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  • Ben Gibbons

Fragmentary Memories of Pittsburgh’s Live Music Scene

From the Deutschtown Music Festival to a weekend show at Polish Hill’s nondescript Studio 3577, Ben Gibbons fondly recalls the pre-pandemic live music scene in Pittsburgh through a series of vibrant vignettes.

Pittsburgh Street Live Music
Illustration: Unsplash/The Pittsburgher

I moved to Pittsburgh in the winter of 2018 because it was the only place I was offered a “real” job; after months of intermittently browsing Indeed and burning myself with a steam wand during shifts at a coffee shop in the Philadelphia suburbs, I was through. I lived alone (unless you count a feisty adopted cat as a roommate), worked long hours, and didn’t know anyone in the city, so I spent most of those first few months shame-binging Friends. Out of boredom, I started to write reviews of albums in my excessive CD collection, which turned into a little review blog, which turned into a regional music site called Bored In Pittsburgh. The music and arts community in the city has accepted me with open, computerized arms and it’s been my way of feeling like I belong here, even if I mostly just know people online.

I don’t claim to be an expert on the Pittsburgh music scene. I haven’t been here long enough to earn that title, and I haven’t seen that many artists in-person, thanks to my crippling social anxiety and COVID. I can, however, give an impression of the pre-pandemic Pittsburgh music scene, gathered through sporadic show attendance and hours of Bandcamp scrolling. Indeed, a good number of these memory fragments involve shows missed, passed on, or left early:

We could see A Day To Remember at Pitt’s Petersen Events Center, but it’s a whole $30! We could go see Midwest emo revivalists Short Fictions at Garfield’s legendary DIY space, Mr. Roboto, but I’d rather sit on the couch and play video games on the DS. We could stay late at the now-defunct Bloomfield dive bar Howlers and wait for the freak-folk collective String Machine to come on after the slackers of The Zells, but I’m getting lightheaded standing in a cloud of secondhand cigarette smoke. We could see C. Scott spin a DJ set to send the Bloomfield IGA off into the sunset after a corporate Giant Eagle buyout, but we’ve got to be out of town early tomorrow. I could go see Seattle surfer-punks Tacocat at Club Café on the South Side, but it’s a Tuesday and I’d be by myself and there’s leftovers in the fridge and….

Any mention of live music or crowds of bodies sounds odd now, filtered through a yearlong quarantine haze, and it’s hard to think about what’s been lost. These are things I promise I’ll never say again when this is all over.

And now, here is the Pittsburgh music scene I did experience, partially captured in vignettes:

You might find yourself teetering down the overgrown sidewalk that runs along Bigelow Boulevard, splitting the Hill District above — a neighborhood sabotaged by the city’s government in the name of “urban renewal” — from Polish Hill — the place where the punks live — below. Right next to the Bloomfield Bridge, you’ll see a nondescript warehouse, address number 3577. Descend into the basement, as I once did, nerves ajangle at the prospect of going to a show alone, and you might observe a dude sitting on the floor amidst a maze of modular synths, pressing buttons, scratching his chin, and adjusting knobs while pops and rattles explode from a speaker behind him; a small crowd is reclining on threadbare couches and drinking cash-only beer cans out of a cooler. I came to see a California experimental duo called Paradot lay down some beeps and squelches that night; they were opening for an Australian named Justice Yeldham who plays amplified sheets of broken glass with his mouth. I’m squeamish, and left before he came on. If these types of nontraditional noises are your thing, Pittsburgh can also offer you the likes of the RORER 714 label, Echo Lightwave Unspeakable, and Cloning.

Head under the aforementioned Bloomfield Bridge, down Gold Way, a scrubby thoroughfare between Polish Hill and North Oakland that winds its way along the rim of Skunk Hollow, and you may eventually find Babyland, a hub of arts activity contained within the ramshackle ground floor of the Blumcraft building on the dead-end Melwood Ave. A few years ago, The Childlike Empress, a banjo-wielding emo artist whose lyrics lay bare experiences of abuse, addiction, and depression, celebrated the release of their incredible debut, Take Care Of Yourself, at Babyland and gathered a musically diverse menagerie to help out. Ky Voss was there, whose danceable brand of witch-house highlights a Pittsburgh goth/post-punk community featuring the likes of Bring Her, Death Instinct, Empty Beings, and Take Me With You. Clara Kent, whose soulful croon can be experienced solo, or through collaborations with both her hip-hop collective Tribe Eternal and R&B dynamo INEZ, came on next, followed by Calyx (or was it the other way around?), a trio whose windmilling pop-punk anthems are among the best the city has to offer. The crowd drank hot toddies, passed chairs around, fixed artists’ malfunctioning amps, and moshed to banjo music.

I’ve sat on the floor at the North Side’s Government Center record store, which doubles as a little music venue after hours, and watched a parade of Pittsburgh’s best experimental musicians run through songs delightful and strange, sweating from ambient body heat and eating gummy bears from a bag being passed around the crowd (imagine that): Thousandzz of Beez’s nightmarish camp (check out Andrew Muse for more in that vein), Sneeze Awfull’s opaque cello freakouts (Skeletonized may be more your speed if you like opaque jazz freakouts), Alvin Row’s multimedia electronic explorations, Pat Coyle’s wispy guitar ballads. Atlanta alt-R&Ber Fit Of Body was there, too — he was the one who passed out the gummy bears, and we all chowed down like kids on Halloween.

Head over to Lawrenceville, a hub of gentrification whose character is rapidly being erased by condos and highrises, and you’ll find Spirit, a lodge-type hangout with a pizza shop tucked away in the corner and a disused school bus out back. I’ve munched endless garlic knots there, accompanied by the occasional free Straub, while watching artists ranging from Livefromthecity — a rapper whose booming baritone is joined on the Driving While Black Records roster by Saani Mac, Jordan Montgomery, and JM The Poet — to Merce Lemon — whose warm, wry ballads recall the best of Cat Power — perform under a twinkling disco ball. Live did his best to hype up slouching white hipsters, as can be necessary in a city whose venues and mainstream publications often devalue Black hip-hop artists; I saw the same thing from ForeverWest at the Deutschtown music festival, when the dude rapped with no DJ and a broken mic in front of a scatter of uncomprehending, cocktail-sipping faces, and still brought it.

Ah, the Deutschtown festival, the highlight of the Pittsburgh music year, which I’ve attended exactly once. If Italian postmodernist Italo Calvino planned a festival, it would come out something like this haphazard, semi-hidden sprawl of sets taking place over the course of three days in lyceum basements, brew halls, Bratwurst-scented pubs, cider house parking lots, and city streets. Over the course of one day at this festival, I saw The Sun Champs noodle like jam band legends, Princess Nostalgia sing over the funkiest of self-produced bops, Bonnie and the Mere Mortals yeehaw darkly on despite a sound guy who was more concerned with eating pizza than with getting a good mix, Gator Shakes shred the eardrums of anyone in range of their jagged metalcore breakdowns, and Sound Elevator dish out walls upon walls of guitar fuzz. I couldn’t hear for three days.

However, perhaps my most vivid memories of Pittsburgh music come in the form of moments within songs rather than songs or artists themselves. The switch-up from jangles to driving power chords midway through The Petals’s “Mercy Kill.” Sierra Sellers coolly admonishing, “Don’t fight the funk/Don’t fight the feeling.” The doomers of Cold Mass roaring about “Grinding Poverty” over pendulous drum and bass. The beat drop on Guapo Lennon’s gothic trap ballad “Bloody Piano,” which rivals Meek Mill’s “Dreams and Nightmares” in intensity. The Mixus Brothers’ comingling of self-deprecation and pride over their status as twangy bedroom artists on “To The Music World Unknown.” The ambient swell that introduces County Conservation District’s “Transmission From Tokyo.” A’leighsha’s effortless flow on “#MCM.” The ghostly, Erik Satie-in-a-train-station-at-midnight breakdown during Vacancy’s “Jasmine.” The mournful resignation expressed during the chorus of Nello and Lang’s hip-hop collaboration “Lost In It.” Juss Jala’s razor sharp bars on “Muddy Waters.” The chiming shoegaze riff that buoys Flower Crown’s “Bender Szn” into the stratosphere. The dragon-wrangling sax lines on Feralcat’s jazz/power-metal hybrid “Castle Song.”

Each of these brief collections of soundwaves contribute to the totality of my relationship with the city of Pittsburgh, and they are all essential. ▲

Ben Gibbons is a writer, part-time musician, and full-time music fan hailing from the Philadelphia suburbs and currently based out of Pittsburgh. He graduated from George Washington University in 2017 with a degree completely unrelated to music or writing, but, hey, who cares about majors anyway? He loves and appreciates all styles of music, and has spent the past few years exploring the local scene through his Bored In Pittsburgh blog.

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