Last night, I went to the first EVER outdoor show at Stage AE, the clothing-company-sponsored venue on the North Side between PNC Park and Heinz Field. You might recall that the last time I was at the venue was for a show in the smaller "club" configuration of the venue, at which time all of 30 people packed a 300-some-capacity room. This time it was a bit different.
Pittsburgh has long lacked in the outdoor-venue category -- yes, there's the First Niagara Pavilion to fill your Skynyrd-and-Tom Petty needs, but who really wants to venture to Burgettstown without being forced to? And there's the Trib Total Media Amphitheatre, which is a big parking lot on the wretched outskirts of a wretched shopping-and-entertainment plaza, next to train tracks. It does the job when you need to see a show, but it's not exactly scenic. Otherwise, you've got county parks, which are nice but can't host all that many shows.
Which brings us to the new Stage AE. While I questioned aspects of the club setup and booking there, I'm much more satisfied with the outdoor venue. Its 5,500-capacity lawn is generous but not too big -- I'm honestly not interested in going to a show at a bigger venue than that anyway, for lack of intimacy. The sound was good last night; the headliner, Social Distortion, came through clear and not overly loud, and the drums sounded great.
I got there after the first act, Sharks, and at the beginning of the second, Chuck Ragan of Hot Water Music. There was a line to get in, but it moved quickly, and the only problem at that point was that the main drink lines were right inside the gates, impeding progress a bit. It didn't take me too long to get to the lawn, though.
Speaking of drinks -- the rap on Stage AE early on was that beer was overpriced. I didn't imbibe at the show (yes, I may have been the only one) but according to the signs, the prices were quite reasonable (unless they didn't tell the whole story). $4.75 for a 16-ounce beer and $6.25 for a 24-oz. honestly isn't even bad for the cheap stuff, but the venue had Blue Moon on tap -- you're unlikely to get Blue Moon cheaper than that at a regular bar.
To be frank, the show wasn't my bag -- which is fine. Being a music critic doesn't really make my opinion count any more heavily than anyone else's on matters of taste (though maybe the constant exposure makes me a little more adept at recognizing discrepancies of skill).
Chuck Ragan pounded out some acoustic folk jams with a bit of Irish flavor, and was met with crickets when he asked if anyone knew who Hazel Dickens was. (I often wonder if these package tours ever really work out for any involved party.) Social Distortion was enjoyable for what they are (a rock band -- for a few reasons, I wouldn't call them "punk," at least not today, but then I'd be drawn into an argument about what "punk" really is, and who wants to get into that?).
The tunes I caught were well played and well written; the banter didn't do much for me -- do I care to hear Mike Ness complaining about having played at a roller rink in Pittsburgh in the past? (Is it punk to vocally eschew the idea of playing a roller rink in favor of a shiny corporate venue sponsored by a clothing company?) And does he really need to complain about how the video for this next song will never be played on MTV? (Note to Mike: No one's videos have been on MTV in a decade. Time to move on.)
But regardless, the big deal for the night was the new venue -- and it comes recommended. My biggest complaint was the bright white lights that would flash on the house from the stage occasionally; they were kind of burning my retinas at first, but I adjusted after a while (not sure if that's a good or bad thing). The view is nice (though, as my archnemesis from the Post-Gazette, Scott Mervis, pointed out, it would be way better if they tore down that Del Monte Center building next door). The summer lineup has some good shows on it. Check it out for yourself!
In this week's paper, we ran a brief version of my interview last week with country-rock frontman Jason Isbell. Here's a slightly longer version for you webheads.
How's Europe — is there a lot of interest in Southern rock in, say, Norway?
There seems to be. A lot of people knew the words to the songs, which was a surprise, given that they don't speak, necessarily, great English up there. It was a good crowd.
You're from Alabama, where a lot of nasty storms recently did damage. Have you been in touch with folks back home?
Yeah, there's some damage – a town just a few miles south of us got completely wiped out. But it didn't do an awful lot of damage to the town I'm from. All my family are OK. I wish I'd been home, if just to find out about everything quicker.
Growing up around Muscle Shoals, were you aware of the important music being made in the area?
I didn't really get into that until I was a teenager. When I started playing out in local bars, I started running into a lot of the people — Spooner Oldham and David Hood, folks who had made some of that music. Then once I got to know them, I went back and started to look at what they'd done. A pretty amazing amount of music has come out of that area.
You tour a lot — do you write music on the road, or do you prefer to do that when you're home in Alabama?
Most of it happens at home. I like to say it's like — when you go home with somebody you don't really know, and you wake up and you really have to take a shit, if it's gonna come out it's gonna come out, but it's way better to wait 'til you get home so you can leave the door open. Sometimes I have to write on the road, and find the ability and time to do it. But that's not nearly as frequent as writing at home. I won't say I'm not moved to write based on the stories I encounter on the road, but I usually have to take notes then regurgitate it and work on it once I get back.
You're pretty good at Twitter — is that something you do for PR, or because you like to?
I started that because I just thought it was fun. It gives you the opportunity to make one-liners with no context. If I could sit in a room all day and drink beer and make jokes like that, that's what I'd do.
Sunny day got you thinkin' Southern rock? OK, gotcha covered.
Our MP3 Monday this week is supplied by The Slow Reel (nee Small Cities), whose latest, Governor's Daughter, comes out next month. How special and magical is it that we're getting a taste of the record ALREADY? Very special and magical.
The Southern-bred band is offering up as its free download "Only Foolin," a slow burner that's track 3 on the CD. Download and enjoy!
As sometimes happens around here, there were more benefit shows this week than I could possibly fit into the music section and Critics' Picks. In addition to the Japan fundraiser at Cattivo, which I did get into Critics' Picks, I wanted to fill you in on a couple of other benefits tonight:
At Belvedere's, check out the benefit for the family of "Red Bob" Jungkunz. You've probably encountered Red Bob at some point even if you didn't know it; he plays drums in Amoeba Knievel and The Four Roses and The Gothees, and has worked at Paul's CDs in Bloomfield for years. Bob's sister has cancer, and is uninsured; tonight, some of Red Bob's friends are putting together a benefit, with maximum Red Bob participation, to help defray her medical costs. It starts at 8 p.m. with readings from standout writers Nikki Allen, Jason Baldinger, Kris Collins and Jerome Crooks. Then at 10:30, the music begins: Karl Hendricks (playing solo), Amoeba Knievel and Moldies & Monsters (who killed it at the Motown tribute at Howlers a few months back). DJ Swank Cat hosts; donation of $10 is suggested.
At Diesel, check out "Charaoke Karaoke," a benefit for Animal Friends. It's a night of celebrity karaoke; local musicians (Anti-Flag's Justin Sane, Jess Sides, Phat Man Dee) are joined by local celebrities of all stripes (Sean Collier, Joe Wos of the Toonseum) in a karaoke competition judged by the likes of SALLY WIGGIN. And our own Lynn Cullen. And others. It starts at 6 p.m. and $10 tickets are available via Showclix.
Go forth and enjoy entertainment while giving money to people who can use it!
This weekend's Round Corner Cantina Patio Opening Fiesta had Lawrenceville bumpin' for an all-day/all-weekend party that offered more than the standard Cantina fare of Tecate and quality tacos. Beginning at noon and rolling until 10pm, the patio was alive with a diverse crowd of partygoers soaking in the cumbia tinged beats from the guys of ZZK Records.
Edgar Um started off the day with a marathon DJ set featuring a blend of jazz soul, afro-funk, and old-school cumbia displaying his impressive range as he had just come off opening a techno/house party the night before.
As the sun began to set, the crowd swelled to a comfortably packed patio and ZZK's El-G took the decks rocking out a more frenetic cumbia style that borrowed a lot from hip-hop, melding traditional South American music with distinctly urban flavors. The musical mix was sexy with Latin flair; elements of Andean Folklorico and electro reggeaton layered organic percussion with electro dance beats. Along with the fiesta electro fusion came brightly colored visuals displayed on a screen mounted at the opposite end of the patio facing the building, celestial images morphed into colorful blocks and zigzags that looked like a Keith Haring take on Aztec artwork. Following El-G was Chancha Via Curcuito, who began his set on the patio and finished up inside on Cantina's pint-sized dance floor.
The neighborhood noise restrictions that disallow music out on the patio past 10 pm became an obvious frustration by the time the headliner went on. Some of the crowd came in for Chancha Via and hung around for the start of Sammy Bananas' changed-up nu-disco set, but attempting to move a party from a spacious outdoor patio on a fair-weathered spring evening inside to a postage stamp-sized dance floor was not well received by the fiesta-goers. The music did not fail to deliver, but in the end it was space restrictions and denial of the outdoors that led to a sparsely populated dance floor.
Sunday, the rain prevented a return of Saturday's large, diverse crowd but the music was still stellar and still dance inducing. The lineup featured local DJs Kelly, J Malls, Selecta and residents Lauren G and Nikkels with special guest Paluka, and the headliner on the day was DJ Sabo, who kept the party going with a funky mix of Latin House, afrobeat and reggae.
Hopefully the weather will hold out next Sunday for the Cantina's Mas y Mas Brunch, which will feature Red Bull Music Academy alum Runway (DFA/Brooklyn). The duo of classically trained musicians will be laying down some psychedelic disco house to go along with that hangover-reducing bloody maria and chorizo steak taco. $5 for access to the patio, music starts at 2pm and goes until 8pm.
Howdy! The NRA may have finally left town, but we here at FFW>> are bringing out the big guns today for MP3 Monday. This week's track comes from the dreamy pop trio Sleep Experiments, whose Flight Takes Thought EP came out not so long ago.
The track we get today for free is the title track from that EP. So, go and download it: "Flight Takes Thought". Enjoy!