About 100 miles southeast of Tucson is the historic gold and copper mining town of Bisbee.
The once-bustling city has been transformed into an artisan community, with an almost cult-like following among returning tourists. In a town historically populated by men, most of the old buildings were established as saloons or brothels, and the town has retained a bit of its lusty roots, a surprising haven for a lively and eclectic music scene populated with gypsies and vagabond musicians.
On a Wednesday night last spring, I was invited to attend a women's open-mike night at the Stock Exchange Saloon. Donna Kihl and her band Las Goats performed a wildly theatrical set of what sounded like Eastern European cabaret music. Kihl describes it as "salty" and " art music with a touch of punk and a roots-revival gypsy spirit," explaining that she loves "music that pushes the buttons of my soul."
Kihl played the accordion and sang original songs, many of which were about Bisbee, while another band member drew long, beautiful tones on a saw with a bow. Another woman recited "Jabberwocky," standing on her head.
"Special Ed" Thornton, whose business card reads "Fiddlist, solo, combo, bands, sessions," makes an occasional home in Bisbee, sitting in with the core group of musicians who make nightly rounds among the town's half-dozen or so bars.
"I'm a rover; I only get paid every third time. When I go and sit in, they'll give me a few beers, but I like to play so I keep playing," says Thornton. "I played with a lot of different people, but it's really kind of all the same players -- they just play in different combos together."
Multi-instrumentalist Dylan Charles is one of those players. Charles arrived in Bisbee three years ago to visit his father, a local art gallery owner, and was so enthralled by the town and its culture that he decided to stay.
"I studied at the University of Cincinnati Conservatory," says Charles, who recently recorded his first solo CD, "Time for Breakfast."
"I was tired of the scene there. I found Bisbee to be a cool, funky little place where I could write some songs. I ended up becoming enamored of the people and with the place. You can get real comfortable here. I started playing with different kinds of bands. In Cincinnati, I was doing mainly jazz," says Charles, defining his current genre as Americana, influenced by folk, country rock, blues and bluegrass.
Charles played mandolin with the Dusty Buskers as well as with Dan Simonis and the West Texas Millionaires (two of Bisbee's mainstay bands) before recording on his own. Charles says he thrives artistically on the spirit of the place: "I felt free here to explore my art and do my own thing, and the audiences here are real receptive to that. I could do whatever was coming from my heart. For me, Bisbee is considered an artists' community or retreat."
WHERE TO HEAR MUSIC
Stock Exchange, 15 Brewery Ave., Bisbee, Ariz.; (520) 432-1333, www.stockexchangesaloon.com. Located on a prominent corner in Bisbee's historic Brewery Gulch. Live music Friday and Saturday; open mike Thursday; open jam Sunday.
Copper Queen Hotel, 11 Howell Ave., Bisbee, Ariz.; (520) 432-2216, www.copperqueen.com.
Arizona's oldest continuously running hotel. Live music Friday and Saturday nights and occasional Saturday and Sunday afternoon performances.
Bisbee Coffee Co., 2 Copper Queen Plaza, Bisbee, Ariz.; (520) 432-7879, www.bisbeecoffee.com. Lunchtime hot spot where musicians can set up and play on the outdoor patio.
Café Roka, 35 Main St., Bisbee, Ariz.; (520) 432-5153, www.caferoka.com. Bisbee's finest dining experience. Live jazz on Friday nights.
St. Elmo's, 36 Brewery Ave., Bisbee, Ariz.; (520) 432-5578. Opened in 1902, it claims to be the oldest continuously operating bar in the state. Live music Friday and Saturday nights.
WHERE TO STAY
Eldorado Suites, 55 OK St., Bisbee, Ariz., (520) 432-6679, www.eldoradosuitesbisbee.com.
Spacious all-suites hotel rooms with one of the best views of Old Bisbee. Rooms are available for weekly and monthly rates. The funky courtyard out back abuts the hill on which the building is perched, overlooking Brewery Gulch. Built in 1914, the hotel is a landmark example of territorial-style architecture. Rooms start at $125.
Letson Loft Hotel, 26 Main St., Bisbee, Ariz.; (877) 432-3210, www.letsonlofthotel.com. Swank, sexy and romantic boutique-style hotel with eight seriously appointed and designed rooms in the heart of Old Bisbee. Rooms from $120.
Jonquil Motel, 317 Tombstone Canyon, Bisbee, Ariz., (866) 432-7371, www.thejonquil.com. Charming, budget-friendly motel in a historic building marked by local artist Rose Johnson's "Sleepwalking," mural based on the 1928 poem "Romance Sonambulo" by Federico García Lorca. Rooms from $70.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times