One of Pittsburgh's best shows of 2010 happened right at the end: the highly anticipated Dec. 17 performance by the Pegi Young Band and legendary acoustic guitarist and songwriter Bert Jansch.
What made it so great? Riveting performances, for starters. Playing psychedelic-tinged folk- and blues-rock, Young's voice and presence were marvelous, supported by musicians who pull double-duty with her husband, Neil Young. And Jansch's virtuosic yet understated fingerstyle guitar and Scottish-accented voice captivated the crowd.
But what framed the great music with a sense of occasion was the venue: the airy, wood-paneled sanctuary of Shadyside's First Unitarian Church. On the cold Friday evening, while many people were tipsily transitioning from happy hour to other "forgetting the work week" activities, others were sitting in church pews just to hear a man, flanked by Christmas trees, play an acoustic guitar.
Presenting the show was The Consortium, a group of local and national arts patrons, co-organized by Che Elias, William Hughes and local concert promoter Manny Theiner. The group seeks private investors to bring in avant-garde shows -- most recently, an August performance by Jandek.
Pittsburgh's First Unitarian sanctuary may not be a music venue on the level of, say, Philadelphia's First Unitarian Church, which has hosted major indie and underground shows since the 1990s. But over the years, organizations like folk-music society Calliope have held concerts there, notes Emily Pinkerton, the church's folk-orchestra conductor and an accomplished performer and educator. She says we can expect more shows from the church, thanks to a new series.
"This past year, the church installed a sound and lighting system in the downstairs gallery and began a new series with touring folk, singer-songwriter and world-music artists," says Pinkerton. Called "SongSpace at First Unitarian" (www.uusongspace.com), the series will include shows by the likes of James Bryan, Carl Jones and Peter Mulvey. The next concert, featuring Matt and Shannon Heaton, is March 27.
For the Jansch show, the sanctuary presented some drawbacks. His decision to play seated near the front edge of the platform meant many couldn't see more than his head and shoulders. And while the natural acoustics suited his music, they rendered Young's drums booming and overbearing.
Even so, the experience whetted my appetite for seeing more music from a pew, as I'm sure it did for others. So I'm on the lookout for other area churches -- Unitarian or otherwise -- that offer non-sacred, non-sanctimonius ... sanctuary music. (No, Mr. Small's Theatre doesn't count.) Send your tips and suggestions to [email protected].