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The year in (local) rock

December 31, 2009 - Bad economy ... good shows!

With the economy in a tailspin, all signs pointed to a dismal concert year.

Somehow it was more boom than bust, at least for the fans. Live Nation Pittsburgh, our Cleveland-based wing of the concert giant, was aggressive at the Post-Gazette Pavilion, giving us the usual suspects (Dave Matthews, Jimmy Buffett, Lynyrd Skynyrd) but also tossing in a rare Phish reunion tour date, the first local Coldplay show in three years and a Nine Inch Nails/Jane's Addiction package that turned out to be a swan song for Trent Reznor's group.

Even more surprising was that Live Nation had company -- from the newly formed Pittsburgh Concert Group, which reunited promoters Brian Drusky and Ed Traversari and resurrected the Amphitheatre at Station Square. They packed the place for such shows as Jason Mraz, the Black Crowes, Girl Talk (more on that later) and Yes.

Meanwhile, Joker Productions made its move down river at the also-abandoned Riverplex, doing a handful of shows including Neko Case and All Time Low but also canceling a few, like Chickenfoot and John Legend, due to slow sales.

By the end of the year, all three promoters seemed to still be wearing their shirts.

Small venues sprout

On the theater level, Scott Forsythe (ex-Opus One) and Ben Penigar (Grey Area Productions) took over the South Side's Rex Theatre, revamping its sound and look. Elko Concerts left the Rex and spread shows among Diesel, the New Hazlett Theater and Greensburg's Palace Theatre.

More small art spaces joined the quest to provide a DIY/non-bar vibe -- Most Wanted Fine Art in Garfield, The Nerve in Bloomfield, Morning Glory Coffeehouse in Morningside, 222 Ormsby in Mount Oliver, and The Cellar, Downtown under the First Presbyterian Church -- in addition to several established indie venues.

Via a large anonymous donation, Calliope Folk Music Society turned the basement of the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts into the 150-capacity Simmons Hall, which began its season with The Wiyos and the Hot Seats.

Also a folk music mecca (plus world-beat, goth and bellydance), Lawrenceville's Your Inner Vagabond briefly closed and promptly reopened as Istanbul Cafe, with a similarly eclectic music calendar and Turkish menu.

Anti-Flag's Warped year

It seems like every year is a big year for Anti-Flag, the city's biggest rock export, but 2009 was special.

Freed of its contract with RCA, Anti-Flag signed to SideOneDummy and released "The People or the Gun," its best and thrashiest punk rock record in years. Even with the Bush administration out of the picture, Justin Sane and company were still spitting venom on songs like "Sodom, Gomorrah, Washington, DC." and "The Economy Is Suffering (Let It Die)." The band released it by squeezing into the Smiling Moose in June. Two months later, A-F was back as one of the marquee bands on the Warped Tour and played the most passionate set of the day.

Throughout the year, Anti-Flag continued to invade all of Europe, including a gig playing Clash covers at Ramones Museum in Germany. The only blip in A-F's year was canceling the G-20 protest show in the Strip due to security issues and concern that fans just wouldn't make it down there.

Girl Talk feeds the scene

The city's other major export, Girl Talk (Gregg Gillis), made one big splash in Pittsburgh, but it was a cannonball.

The laptop sensation played his biggest local show yet, a sellout at the Amphitheatre at Station Square, in which he brought along some friends -- The Modey Lemon, Wiz Khalifa, Don Caballero, Grand Buffet, Donora and Centipede Eest -- for a rousing showcase for the scene's diversity.

On the new release front, Girl Talk was silent, having released "Feed the Animals" in '08, but he continued to party all over the world with a college crowd that loves beer and balloons.

If you can snag a last-minute plane ticket, catch Girl Talk on New Year's Eve at the Congress Theatre in Chicago with Hearts of Darknesses and fellow homeboys Grand Buffet.

The deal with Wiz Khalifa

When all was said and done, Wiz and Warner Bros. weren't a match, after all. After nearly two years on the label, with no product, the local rapper announced this summer that he had parted ways with Warner and would return to Rostrum for the release of his long-awaited second album, "Deal or No Deal."

Khalifa kept busy with two mixtapes, "How Fly," with New Orleans rapper Curren$y, and "Burn After Rolling," rapping over other artists' beats. He also played the CMJ Marathon, opening for U-God of the Wu-Tang Clan, prompting a rave in The New York Times that referred to him as a "sharp, lyrical-minded rapper."

In late November, "Deal or No Deal" landed atop the iTunes hip-hop chart and debuted on the Billboard Album Chart at No. 148.

Wave of Americana

The Internet's cold technology created a Luddite backlash, causing young people to retreat to back porches with a banjo, mandolin or ukulele.

The rising Americana wave was represented by the alt-countryish Boca Chica, whose second CD, "Lace up Your Workboots," charted on the Roots Music Report and garnered praise on NPR, and the bluegrass Mon River Ramblers, whose debut, "27," got them to the Telluride Festival in Colorado.

Kevin Forsythe, in the guise of country persona Slim Forsythe, led his Parklane Drifters on the "Bury Me up on That Northern Tier" CD while holding court at Nied's Hotel in Lawrenceville, and the Beagle Brothers, who came out with "All My Friends" debut, popped up at the Thunderbird, Howlers and Sonny's Tavern. Brooding songwriter Kevin Finn (our own Mark Kozelek) titled his latest effort "Thirteenth Rune."

The "steampunk" trend leaned toward old-time and string-band music, and dapper 19th-century songster Elliot Sussman led the pack with his intricately packaged "Ruth" CD, while other local standouts ranged from Buddy Nutt and UkuLizzy to Coaltown Noir, The Armadillos and the Clear Creek String Band.

Takeover UK doesn't take

The Takeover UK -- with its catchy songs, brash attitude and posters in New York -- was the best chance for a new breakout band out of Pittsburgh.

Signed to Rykodisc, Takeover UK delivered on its promise with "Running With the Wasters," an album of contagious power-pop loaded with potential radio singles ... for some bygone era when contagious power-pop mattered to radio.

A few months later, Rykodisc dropped the Takeover, and the band quietly called it quits in September. Nic Snyder and Mark Solomich are working on solo material. Derek White is in the midst of a soul music project.

The Old Guard comes alive

The bands that fueled the Pittsburgh scene nearly 20, 30 years ago were still active this year, to the point where the Iron City Houserockers actually reunited for the first time in 16 years at Altar Bar. The members said they wanted to give their now-grown kids a taste of what the real Houserockers sounded like.

It coincided with a shout-out from Chuck Eddy in Spin Magazine, which listed the band's 1980 album, "Have a Good Time ... But Get Out Alive!," as one of the top eight Essential Heartland Rock records. The IC Houserockers played two more shows through the year and then Grushecky dropped his new album, "East Carson Street," on Halloween.

Meanwhile, Pittsburgh R&B legend and fellow Decade attraction Billy Price hooked up with French guitarist and Roy Buchanan disciple Fred Chapellier for "Night Work," Price's most blues-rocking record since his days with the Keystone Rhythm Band.

A tip of the horned helmet

The underground metal scene was active: thrash metallers Crown The Lost released their second CD "Blind Faith Loyalty" on Italy's Cruz Del Sur label, while doom-metal mainstay Argus debuted with a self-titled CD on Nevada's Shadow Kingdom.

Mantic Ritual (formerly Meltdown) flogged its "Executioner" CD on Nuclear Blast with tours across Europe and the U.S., stopping here to remind us of its might. The old-school uncovered a Dream Death CD (from its first show at the Electric Banana in 1986) on the Hell's Headbanger label, while death-metal stalwarts Sathanas emerged from the woods of New Brighton with "Nightrealm Apocalypse" on Poland's Pagan Records and an European jaunt with Cleveland's Nunslaughter, who returned the favor by covering Sathanas and Bathym on a four-song CD EP.

Death-metal acolytes Absyme released its first demo and grind-crusters Peregrine and Auryn made the "Green Scare" split to benefit environmental liberation. The biggest trend was technical grind: Hero Destroyed was the third Pittsburgh outfit to be signed to Relapse, Complete Failure pummelled us with the brutality of "Heal No Evil," and Storm King offered glimpses of an epic apocalypse on "Angels of Enmity."

Shake the disease

More than ever, the insidious influence of cancer pervaded the music scene. We lost the brilliant sound installationist Rick Gribenas, although his wife, Charissa Hamilton-Gribenas, founded BRICKS, a support organization for young adults with the disease. Doug Weaver, frontman for folk-punkers The Frantic Heart of It, battled back from leukemia with the help of the punk scene and his firefighter brethren, even as his band released its first CD.

Promoter Jim Semonik, record buyer at Eide's Entertainment and frontman for industrial band Reinforced, was inspired by his cancer recovery to assemble a massive anthology -- the five-disc "Electronic Saviors: Industrial Music to Cure Cancer," coming out on national label Metropolis Records with a release party on Feb. 26 at the Rex Theatre. Although the compilation stars international acts such as Chemlab, Combichrist and 16 Volt, its local participants also had notable releases this year: Power-noisers Prometheus Burning did "Plague Called Humanity" on the CrunchPod label, and Jordan Decay created the dark-ambient opus "The Beauty of Judgement, The Tearing of Dead Flesh."

Notable releases

Platinum Pittsburgh band Rusted Root returned with "Stereo Rodeo," its first album in seven years, sporting an electric makeover, with core members Michael Glabicki, Liz Berlin and Patrick Norman joined by drummer Jason Miller, guitarists Colter Harper and Dirk Miller and percussionist Preach Freedom. It featured the high-energy dance track "Dance in the Middle," the Talking Heads-style "Driving One" and a Latin-tinged cover of "Suspicious Minds."

The city's biggest draw, The Clarks, released their eighth album, "Restless Days," with rockers reminiscent of Petty and Elvis Costello. In a match made in Pittsburgh heaven, you could even purchase the CD with your fries-filled sandwich at Primanti Brothers.

One of the most stunning Pittsburgh releases of the year came from singer-songwriter Emily Rodgers, who signed to Misra (label of Hallelujah the Hills) and worked with producer Josh Antonuccio and the legendary Kramer for her sophomore album, "Bright Day." The record is beautiful, troubled and hypnotic, evocative of '80s shoegazer band Mazzy Star and R.E.M.

Black Moth Super Rainbow enlisted Flaming Lips producer Dave Fridmann for "Eating Us," another trippy affair that garnered a three-star review from Rolling Stone, which said, "The melodies are sweet like cotton candy and dissolve as quickly."

Zombi, the progressive-rock duo of drummer Anthony Paterra and bassist-keyboardist Steve Moore, expanded its palette by adding guitars on its third full-length album, "Spirit Animal," making the sound all the more epic and, at times, more delicate. The Paterra solo electronic project, Majeure, also released its debut album, "Timespan," on the respected post-rock label Temporary Residence.

For its sophomore album, "A Miraculous Container," progressive rock band The Mandrake Project departed from its instrumental debut with vocals by John Schisler of New Invisible Joy, creating a U2 effect.

Maddie Georgi, the teen singer-guitarist from Hampton High School who finished second in Country Music Television's Music City Madness contest, debuted with an EP called "Go," led by the title track, a teen-empowerment anthem that would fit alongside Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus hits.

Aaron Bubenheim, Matt Miller and Josh Verbanets of the You reformed as Meeting of Important People to release a self-titled CD taking a cue from The Who and Kinks.

Lo-fi rocker Weird Paul released his 23rd album, "As Heard in My Dreams" with such songs as "Pot of Macaroni," "I Can't Stop Eating This Candy" and "I Couldn't Hold It." It was recorded on a laptop in his bedroom. Also out was the DVD release of Stacey Goldschmidt's film "Weird Paul: A Lo Fidelity Documentary."

Steve Morrison, formerly of The Affordable Floors, was at the helm for the power-pop debut of Pittsburgh supergroup Aviation Blondes, which also featured former members of 11th Hour, Hector in Paris and Ritual Space Travel Agency, with vocals by Lexi Rebert and Jen Fisher of Salena Catalina.

Lohio, with several personnel changes, returned with an EP moving the group toward a more indie-pop sound.

Bill Deasy ended the year by releasing not only a new album, "Being Normal," but a new mystery novel, "Traveling Clothes," as well.

Guitar rock band Dawn Canon, made up of former members of Lushwell, pushed the technological envelope by releasing its debut EP as a USB stick.

Notable debuts: The Atomic Drops (hard rock), T. Mitchell Bell (Americana), Beagle Brothers (alt-country), Between Liberties (folk-rock), Beware Fashionable Women (indie pop), Call to Attraction (pop-punk), Chalk Dinosaur (indie pop), Common Wealth Family (hip-hop), Crashing Metropolis (alt-rock), Crossing Boundaries (pop-punk), The Deceptions (roots-rock), Dethlehem (metal), The Frantic Heart of It (folk-punk), Gene the Werewolf (hard rock), Gramsci Melodic (power pop), Identity X (alt-rock), The Incline (eclectic rock), Ishtar (psych-folk), Aaron Jentzen (indie rock), The Jilted Brides (psych-folk-electronic), Rot [Expletive] (punk), Dan Koshute (indie rock), Mother Sun (ambient rock), Shawn and Hobby (country).

Other notable releases: Big Hurry (indie rock), Casino Bulldogs (power trio), Chet Vincent and the Big Bend (roots), Chip DiMonick (metal), Complete Failure (metal hardcore), Crown the Lost (metal), David Bernabo + Assembly (art pop), Dream Intended (pop-punk), Drugdealer (math rock), Eastern Watershed (klezmer), Good Brother Earl (alt-country), Good Night, States (indie), Ghost Healers (punk Steelers fight songs), The Human Quena Orchestra (metal drone), Heather Kropf (acoustic), Dan Koshute (indie rock), Knotfeeder (math rock), The Last Hope (punk), Mace Ballard (emo), Mon City Ramblers (bluegrass), Motorpsychos (metal), Race the Ghost (power pop), Rainstation Zero (hard rock), Seven Color Sky (new wave), Slim Forsythe (country).


The Skyliners celebrated the 50th anniversary of their classic hit "Since I Don't Have You" with a performance at the Roots of Rock and Roll show in March.

Pittsburgh Guitars and Bogus Records marked their 30th anniversary at the Rex Theatre with The Big Beatles Show V, featuring 20 different local groups performing songs from the British Invasion band.

The Mr. Roboto Project in Wilkinsburg marked its 10th anniversary with ADD Fest #12, a diverse sampling of Pittsburgh bands that included Cottonballman, Secret Tombs, Dire Wolves and Tay-Sachs.


The new Amphitheatre at Station Square opened in May with Fallen Not Forgotten, a benefit for the fallen officers from the April shooting in Stanton Heights, with sets by Rusted Root, B.E. Taylor, Joe Grushecky and the Houserockers, Bill Deasy and more.

Tommy Amoeba, organizer of Maximum Who-Phoria at Howlers in January and biggest Who freak in the room, appeared on stage with his band Amoeba Knievel dressed as a lit Christmas tree playing a Fisher Price toy and singing "It's a girl, Mrs. Walker" to launch an abridged, gender-bending version of the rock opera "Tommy." He then defoliated into a skin-tight pink polka-dot romper with a rainbow afro. The Pittsburgh scene did The Who proud, from Devilish Merry's "Happy Jack" to The Huh's "My Generation" to eD fROM oHIO's "Who Are You."

Celebrating the 90th birthday of Pete Seeger in May at Your Inner Vagabond were Bill Toms, Tom Breiding and Mark Dignam, among others.

Two months after Morrissey made his first appearance here in 23 years, singer/DJ Corey Wittig organized an Unhappy Birthday: Morrissey 50th B-Day Tribute to the Moz at the Brillobox with The Takeover UK, Life in Bed, The Wilsons and more.

Underground bands such as Slices, Thee Starry Eyes, Abysme, Seeing Eyeballs and the Mt. McKinleys played songs by the 13th Floor Elevators, The Standells, The Sonics and others from "Nuggets: Original Artyfacts From the First Psychedelic Era" at Howlers in July.

Your Inner Vagabond in Lawrenceville played host for "Happy Birthday Roberta Joan -- A Star-Studded Joni Mitchell Tribute" with Autumn Ayers, Maddie Georgi, Heather Kropf, Ruby Vere and more.

School of Rock-style teen band The Pop Rocks put itself on the map with a Steelers fight song, set to Pat Benatar's "Heartbreaker," that became a YouTube phenomenon with nearly a million hits.


Pittsburgh power-pop band The Elliotts played Beatle Week in late August in the Fab Four's hometown of Liverpool. They played nine times including four times on The Cavern Club front stage.

The Cynics and Emily Rodgers were the sole Pittsburgh representatives (officially, at least) at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas.

Pittsburgh talent at the CMJ Music Marathon in New York included rapper Wiz Khalifa, classic-rockers 28 North, math-rockers Drugdealer, Meeting of Important People and Good Night, States.

Rowdy Pittsburgh punks Kim Phuc, with a seven-inch on the Chicago label Criminal IQ in hand, took a West Coast jaunt from San Diego to Portland, Ore.

The Modey Lemon song "Become a Monk" was featured on the game "Tony Hawk: Ride."

Zombi's ace drummer A.E. Paterra toured with Gil Mantera's Party Dream.

Don Caballero's "Railroad Cancellation" appeared on the TV show "Sons of Anarchy."


Promising pop/R&B singer-songwriter Margot B packed her bags for New York City and did return to duet at the Amphitheatre at Station Square with Jason Mraz, whose band included local trombonist Reggie Watkins.

Harrison Wargo -- singer-songwriter-pianist for Pittsburgh-based pop-rock band The Morning Light -- left the group, which is signed to Fearless, in late January and began working on solo stuff while also playing in Chalk Dinosaur.

Cherylann Hawk, singer-songwriter and member of the band theCAUSE, left to pursue new adventures with her Akron-based band thePhoenix.

After gracing us for a couple of years with her unique voice and releasing the "Gift Horse" CD, Texas banjo-folkie Jenn Gooch returned to her home base of Denton, Texas.

Heads Together, a Squirrel Hill landmark that was once a favorite music hangout, closed in February after 30 years.

The New American Music Union festival failed to return for a second year, as American Eagle backed away from music as a marketing tool.

Read more: http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/09365/1024608-388.stm

Publication: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette