The Underground Music Scene
If you want to see a band in Pittsburgh, there’s no velvet rope, no need to line up for tickets, no need to worry about “door” times, and, best of all, the colored lights are could well be some after-Christmas booty.
If it were any different, Pittsburgh underground rock fans would be baffled and horrified.
This scene, obviously, doesn’t include major gigs such as the Rolling Stones playing PNC Park or the concert line-ups at any of the other big arenas. Instead, here are some tips to scout out and enjoy the small rock n’ roll (as well as jazz, folk and hip hop) shows staged nearly every day in the city.
The majority feature local groups, which, if popular, can draw decent crowds. Many others are up-and-comers, the indie-famous or out-of-town friends of locals, who roll into town in a sort of underground Rotary exchange – i.e., Baltimore punk swapped for our own.
So if you’re not sure you want to stay up past 10, brave the not-yet-banned smoke and meet all the peculiar characters of the local music scene, let this presumptuous handbook convince you! To keep it simple for now, we’ll look mainly at the outta-town bands – but these tips can help you find your way among the hometown groups, too.
The Bargain!: Seeing out-of-town bands in Pittsburgh is cheap, cheap, cheap. Whether the group is a recent Pitchfork Media coronation or the talented friends of your favorite locals, you’ll pay a few bucks less in cover than say, New York or Chicago. Although there are exceptions, you’ll usually find low covers at both medium-sized venues (like Mr. Small’s Funhouse and the Rex) and at the smaller bars and art galleries that host shows. Needless to say, Pittsburgh pricing is a better deal for the spectator than the performer, so let that encourage you to be a good audience.
Sometimes, your cost is completely zilch at outdoor shows at the Three Rivers Arts Festival (in Point State Park, Downtown) or at Hartwood Acres county park, off Route 8. Sure, your rock experience will be diluted by camping chairs and, of course, broad daylight, but seeing Tom Verlaine, Patti Smith and the Cowboy Junkies for free is hard to beat. Likewise, occasional free, unadvertised university shows are de facto open to the public: Once I was in Schenley Park and followed my ears to discover Superchunk performing at Carnegie Mellon.
The Bargain!, Part 2: Not just cheap, but easy too. There’s way less hassle here. Only for the most-anticipated shows will you need to hustle for an advance ticket. (But if you’re sure you’re going, picking one up at the record store is a good way to save a little bit more.) And unless you want to wet your whistle, no need to cram in at the “Doors Open” time. Just mosey in as the drummer’s adjusting his sweatbands, and you’ll usually be fine.
For instance, when I recently saw Kid Congo Powers (Gun Club founding member, now leading the Pink Monkey Birds) at the 31st Street Pub, I only decided to go at 10:40 p.m. Thank goodness I made it, otherwise I might’ve missed Kid Congo’s Kelly green loafers.
The Bargain!, Part 3: The beer’s a steal. You’ll see show-going “secondary costs” – a.k.a. beer – held down in Pittsburgh, too. Though you can find it if you’re interested, there’s no need to pay $5 for a beer here. Most bars keep the common microbrews at $3-4, including those from the North Side’s Penn Brewery. More important for the rock ’n’ rollers, however, is that Pittsburgh has cheap, local beer of decent quality, brands not yet washed away by the nation’s rivers of Coors and Bud. Straub (with “no sugar added,” it’s practically health food!), Yuengling and the super-local Iron City can be regularly found for $2 or less.
The Haggle: Here’s what you gotta do to get these bargains. First, to see many of the touring bands, you’ll need to venture out on a Sunday or a weeknight. If this is an “official” tour – not just a weekend visit to play with Pittsburgh pals – the band will probably try to play a bigger market on the prime Friday and Saturday nights.
Weekends, though, are still great times to go out. If you’re looking for something new, locals will often host performers from other cities, some which might be pretty well known. And a few places – like the cozy, inexpensive rock spot Gooski’s in Polish Hill – consistently draw a surprisingly appreciative crowd on Saturdays, no matter who’s playing.
Also, you’ll need to do a little reconnoitering and bring a sense of adventure … more on that next.
The Hunt: It’s true, venues are always opening, closing and changing. So unless you go to shows often, don’t count on seeing the same stage twice. Plus, there’s logistics: Venues are sprinkled through the city, not centered around the Oakland college zone, as they were 15 years ago.
The Thrill: Just by being a fan, you’ll get an unofficial tour of Pittsburgh’s social, cultural and architectural history. Mr. Small’s, the city’s most prominent mid-size venue, is a converted church in the old Allegheny River town of Millvale. The Rex on the South Side, another mid-sizer, was once a movie house. Mr. Roboto Project, a Wilkinsburg punk collective, is housed in an old furniture store. And an old church in Braddock, of all places, just hosted a rave, of all things, with Dieselboy.
Even among the more conventional bars-with-bands are examples of, as the architects say, “creative re-use.” The 31st Street Pub once hosted more bikers than punk rockers, while hipster dive Gooski’s was not long ago a quintessential neighborhood ethnic tavern. Meanwhile, an old Polish social hall on Lawrenceville’s Butler Street became The Abduction a few years back, and now, Belvedere’s. A few months back, a Mexican polka-punk band called Polka Madre y La Comezon played there – not such a departure from the old days, after all.
Probably your most interesting venue tour, though, would follow the peregrinations of scrappy indie/experimental/electro promoter Manny Theiner, who’s been at it since the late 1980s. From a three-flights-up Wilkinsburg space to the Millvale Industrial Theater (a bona fide old industrial building in Millvale, now closed by the building inspector), Manny has staged shows practically everywhere. Currently, you can get art with your Manny shows, as many of them have migrated to the Garfield Artworks gallery.
Like GarfArt, many of the galleries showing newer or more experimental artists bring in bands for the opening and closing parties, including SPACE, Wood Street and Future Tenant galleries Downtown – which are owned by none other than the uber-establishment Pittsburgh Cultural Trust. Talk about efficiency! Being a music fan will keep you up-to-date on the up-and-coming art scene – and you may get a few free bites of wine and cheese, to boot.
Meanwhile, other city spots have remained constant and positively familial. The 31st Street Pub would be unimaginable without Joel Greenfield and his display-case of skulls, while the Frankowski family’s Bloomfield Bridge Tavern just turned 21.
The Gripe: I’ve never even heard of these bands!
The Great: Being a music fan in Pittsburgh welcomes your personal involvement.
You can play the odds and go hear a band you know nothing about, and you might like it. I mean, with a $5-10 cover and $2 drinks or BYOB, what do you have to lose? You might be one of two dozen people enjoying something great … or you might discover an odd pocket of passionate local fandom. Both the country-tinged Drive By Truckers and the Russia-bred Red Elvises reportedly get big turnouts in Pittsburgh – who knew?
But to increase your odds, go to local shows and chat up the regular players and show-goers. They’ll know who these visitors are, and if you share some tastes, you can follow their lead. Sometimes the local and even the international make a perfect union – as when local surf instrumentalists Teen Riot persuaded punk pioneer and Stiff Records vet Wreckless Eric to do a Sunday night show at the Brillobox. It all came about when Teen Riot guitarist Sean Lally discovered that Wreckless Eric was dating Mt. Lebanon native and acclaimed rock songwriter Amy Rigby and tossed out a hopeful e-mail. Lally landed the show and, by the end of the night – after a wry but heartfelt reading from Eric’s new memoir and a few curses at yapping barflies – Eric was rocking out with a full stage: himself, Rigby, her daughter Hazel, and the whole Teen Riot blasting the backup.
Not bad when, as Eric joked, his competition that night had been Jon Bon Jovi, playing at the gargantuan Heinz Field. “He’s on the guest list,” said the Brit. “Jon Bon Jovi, plus one.”
Julie Mickens is a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer.
Photos:CK9 and the Old Allstars at Mr. Small's, MillvaleDonora playing at Gooski's, Polish HillThe Rex, South Side FlatsMark Custer sits in on trumpet at Mr. Small's, MillvaleJoel Greenfield at the '"skull bar" st 31st Street Pub, The Strip District
Brillobox on Penn Avenue ,on the edge of Bloomfield and Lawrenceville
All photographs copyright © Renee Rosensteel