829-0755) is our final stop, a quieter reprieve with an outdoor patio. The cafe's warm crêpes ― smeared with sugar and butter or Nutella before being folded into a portable package ― are the perfect to-go food for a late-night stroll along Mill Avenue, listening to street musicians.