Tucson’s apres-game music

If you’re headed to see the Dodgers in Glendale, Ariz., this spring, know that there’s plenty to do besides baseball. About a two-hour drive south from Glendale, a Phoenix suburb, is Tucson, one of the Cactus League’s two original towns.

The Cleveland Indians and the then-New York (and now San Francisco) Giants moved their spring training camps to Tucson and Phoenix, respectively, in 1947. More recently, the Colorado Rockies and the Arizona Diamondbacks have called Tucson home during spring training.

Both teams will be relocating to a shared new ballpark in Scottsdale next spring, so this March is a Dodgers fan’s last chance to make the league’s two-hour road trip to catch a game in Tucson..

Less affected by corporate trappings and homogenization than Phoenix, Tucson retains its old-world, Mexican and Southwestern charm. Among the city’s many cultural pursuits is a vibrant and diverse live music scene. I first discovered it a few years ago while on a spring training road trip.

I had just showered off the sweat, suntan lotion, beer and peanut dust of an afternoon ballgame and was emerging from my room at the Hotel Congress when I heard music rising from the lobby below.

I ventured downstairs, and there he was, standing on a wooden crate in the lobby, forcefully strumming his guitar and belting out lyrics in a booming, operatic baritone that resonated through the bustling room.

When I asked the desk clerk about the charismatic singer, she told me that his name was Salvador Duran and that he played on Thursday nights. I began to plan my visits to the Congress accordingly, always checking in on a Thursday.

The Congress, built in 1919 and restored in circa 1930s fashion, is a multipurpose destination in and of itself, equally popular with tourists and Tucsonans.

It’s bordered on one side by semi-bustling Congress Street, at the edge of the city’s downtown Historic District, and on the other by the recently refurbished South Pacific train depot, which houses the Southern Arizona Transportation Museum and Maynards Market & Kitchen, a co-op grocery store and upscale restaurant.

The lobby is perhaps the Congress’ most striking feature, with soaring walls colorfully adorned with Native American-inspired Southwest Deco glyphs created by artist Larry Boyce and a series of local artists’ installations.

The hotel’s Club Congress has been called one of the top rock music venues in the country by Playboy and Entertainment magazines. It is inconspicuously behind the lobby but visible and audible to passersby on the street, and it is the city’s busiest live music spot.

Calexico, perhaps the most commercially successful band to emerge from Tucson, played its first live shows in town at the Hotel Congress.

“We spent a lot of time at Hotel Congress; we lived there and hung there before we moved to town. It was our haven,” says Calexico co-founder Joey Burns.

With more than 300 live shows annually and two or three acts on each bill, about 1,000 bands perform on the Club Congress stage each year.

The stage, framed by gothic metal and glass ornamentation created by local artist Daniel Martin Diaz, overlooks a dance floor where crowds of locals and hotel guests gather seven nights a week.

The club rumbles beneath half the hotel rooms, as do the nearby trains throughout the evening. It all makes for a cacophony of sounds -- there is little opportunity to nod off to sleep early -- but peace and quiet are not really what they’re selling at the Hotel Congress. (Some quiet rooms are available upon request.) It’s more of a complete entertainment -- and even culinary -- experience.

A perfect night at the Congress might unfold thusly: happy hour in the lobby, with Duran providing an early evening serenade, followed by dinner in the hotel’s Cup Café or Maynards Market & Kitchen across the street (I’ve had some of my best meals in town at both places), then a long night of live music in the Club and finally a late breakfast or brunch the next morning. It’s possible to spend 24 hours without leaving the hotel.

Besides the Club Congress and lobby bar, the hotel’s Tap Room is a local institution with a nationwide cult following ( ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons calls it his favorite bar) that has remained open since 1919. The inconspicuous bar, accessible from both the hotel’s lobby and patio, is adorned with sketches and paintings donated by renowned cowboy artist Pete Martinez.

All activity in the Tap Room revolves around a vintage Wurlitzer juke box that plays only 45s and includes music by an eclectic variety of historically popular music icons such as Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Ray Charles.

“Our goal when we first started was to get a 45 single on the jukebox at the Congress. Some people’s goal is to get on the radio, but ours was just to get on the jukebox,” Burns says.

“The old warehouses and funky places are what brought me here,” says Burns, who moved to Tucson from his native Los Angeles in 1993 and still lives in the town’s eclectic Barrio Viejo district.

Nowhere is Tucson’s cultural blending more evident than at the Solar Culture gallery. Proprietor Steven Eye specializes in bringing in acts from across the musical spectrum, from Chirgilchin, a Tuvan throat singing ensemble, to Marianne Dissard, a Tucson-based French transplant whose album “L’Entredeux” was co-written and produced by Burns.

Dissard is expanding her repertoire, collaborating with other members of Tucson’s musical family, including the mambo-inspired Sergio Mendoza y la Orkestra, as well as the Luz de Luna Mariachi ensemble.

Recently, the Tucson-based Tejano band iMAS performed on Garrison Keillor’s “Prairie Home Companion” radio program in a live broadcast from the Tucson Convention Center.

The crowd of 14,000 was the largest it had ever played for; band leader Louie Ranjel says he has booked 15 iMAS gigs since the program was broadcast.

“We booked a show in Texas, and I’ve received phone calls and e-mails from California and even Duluth [Minn.]; it really expanded our fan base,” Ranjel says.

The band plays a once-a-month gig at Little Mexico Steakhouse (2851 W. Valencia Road, Tucson) but performs more often at weddings and private events.

From traditional mariachi music to hybrid forms of Tejano and norteño fused to modern rock with a regional flavor, Tucson’s eclectic music scene offers baseball fans a tuneful respite from the rigors of spring training.