Three Days in the Life: A weekend spent exploring Pittsburgh’s musical offerings | Music | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Three Days in the Life: A weekend spent exploring Pittsburgh’s musical offerings

From rock bands in basements to high school musicals, the Steel City has a diverse music scene

Live music in Pittsburgh (clockwise from top left): King of the Burgh (photo by Aaron Warnick), The Lopez (photo by Sarah Wilson), The Wiz (photo by Renee Rosensteel) and Rave and Chill Tekko After-Party (photo by John Colombo)
Live music in Pittsburgh (clockwise from top left): King of the Burgh (photo by Aaron Warnick), The Lopez (photo by Sarah Wilson), The Wiz (photo by Renee Rosensteel) and Rave and Chill Tekko After-Party (photo by John Colombo)

Hey, Pittsburgh. You don’t know me.

This is my first — and probably last — piece for this fine publication, seeing as I live way the hell over in Philly.

You know what? Since I was old enough to pull on a Ron Hextall jersey I was raised to despise your city in a casual, underinformed, us-versus-you sort of way. But right now I’m a Pittsburgh fan.

See, until last October, I was the music editor for Philadelphia City Paper, and I had a dream. I called it “One Night in Philly.” The idea was to pick a date and send every writer I could out to every show each of them could get to, and report back. We were all set to do it when the paper went under. Folded. Sold for scrap.

In a final issue already overflowing with lamentations, I made sure to lament the premature demise of the “One Night” idea. Somebody, somewhere, I suggested, should pick up that flag and run with it.

So far, only Margaret Welsh, Charlie Deitch and the rest of the Pittsburgh City Paper crew have answered the call.

The result is the issue you’re reading now. Twelve writers and photographers covering more than 20 shows in Pittsburgh all in one weekend — a mad dash to take literal and kinda literary snapshots of the city circa right now. I’m amazed and humbled by this. Ideas are easy. It’s hard work that really impresses me. Welsh and company did the work.

Contrary to common sense, the City Papers of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia share no direct lineage. None of the same founders or owners or anything. Just two newspapers with the same name on the same mission, the mission all alt weeklies have: to tell the stories nobody else is telling.

People of Pittsburgh, I hope you know what a good thing you’ve got here. Alt weeklies are kind of an endangered species these days. When they’re not going out of business, they’re shrinking and trying adapt to an online existence where the possibilities seem endless but the ad revenue is hard to come by.

Still, the alt-weekly mission remains critical, and their work is as relevant as ever. Very few publications have the moxie and the motivation to take on a story like “Three Days in the Life.” It’s a fun, weird project that relies heavily on group effort and lots of legwork.

It’s what alt weeklies do best. It’s a good thing you’ve got one of those.

Good night, Pittsburgh.

— Patrick Rapa

FRIDAY

Lee Robinson at Children's Museum - PHOTO BY REBECCA NUTTALL
Photo by Rebecca Nuttall
Lee Robinson at Children's Museum

Fri., Noon
Children’s Museum, North Side
Lee Robinson

Jazz musician Lee Robinson strolls around the Children’s Museum like someone out of The Music Man, or the Pied Piper (without the sinister undertones). Toddlers and tweens alike are mesmerized by the notes emanating from the clarinet and saxophone. He alternates between jazz versions of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” the Flintstones theme song, and Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time”; the music drowns out the tears and happy shrieks of the children. In the nursery, an unsteady baby stands bobbing to the beat. “Awesome,” cheers a girl in a purple-and-silver sparkly sweater.

— Rebecca Nuttall

Jake Simmons & the Little Ghosts - PHOTO BY MARGARET WELSH
Photo by Margaret Welsh
Jake Simmons & the Little Ghosts

Fri., 9:10 p.m.
City Grows, Lawrenceville
Jake Simmons & the Little Ghosts, Roaring Spring Girlfriend, The Otis Wolves

When you’re in a band, sometimes the only people who show up are in the other bands (along with maybe a friend or two). That’s the scene when Kalamazoo’s Jake Simmons & the Little Ghosts kick off in the dark, unfinished basement of City Grows. Upstairs, fresh green plants, seed packets and potting soil line the shelves; below, the band plays Ted Leo-esque soulful folk rock as though the crowd is eight times bigger than it is.

— Margaret Welsh

King of the Burgh at Rex Theatre - PHOTO BY AARON WARNICK
Photo by Aaron Warnick
King of the Burgh at Rex Theatre

Fri., 9:20 p.m.
Rex Theatre, South Side
King of the Burgh

Standing by the stage, the low hiss of the fog machine is clearly audible. Until, that is, the DJ drops his next beat. The cement floor of the Rex vibrates just a little. The all-ages attendees stop their conversations dead when DJ Afterthought, the promoter and host of the event, steps center-stage to start the show. About 30 artists will battle over the next several hours (and a real fight actually broke out later on that evening) to see who’s the king of the city’s hip-hop scene — at least for one night. They each have a different approach to their eight-minute sets. Some will step to the mic, drop their rhymes, take their applause and leave. Others, like Munhall native Louie Petrone, do more to play to the crowd, like when he joins the crowd in a back-and-forth chant of the always popular line: “Fuck Donald Trump.”

— Aaron Warnick

Grand Buffet at Spirit's First Anniversary Party - PHOTO BY MARGARET WELSH
Photo by Margaret Welsh
Grand Buffet at Spirit's First Anniversary Party
Fri., 10:50 p.m.
Spirit, Lawrenceville
Spirit’s First Anniversary Party

With a lineup of nine musical acts, free (real) tattoos, a dance party and lots of booze, Spirit is celebrating its first year in business on a scale usually reserved for a 10th anniversary. This is an event to see and be seen; a noisy, disco-light-filled party that provides just the right amount of sensory overload. Jazz singer Phat Man Dee pops out of a brightly lit plastic cake, while her husband Tommy Amoeba, dressed in silver lamé, looks on. Headliners Grand Buffet take the stage and super-fans crowd to the front to rap along with the hip-hop duo, who instruct the audience to chant the current events-inspired (yet probably always apropos) words “fuck Vince Neil / Nicolas Cage stand up.”

— Margaret Welsh

Title Town at Ace Hotel - PHOTO BY AL HOFF
Photo by Al Hoff
Title Town at Ace Hotel

Fri., 11 p.m.
Ace Hotel, East Liberty
Title Town

The new home for Pittsburgh’s long-running, 45s-only soul and funk dance party is the former YMCA gym. High ceilings, wooden floor, dark corners barely illuminated by a disco ball, red-hot jams — this is truly the best high school dance you never went to. Get your smooth groove on to rare Northern Soul tunes, or wave your hands in the air like you just don’t care for a floor-filler like Earth, Wind and Fire’s “September.”

— Al Hoff

Rave and Chill Tekko After-Party at Braddock Elks Club - PHOTO BY JOHN COLOMBO
Photo by John Colombo
Rave and Chill Tekko After-Party at Braddock Elks Club

Fri., 11:30 p.m.
Elks Club, Braddock
Rave and Chill Tekko After-Party

The mostly twentysomething crowd is finally coming to life in this no-frills building. This event is an unofficial after- party for the first day of the Tekko Conference, which celebrates Japanese culture. The dress code is, let’s say eclectic, with outfits ranging from costumes typically worn at the furry convention to outfits with a strong Pokémon/anime vibe and everything in between. Hell, even Jesus is here. Billed as a pajama-themed party, the revelers start out slow — taking advantage of the “chill” part of the program. As the music picks up, the serious dancing begins. Status Jackers (Matthew Hiber and Michael Morgavo) spin some drum-and-bass followed by DJs Sammy P and Kenetic taking over with some dubstep. Lasers move around the room as people dance with hula hoops, yo-yos and lighted pendant balls — and this is just on the main floor. More DJs spin in the lower level room, which hosted a bar for the over-21 crowd.

— John Colombo

SATURDAY

The music of Lyft drivers - PHOTO BY REBECCA NUTTALL
Photo by Rebecca Nuttall
The music of Lyft drivers

Sat., 7:30 p.m. to Sun., 2 a.m.
All over the city
The music of Lyft drivers

A safe night out often requires the use of the city’s ride-hailing services. But the music doesn’t have to stop as you travel from spot to spot. The night starts with SiriusXM radio’s “FLY” channel airing hip hop and R&B hits from the 1990s and 2000s, like Faith Evans’ “Love Like This Before,” and Ini Kamoze’s “Here Comes the Hotstepper.” By 9 p.m., another driver mellows the mood with SiriusXM’s Coffeehouse station, playing Ruth B’s “Lost Boy.” New location, new car and no radio this time, it’s the driver’s personal playlist, featuring Hole and the Rolling Stones. Hours later, the trip home ends with the soulful sounds of American Idol winner Ruben Studdard on I Heart Radio’s gospel station.

— Rebecca Nuttall

Jenn Gooch at First Unitarian Church - PHOTO BY SARAH WILSON
Photo by Sarah Wilson
Jenn Gooch at First Unitarian Church

Sat., 7:30 p.m.
First Unitarian Church, Shadyside
Carrie Newcomer, Jenn Gooch,

Music in any church setting, even this warm, welcoming space, can feel solemn. But traditionalist folk/country artist Jenn Gooch keeps it light as she opens for (and outplays) Carrie Newcomer with her wildfire of a set, playing songs on fiddle, guitar and piano. “Where I come from, if you played piano that was your ticket to marrying a preacher,” she says in her Texas accent, after charmingly flubbing a piano line. “But I knew I couldn’t get through a set without saying, ‘Oh crap!’”

— Margaret Welsh

Son Lux at Andy Warhol Museum - PHOTO BY REBECCA NUTTALL
Photo by Rebecca Nuttall
Son Lux at Andy Warhol Museum

Sat., 8 p.m.
Andy Warhol Museum, North Side
Sound Series: An Evening with Son Lux

A crowd of more than 100 is tightly packed into the dimly lit entryway of The Warhol for post-rock/electronic/hip-hop/pop artist Son Lux. Son Lux, also known as Ryan Lott, leads drummer Ian Chang and guitarist Rafiq Bhatia in a set that includes “This Time,” “You Don’t Know Me” and “Your Day Will Come.” In between songs you can hear a pin drop, but when the music starts, the sound explodes through the building. Lott adds to the cacophony with tambourine and cowbell. The crowd’s energy reaches its peak during the show’s final song, the commercial success “Lost It to Trying,” from the Paper Towns soundtrack.

— Rebecca Nuttall

Gamelan Fusion at Frick Fine Arts Building - PHOTO BY ASHLEY MURRAY
Photo by Ashley Murray
Gamelan Fusion at Frick Fine Arts Building

Sat., 8 p.m.
Frick Fine Arts Building, Oakland
Gamelan Fusion: New and Traditional Music of West Java, Indonesia

Led by two professional Indonesian musicians, composer Ismet Ruchimat and vocalist Masyuning, University of Pittsburgh music students sit cross-legged in front of traditional West Java instruments — gongs, metal-keys, drums and a bamboo flute. Students play hypnotic pre-independence melodies. Ruchimat’s effortless flute playing follows Masyuning’s vocals — an instrument itself. Then, Ruchimat presents fusion compositions, the best of which incorporate local musicians on guitar, djembe, baritone sax, and Ruchimat on bass. The piece “Sahara Sunda mix” — introduced as “West meets West [Java]” — results in a funky African beat, psychedelic guitar and Masyuning’s rapping in the Sundanese language, complemented by her expressive face and body language.

— Ashley Murray

Sat., 8:30 p.m.
Smiling Moose, South Side
Sunflower Bean

There’s an official ’90s Bar Crawl taking place on the streets of the South Side. Upstairs at the Smiling Moose, Brooklyn’s Sunflower Bean is channeling the era, a pure amalgamation of its members’ influences — dreamy Belly, sludgy Throwing Muses, jangly The Sundays. The musicians and audience are young, barely humans during the era they’re emulating. Lead singer Julia Cumming, an androgynous bassist with a charming falsetto, croons, “You’re getting old, so act your age.” A girl who’s standing in front of me suddenly passes out. She’s unconscious on the floor. I dial 911 and feel my age.

— Caralyn Green

UkuLizzy at Hambones - PHOTO BY ALEX GORDON
Photo by Alex Gordon
UkuLizzy at Hambones

Sat., 9 p.m.
Hambones, Lawrenceville
Stephanie Nilles, Midge Crickett, LRAD, UkuLizzy — Brash, Bawdy & Bold

Hugs and hellos are big through the first hour at Hambone’stonight. There are reunions and first-time introductions. Once things kick off with “Mama Jo” Coll as emcee, ukuleles take center stage.UkuLizzy and Midge Crickett, both ukers with a taste for dark, funny, sometimes-silly songs, team up for a number called “That’s What She Said,” with lyrics culled exclusively from bathroom graffiti at Howlers. There’s also an Emily Dickinson poem set to the Gilligan’s Island theme, but you probably knew that. The sets from guitarist LRAD and New Orleans-based pianist Stephanie Nilles lean towards slightly heavier subject matter, but the in-between-song stuff is just as funny all night long. Everything smells like Buffalo wings and everybody is nice.

— Alex Gordon

Second Saturday at the Space Upstairs - PHOTO BY AARON WARNICK
Photo by Aaron Warnick
Second Saturday at the Space Upstairs

Sat., 9:10 p.m.
The Space Upstairs, Point Breeze
Second Saturday at the Space Upstairs

Donations, not tickets, are collected at the door of this bohemian venue. The high-ceilinged, open space above Construction Junction is renowned for being a home to modern (well, post-modern) artistic performances. Formerly known as the Pillow Project, the Ellipses Condition hosts new-jazz movement performances on the second Saturday of each month. This month, Slow Danger commands the floor with an auditory and visual performance. In squashy armchairs or on the floor, the crowd sits on the periphery of the large room while the duo performs. The only words to describe it: eerie and sensual.

— Aaron Warnick

Sat., 9:15 p.m.
Howlers, Bloomfield
Lowly The Tree Ghost, Lone Wolf Club, The Tilt Room

The backroom show space at Howlers is halfway full as Pittsburgh-based Lone Wolf Club opens the show. The Americana band is running through songs from its Many Moons EP: “Making an Exit,” “Mantis” and “I Went Walking.” Members’ hands move swift and deftly from chord to chord as cigarette smoke wafts in, almost rhythmically from the adjoining room.

— Rebecca Nuttall

Sat., 10 p.m.
Spirit, Lawrenceville
JENESIS Presents: Wiz Khalifa Appreciation Party

The official Wiz Khalifa Day in Pittsburgh isDec. 12, but there’s never a bad time to show appreciation for someone you love, even when he’s not around. That’s exactly what’s happening tonight at Spirit. There are DJs, a disco ball and pizza — which describes somewhere around 100 percent of nights at Spirit — but it’s pretty crowded nonetheless. People drink and dance not only to Wiz’s tracks, but to tracks in which he’s featured. But when the Wiz-less “Hey Ma,” by Cam’ron, comes on, no one seems to mind. They keep dancing. The disco ball keeps spinning. There’s pizza. It’s a party.

— Alex Gordon

Reign Check at Gooski's - PHOTO BY SARAH WILSON
Photo by Sarah Wilson
Reign Check at Gooski's
Sat., 10:30 p.m.
Gooski’s, Polish Hill
Reign Check, The Lopez, Birdcloud, Liquor Store

I immediately run into a friend who comments that the crowd is more colorfully dressed than she’s used to seeing at Gooski’s. That’s at least true of the members of riot-grrrl-inspired punk/dance duo The Lopez, who take the stage in red flannel and tie-dye, respectively. As always, they play with high intensity and enthusiasm: A couple o’ seasoned pros, they are. Foul-mouthed, non-PC, mandolin/guitar duo Birdcloud is up next, and elicit mixed reactions — mostly laughter, though a joke about getting roofied at Bonnaroo spurs a disgusted “Jesus!” from one listener. Not really my humor, but damn, these ladies are charming — I skip Liquor Store and head home with a grin on my face.

— Margaret Welsh

Karaoke at Nico's Recovery Room - PHOTO BY JOHN COLOMBO
Photo by John Colombo
Karaoke at Nico's Recovery Room

Sat., 10:45 p.m.
Nico's Recovery Room, Bloomfield
Karaoke

It’s noisy, smoky and crowded, but you get a welcoming crowd here. The room is cheering for the guy who sang Collin Raye’s “The Gift,” but with words of his own choosing. Popular songs quickly become sing-alongs: The whole bar is chanting “one time, one time” as a gal lays out “Killing Me Softly” in “the style of The Fugees”; some baby boomers may be singing in “the style of Roberta Flack,” but it’s all good (“two time, two time”). Everybody is a star.

— Al Hoff

Sat., 11:45 p.m.
Remedy, Lawrenceville
Feeling without Touching

Remedy feels like college house party. In the haze of smoke, everyone is beautiful and no one is over 35. A jog up the back steps brings the darkness of the living-room bar, which is packed with people dancing tightly and mouthing the words to favorite late-’90s and early-2000s jams. This ritual repeats every second Saturday with Dave Zak’s dance party, Feeling Without Touching. Touching is certainly happening between strangers, lovers and friends but when you feel the camaraderie that the music creates, it’s easy to understand why he chose the name.

— Celine Roberts

SUNDAY

Kevin Amos at WRCT 88.3 FM - PHOTO BY BILL O'DRISCOLL
Photo by Bill O'Driscoll
Kevin Amos at WRCT 88.3 FM

Sun., 6 a.m.
WRCT 88.3 FM, Oakland
Jazz Corner

Like every Sunday for the past three decades, Kevin Amos starts the day early at Carnegie Mellon University’s volunteer-run station. WRCT is a stronghold of free-form radio, and Amos, 61, DJs for six hours straight, hosting Jazz Corner and One to One/H Dread. He arrives with a backpack of CDs but no playlist: “I’m going by the way I’m feeling the music as it’s flowing.” With jazz ranging from Duke Ellington to brand-new Esperanza Spalding, Amos is keen to educate listeners. “Try to give everybody an even look at the music,” he says. “Everybody that listens aren’t the jazz diehards.” (For more on Amos, see “Last Page.”)

— Bill O’Driscoll

Sunday Morning Worship at Mount Ararat Baptist church - PHOTO BY ASHLEY MURRAY
Photo by Ashley Murray
Sunday Morning Worship at Mount Ararat Baptist church
Sun., 11:45 a.m.
Mount Ararat Baptist Church, Larimer
Sunday Morning Worship

A six-piece band accompanies a nearly 40-person — mostly male — choir, whose voices, pitched at varying degrees of deep and wise, fill the sanctuary. Trini Lopez Massi, who says his energy comes “straight from heaven,” leads the ensemble. While he sings up and down the musical scale, he claps, raises his arms and even incorporates footwork. Parishioners embrace this space where they can sing out loud without judgment. Parents hoist toddlers onto their hips and dance along; men and women openly wipe tears away; and everyone raises voices and hands to the sky in a collective release of the week’s tension.

— Ashley Murray

Live Music Yoga at James Street Speakeasy and Gastropub - PHOTO BY VANESSA SONG
Photo by Vanessa Song
Live Music Yoga at James Street Speakeasy and Gastropub

Sun., Noon
James Street Speakeasy and Gastropub, North Side
Live Music Yoga with CJ Hoffman

Yoga in bars is not such a remarkable thing of late, but seeing the James Street banquet hall in the cold light of day is a surprising treat. I set my mat down directly next to the bar, which is decorated with such jazz-age imagery as top hats and canes. CJ Hoffman begins filling the high-ceilinged room with ambient electric guitar. The room is chilly but it’s also full of possibly hung-over yogis, so things warm up fast. Hoffman’s music evokes the post-rock of Explosions in the Sky, but I’m too focused on planking to really take it in, which is probably how it’s supposed to be.

— Margaret Welsh

The Wiz at Perry Traditional Academy - PHOTO BY RENEE ROSENSTEEL
Photo by Renee Rosensteel
The Wiz at Perry Traditional Academy

Sun., 2 p.m.
Perry Traditional Academy, North Side
The Wiz

Sitting in the auditorium a few minutes before the show starts, it becomes obvious that this isn’t just another high school musical. This is a community event and the community is proud to be here. Even for the last show of the four-day run, the auditorium is more than three-fourths full. Folks shake hands, laugh and, when it comes time for the show’s signature song, “Ease on Down the Road,” some even sing along. Sophomore Mariah Fowlkes plays Dorothy, and her strong voice and charismatic stage presence clearly leads this ensemble cast. But there are many strong, talented musicians, singers and performers in this show. What others lack in natural ability, they made up for with hard work, charm and personality. After all, the purpose here isn’t to win a Tony Award, it’s to bring the community together through music, and The Wiz does that 10 times over.

— Charlie Deitch

Sun. 8:45ish, maybe 9 p.m.

Thunderbird Café, Lawrenceville
The Scratch n’ Sniffs, The Jasons, Weird Paul

It’s a dark and stormy night. Suddenly, at approximately 8:15, a chord rings out. The Scratch ‘n Sniffs begin their set. Where am I? Leaving my house. I miss them entirely. I’d gotten home from work about 7 and then cooked and ate dinner. I arrive in time for The Jasons. I’m impressed by their songs, energy and willingness to remain anonymous by wearing hockey masks. Unfortunately, my amp’s power cord is misplaced so I can’t pay full attention. Finally, The Weird Paul Rock Band goes on. I exclaim, “It’s a Sunday night in Pittsburgh!” — meaning that on a Sunday night, you’re lucky just to have your friends there. Afterward, I stand outside in the rain, talking to them.

— Weird Paul Petroskey


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