Toss this one into the "Good Shows at Completely Inappropriate Venues" files.
Last night I hit up the show headlined by Ezra Furman & the Harpoons, with support from Tristen and The Apache Relay. The acts were all great -- surprisingly so, even, especially in the case of Apache Relay, which I knew nothing of going into the night. Some Americana-rock sounds from a six-piece with some fiddle and mandolin and a few extra floor toms for percussive power. Comparisons to Mumford & Sons and the Avett Brothers would be completely appropriate. The band's singer was enthusiastic and got a warm response -- from the 25 people who showed.
Which brings us to our problem. Stage AE is a good venue -- for big shows. And I understand that the "Club" configuration is tailored to smaller, more intimate affairs. But not this intimate. I went into the night wondering if it wasn't the wrong venue for the show -- I was only vaguely familiar with Ezra Furman, though I wasn't sure if maybe there was a mass appeal for the band that I was just missing, because that's been known to happen. I knew and liked Tristen, but only really discovered her recently, and I knew my efforts to get the word out about her fantastic first album via our Critics' Picks section and my 9:13 Buzz on WYEP weren't likely to turn that many people out to a Tuesday.
The thing about this venue is that it's ideal for destination shows -- there's parking, people know how to get there, it's probably going to be great for outdoor shows. But as a stop for up-and-comers, it's not so great. It's difficult to get to without a car. There's no walk-in traffic like there would be at a neighborhood bar venue. And even in this, its smallest configuration, it's got a capacity of a few hundred; that's bound to make any show with a smaller turnout feel like a completely empty room.
The sound was good, and I can imagine a bigger show there being fun. But the lesson to be learned here is: Know your scene. None of these acts had a "big" show in Pittsburgh prior to last night, so how could they be expected to draw a couple hundred, especially without a local support act to bring in some friends and fans? The show was up against The Mountain Goats at Mr. Small's and O'Death and Thunderbird, sure, but regardless, I suspect it would've been difficult to turn a lot of heads out to this venue for this show.
Tristen's set was a stripped-down one, with just her and a guitarist. I'm excited to see her with a full band next time she comes through; many of the arrangements of her songs feature pretty great rhythm section playing and I think her live show would profit from a full-band configureation. But at its essence, her show was great: energetic, intimate, with just enough tour-weary vocal scratches to render the performance authentic. The set closed with "Heart and Hope to Die," one of my favorite tracks from her album, and the song that I think was best suited to the stripped-down instrumentation. I'm willing to put my money on Tristen taking off -- anyone willing to make a friendly wager?
Ezra Furman, sporting a brand-new, Ted Leo-style mohawk, was charming and fun, playing to the small but devoted crowd that came out on a rainy Tuesday night to see him. It was an energetic set from a talented artist who's admirably self-aware (he introduced a mid-show mini-set of emo-type tunes by noting their self-loathing nature, and owned what may have been the line of the night: "I have no life. I just sit around writing and playing songs. [pause] I have a great life.")
VIA Presents shows have garnered a reputation for being particularly genre-blind. Their strategically curated lineups never fail to bring some all-out boundary-pushing audio/visuals to the East End, and Saturday's show at the Lawrenceville Moose, with its lineup of bass masters, did not disappoint.
Headlined by Bristol-based Appleblim (Laurie Osborne, Apple Pips), the sounds emanating from the Moose until sometime past 3 a.m. were dubstep-tinged but so far from the stigmatized popular culture workings of dubstep sounds. It was none of that stuff one hears on a Britney Spears track or at an all-ages rave, no ear shattering chainsaw basslines and thumping robot voices. Saturday night's version of dubstep brought everything from its London/Bristol roots all the way to a futuristic otherworldly funk, a journey of tantalizing two-step bass.
The evening began with local DJ Cutups (Geoffrey Maddock) who took the show as an opportunity to push his own drum-and-bass set into adventurous territory. Contrary to his monthly don't-take-ourselves-too-seriously sets that stack popular rap tracks with breakcore, jungle and electro party jams, the mixing he rocked out Saturday was risk taking that paid off. It was a daredevil set with warping sonic bass exploration that set the tone perfectly for the rest of the party. The visuals that accompanied his set were creations of M. Callen, a senior Fine Arts and Humanities student at CMU. Emanating from screens behind the DJ booth were long video loops of Pittsburgh sunsets that provided a glow of purples, pinks and oranges that calmed down the sometimes-hyperactive beats pumping through the speakers.
More local D&B was provided by Sight Unseen (Adam Ratana and Preslav Lefterov). For everyone who's been following this duo, mostly limited to Soundcloud listening, the show was an exciting opportunity to hear their beat mixing on a massive sound system. They laid funky languid tracks, sometimes with a little R&B flavor, over high-octane punchy beats. The set started out chill and delicate and bulldozed up to pounding dark power bass accompanied by M. Callen's video images of dusky Pittsburgh skies.
Appleblim took the decks, transitioning from Sight Unseen's string drenched overlay into his signature hollowed-out bass bumps. He worked from smooth, lazy, delay-enhanced vocals with a mid-range tempo, all very house-like, up to techno-fueled full-on future funk, dropping tracks from fellow post-dubstep artists Ramadanman and Scuba. Appleblim has developed a reputation for playing all kinds of weirdness that vacillates between house, techno and dubstep, his sounds grazing the outskirts of each genre and arguably creating an entirely new one in the process. The crowd's general consensus on his set was that it dipped to moments of sound filler at times but countered the instances of bored head-bopping with ones of mind-blowing fearlessness. He took the dance floor inhabitants to new places and those moments of melody-less mush were just rest stops along the way.
D. Luchman, a Master of Fine Arts student at CMU, provided the visuals to Appleblim's sonic journey. The mountain of television screens behind the DJ booth flashed colorful spasmodic pyramids, a wall of brightly colored shapes and images. It was difficult to discern what exactly the elements were as they were moving faster than Appleblim's mid-tempo beats, but they created a visual synthesis with the sounds that were already very difficult to define; a fitting marriage of sight and sound.
The evening-into-morning party of funk filled booms and brightly colored screen flashes was some epicness the Moose probably hasn't seen in a hot minute. From dollar PBR's to the grungy lounge atmosphere of the lodge, the sounds of grimy South London dubstep pushed to new realms by a tall gangly Bristolian complete with a cigarette dangling from his mouth as he mixed – the entire milieu just fit together like a puzzle.
Hey yinzers! Wishing it were still Friday? Of course you aren't, because while Monday does mean the workweek has started, it also means that I have a new mp3 for you. Since I can't turn back time, a track from Chux Beta's upcoming album, Heartbroken Underground, will just have to suffice.
"Different Kind of Crazy," the fourth track from the album, is sure to ease your Monday morning pain because the Pittsburgh natives know a thing or two about alternative rock. Make sure to look for their album when it drops on the 23rd. Did you catch that? The album won't even be released for another couple weeks and you can get an exclusive sneak peek right now. How's that for celeb status?
The BBT gets packed to the point of inevitable "dancing on someone else"-type crowding maybe a handful of times a year. This week's FUZZ! drum-and-bass night was one of those nights. The normally lax dance floor that often has at least an arm's-width distance between dancers was packed shoulder-to-shoulder with a crowd of bass lovers, plus a few who may have stumbled in for peirogies and just didn't leave.
UK drum-and-bass producer Total Science worked the decks with a set that was at times brash, dark and maniacally throbbing, and at others mellowed-out, spacey and gorgeously string-drenched. Normally a producing duo, Total Science was represented on Wednesday by only Paul Smith, aka Spinback. Smith delivered a set true to Total Science's penchant for detailed complexity of tracks that make artful use of breaks which leave open space for gloomy saturnine crevices, the sonic gems amidst an otherwise frenzied salvo of early '00s rave sounds. Highlight of the set might have been the remix of Zero 7's "In the Waiting Line" because a) that song is beautiful, and b) it was remixed with a fuller low end and Total Science's penchant for extra dark and extra moody, so it was awesome.
For back-to-back dancing pleasure, San Francisco native Mochipet graced the booth at the Brillobox on Thursday night for Lazercrunk, the kickoff club night of the month hosted by residents Cutups and Keeb$. Mochipet (David Wang) is known for wearing a purple dinosaur suit during his sets, a sort of anti-Barney. (Instead of sing-a-longs, rave-a-longs, perhaps?) His set was a creative non-stop drive of funky, bass-y robot rock homage that fit perfectly between the space-age gangster grime that Keeb$ tends toward, and the difficult to pin down range of Cutups who dished everything from hip-hop samples to an ending set of aggressive breakcore. Mochipet went a little poppier than I anticipated when he dropped "Bad Romance" and Drake's "Forever," but I suppose anything's excusable when you wear a purple dinosaur suit ... rawr.
So. It's almost the end of the workday. You're not sure what you're getting into tonight. It's Wednesday night, which, of course, is drinking-and-going-to-see-live-music night in your life.
Here's an idea: Pokey LaFarge and the South City Three play Thunderbird Cafe (4023 Butler St., Lawrenceville). The Midwest-born, St. Louis-based old-timey Americana musician is on Jack White's Third Man label and, as our friends at the Riverfront Times note, looks kind of like "a hobo Pee-Wee Herman."
Don't take all this from us -- check out a track from Pokey's new full-length, Middle of Everywhere here: So Long, Honeybee, Goodbye.
Show starts at 9, costs $7, and the Shelf Life String Band opens.
This week's free MP3 download? It comes from pop-punkers Mace Ballard. They're last year's CP Reader's Poll "Best Pop/Rock Band That's Not The Clarks" winners, and also won the P***-Gaz****'s "Pittsburgh Rocks" contest. This is where I disclose that the singer is also the brother of CP staffer Lauren Daley.
But that's not why they're appearing on MP3 Monday today. They're appearing because they just cut an acoustic EP at Duquesne University, and are taking it on a short tour sponsored by College Prowler, hitting some college campuses and some non-college venues as well (tour dates at their Facebook page).
And because they volunteered this MP3: "Treasure Chest Target Practice"
Download it and listen to it and enjoy listening to it. And have a good Monday!
William Fitzsimmons spent much of his early life living in the Ohio valley, and went to Quaker Valley High School. The 32-year-old got his master's degree at Geneva College and began work as a counselor, but in 2006 decided to pursue music full-time. He plays Brillobox (4104 Penn Ave., Bloomfield) Tues., April 5 at 9:30; Slow Runner opens. He talked with us via telephone from the road.
Which came first – psychology as a vocation, or music?
Technically, the music was always there. I grew up in a very music-oriented household, and both of my parents played music. But never for a moment was it a career aspiration. Psychology was the real career passion. I felt like that was what I was made, or gifted, to do, however you want to look at it. I got my education in that field, and worked in it for several years, then sort of stumbled backward into writing music.
It started as an exercise in catharsis – writing songs was a good way to empty out some stuff I wanted to get out of my head before I started working with others as a counselor. And music was just something that was there – if my dad had been a painter, I probably would've pulled out a paintbrush.
Did your parents play professionally or as a hobby?
Sort of in between, if that makes sense. They both sang in choirs, my dad was an organist and my mom played the piano at church, and basically wherever else she was. But it was never for pay. Both of my folks are disabled, they're both blind, so music was always important. In the blind community, music means a lot – it's a heightened sense, and it's a way to communicate.
Surely a background in psychology informs your songwriting; is the reverse true, too? Have you ever used music in your work as a therapist?
When I was still practicing regularly, I always looked at the two as dichotomous practices – I kept them completely separated. Now I see what sort of effect music has as a therapeutic tool and I think maybe that was a misstep, and maybe I should've integrated music more into my practice.
You started out writing and recording by yourself; now you have a duet on your new record and have worked with more musicians. How does collaboration play into your songwriting work?
Early on, I took a – it was a self-important and foolish view of the process – I thought that any writer should kind of lock himself in a room and write for himself. So that's what I did. I'm proud of what I did, but since I've kind of grown up. The best thing in any creative endeavor is if you allow each person to fully pursue the best thing that they do. They goal should be creating the most beautiful potent things that you can. Not to stroke your own ego and see how many times you can get your own name in the liner notes.
When you started your songwriting, were you still living in Pittsburgh?
I started writing when I came back to Pittsburgh after undergrad and was living in a little house in Ambridge, doing my internship. I think that geography plays a part in songwriting, at least in mine. I do a lot of my writing outside. Pittsburgh's different. There's a pride there; it's not like when you're in New York or L.A. It's a very special place, I think it brings something out of me.
When I started out, I wasn't playing shows – I was working, and writing music. Even when I had a music supervisor discover me on Myspace, I still wasn't doing much locally. I think I had more fans outside of Pittsburgh than in town, just because I wasn't playing live there.
When did you decide to quit your practice and pursue music full-time? It would've been sometime in 2006. In philosophy, therapy and music work really well together, but in day-to-day practice, they're kind of mutually exclusive. You have a responsibility to your clients, and if someone's feeling suicidal, you can't be in California playing a show. I felt like music was calling louder at that time. But it's nice to know that I can go back to working in therapy if that goes away.
Anything you're specifically looking forward to, coming back to Pittsburgh?
You want me to say Primanti's I bet. [Laughs.] It's really great seeing family. Most of my family lives in the 'Burgh still. I was hoping to throw back a few beers and celebrate the Super Bowl this time around, but that didn't turn out so well.