Opening venues is in A.J. Rassau’s blood. In his hometown of Natrona Heights, Rassau and his pals hosted pre-The Black Parade My Chemical Romance and Underoath shows out of a scrappy garage — dubbed The Planet of the Apes — before it was shut down in 2003 after just nine months.
The newest venture from Rassau, founder and owner of Preserving Record Shop in New Kensington, is more above ground. In March, Rassau opened Preserving, an 800-person capacity venue in the former Presbyterian Church adjoining his record store. Since opening, Preserving has drawn large crowds to a space that combines the sanctity of a chapel interior with mostly metal, punk, and hardcore shows.
“This round is much more legal, and I always joke, ‘Yeah, it's weird, the city actually wants me here,’” Rassau tells Pittsburgh City Paper. “They're not trying to shut me down every day.”
The church marks the third performance space under the Preserving Concerts banner, along with the downstairs 300-person capacity performance space and smaller DIY room at Preserving Underground. The expansion is another sign of growth from what Rassau started as an online store five years ago.
The venue’s inaugural show on March 25 with Florida deathcore band Bodysnatcher quickly sold out.
“You like to think you can think of everything but, ultimately, until you put the bodies in the room and you see how everyone reacts, you know, you don't really know,” Rassau says. “I actually just stood right inside when everyone first came in and got to gauge everyone's reactions when they first saw the room, and there was definitely a lot of excitement. A lot of people were pulling out their phones and filming as soon as they walked in and shit, so that was cool.”
Besides tearing up the old carpet to expose the hardwood floors underneath, Rassau kept the spirit of the church, with its chandeliers, stained glass windows (now protected by netting), and large wooden doors, intact. It was important to keep the church’s character, he says.
“It had kind of been rundown over the years. So we were mostly just fixing the ceiling and doing the plaster on the wall and, you know, stuff like that,” Rassau says. “We actually want to preserve the feel of the place.”
The lineup of Preserving shows extends through the fall, with bands such as the riot grrrl-inspired Destroy Boys, local metallic hardcore act Code Orange, and metal/J-pop group HANABIE. all headlining the chapel stage. Rassau promises a more music-oriented experience than the commercial Pittsburgh venues, where fans might be forced to shell out for steep ticket fees, in addition to pricey food and drinks.
The mission statement on Preserving’s website lays it out: “clueless, meathead, bully bouncers,” “Ticketmaster fees and $5 waters,” and “45-minute changeovers between bands” are all no-gos. Rassau, who’s experienced the business as a performer and organizer, says he’s not interested in taking away from the main draw of a show — the music.
“Everyone involved in [Preserving] is either in a band currently or has been for literally decades. You just know what sucks,” Rassau says. “When you're on the road, it's just obvious when you’re basically being used as a pawn for someone else to make money, as opposed to, you know, this being this event that can be something magical and special, and something that changes some young kid’s life.”
When describing Preserving’s intention, Rassau shouted out now-closed or relocated local venues such as Club Laga in Oakland, the original Mr. Roboto Project in Wilkinsburg, and Millvale Industrial Theater — places with an “anything goes” feeling that opened his eyes to another world when he was young.
While Rassau doesn’t have the same concert-going energy of his youth, he and the rest of the team at Preserving hope they can provide that feeling to younger fans.
“Even if, whatever, admittedly, maybe we're getting a little old and jaded . . . we realize that there's many generations below us that are, hopefully, not having a missed opportunity of being like, ‘Yeah, that venue was fucking cool,’” Rassau says. “Maybe it's our way of giving back. Maybe we got — we like to call it — hardcore guilt. Like, I'm not feeling obligated to get out there and mosh and stage dive. But hopefully, I'm providing some type of platform where some younger kid does have that opportunity.”
Preserving Underground. 1101 5th Ave., New Kensington. preservingunderground.com