No question that Josh Bakaitus of Drusky Entertainment has been hard at work this year, and the Strip District Music Fest is his latest contribution to Pittsburgh’s blossoming music scene. According to him most bands don’t tour in January so why not ask them to come together for a bash in their home town.
Well it was a perfect day to escape from the cabin, comforter and lack of sports aka FOOTBALL to see seven acts picked by the heiress to my fortune. Full disclosure, I only saw five.
My early evening began at Wigle Whiskey on 24th and Smallman, with of course, a whiskey buck (anything with ginger beer is worth a try).
This Pittsburgh distillery has been family owned and operated by the Meyers clan for the last two years. According to Jill Steiner, their events and public relations manager, this is their first foray into the music festival world. I am Sea Creature started playing their 1st song of electronic drum solo silliness with ‘technical difficulties’. Now Julia and her father will say I’m a novice when it comes to music but really who announces after their 1st song that this is going to be their last performance! The only other time this has happened to me was with Nik and the Central Plains, after they performed and in private. As an aside, I had to offer Nik and his group shots of whiskey to say ok, people move on, grow up, get real jobs have to make a life after 29/30 years of age. And not to digress any further or to diminish their announcement or decision but it was awkward, for the audience and very sad for the Sea Creatures because after that they lacked any passion for the final songs. Very poorly thought out on so many levels.
The big winner here was Wigle Whiskey and their product. Steiner recommended a tasting tour ($20) and mentioned their North side space might be another venue for musical events down the road.
Courtesy of Wigle Whiskey’s Instagram
As in any festival 1st, 2nd or 3rd time around, the atmosphere is so much a part of the general success. Whether it is the folks enjoying a libation, traveling from one site to another or just the camaraderie (queries from strangers, directions, showtimes, etc) it becomes a living/breathing, look for the next experience, that will make the evening, month or year. The Strip District Music Fest was no different. I met a variety of folks during the evening that made every place take on its own element of discovery. The first was an adorable couple from Chicago at Wigle Whiskey who relocated to the Burgh for work. They live downtown and were thrilled with the changes that are happening in town since they arrived plus excited to see so many people out at night in January (initial numbers mentioned were 9000 folks attending) So that was the take away, be open to everything and everybody, as I continued on my evening walk north to The Pittsburgh Winery.
On my trek past new businesses on Smallman, I ran into another couple who joined me and we reminisced about the ‘old days’ of music in Pittsburgh with Graffiti, Rosebud, Club Laga, et al, reliving the good to great concerts and finding commonality with a recent singer songwriter, Sean Rowe, at the Club Café. All of us agreed he is amazing and so prolific plus he does a ton of house concerts nationwide, always a good thing. As expected, the conversation moved back to the evening and ‘who are you going to see next’ but not before they mentioned two other artists they loved these days. Namely Arlo Aldo and Nick Barilla (like the pasta). I hadn’t heard of either but plan to do the YouTube discovery tomorrow.
We all arrived at the Pittsburgh Winery to a line down the block, three fire trucks, paramedics and Tim Gaber, owner of The Pittsburgh Winery in the thick of the crowd /craziness of a missing guitar, someone getting hit by a car and a mess to unravel for first responders. Note to organizers for next year, close down Penn Ave between 21st and 28thstreet cause it’s not worth what ensues when liquor, music and crowds of people all collide in a small defined area. Too much risk management and so easy to resolve for six hours of merriment.
In any case, we all stood in line for 15-20 minutes getting to know each other, figuring out our timetables, etc before we got into The Pittsburgh Winery to see singer/songwriters, Guy Russo at 8 and Kevin Garrett at 8:45. Each artist managed their set with such grace and professionalism that it gave me new found respect for their individual talent and commitment to their sound despite the distractions. Very impressive especially for Russo who had the larger crowd of chatty kathys surrounding him.
Guy Russo is a piano technician by day and a beautiful songwriter/acoustical guitarist by night. He built his set with each song, beginning with ‘Must Be I Have Lost My Mind.’ A crescendo performance of ‘Part of it All’ was just spectacular! Russo was appreciative and effectively managed his night job as only a few seasoned artists can do these days without someone like me getting up on stage and saying ‘HEY, there is someone playing here, pipe down’. So well done Guy!
Kevin Garrett on the other hand was totally different and in a great way. He dashed into the Winery from Point Breeze/NYC/Brooklyn and set up his keyboard and took over the tone of the room with his impressive piano technique and musical introduction before he broke into song with his unique falsetto voice. He was thoughtful with his repertoire and at times finished so quietly that you didn’t know if you should applaud or just wait for the next bar to begin again. Garrett was riveting and so humble about his talent that I wanted to give him a hug and say, ‘way to go, you’re on your way, it’s just fine tuning now’.
He was so thoughtful on his song choices that he really reminded me of a Michael Feinstein, Elvis Costello match up of the piano crooner magic in NY in the 1980’s. And then it hit me, Sam Smith duet, wow that would be amazing! And with all of this he managed to quiet the crowd storm, white noise and calm them down.
Afterwards I walked up stairs looked at Tim Gaber and Syma, thanked them for the evening. But not before stopping into Savoy for a welcome respite of civilization and common courtesy. ‘Cause with the commitment to any music festival comes the uncompromising hunger, exhaustion, sensory overload and needed bathroom breaks. Certainly what I have discovered is that when you cross paths with a hopping, happening place like Savoy you go in and make yourself comfortable.
Although not an official venue for the Pittsburgh Music Fest, Savoy is a musical center each and every week with Jazz on Mondays and Blues on Thursdays. On Saturday evening the four year old establishment was in fine form with a filled dining room and just enough space for me at the bar. I was impressed by the ambiance plus a VIP lounge for the heavy hitters who aren’t in Las Vegas and wanna have a ‘chill’ evening. So despite the easy time there I headed back downtown to BeerHive for yup, drum roll please…
Nevada Color live!! Julia has been raving about this band for months, with comparisons to Squeeze and Young the Giant, two favorites, but it took her leaving town to finally get me to a show. Now I had never been to BeerHive but clearly this establishment was not ready for the Strip District Fest, for god’s sake clear out the crowds after two sets so the establishments can clear and contain the trash. Beerhive was way too crowded and I never want to know whether the 2nd floor was up to fire code…’cause it was hot and packed! My final rant for the day.
In any event, I ran back into the adorable Chicago couple (everything happens for a reason) and we discussed the last few hours plus Nevada Color. I bought a six pack for the band and made my way to the 2nd floor to meet and greet these very talented young men from Point Park University and surrounding suburbs. Nevada Color has a new album out, new manager, imminent record deal and a full plate for 2015. The lead singer Quinn is a barrel of energy that is infectious and entertaining. After sound check which sounded perfect, they played two new songs, ‘Stay Away’ and ‘We Belong’, plus their current hit ‘New Mexico.’ Next came ‘Heart of Gold,’ ‘Coming of Age,’ and ‘Young People’ before calling it an evening. I think the rest of the band just follows Quinn’s lead and antics whether it’s on voice, dancing or demeanor. It all works beautifully. Clearly Nevada Color is in the process of well oiling their entertainment machine for the road and year ahead. All I can say is it was the highlight of the evening and did not disappoint me or the crowd of 100. I’m just sad that it took me so long to see them live, whereas Jules has seen them 5 (!!) times. Also news flash, Nevada Color will open for Cold War Kids at A+E on St Patty’s Day in March.
Finally at 11:45 I realized I was losing time, endurance (I’m almost 58) and one final act (so many things come to mind), so I scrambled to Framezilla to see The Red Western in its final minutes. The group started late so I was in luck or just lucky to hear the final three songs before they closed the frame shop down. Two standing O’s or dancing O’s later, this rockin four piece band led by vocalist Lauren DeLorenze, accomplished what no other artist could do–get everyone dancing. Their next show is 2/8 at The New Bohemian.
It was sheer delight to see the wave and music transform the Strip into a living, vibrating pulse, and to see local artists test their home town skills and succeed. Kudos to Josh Bakaitus for having the faith to bring all these folks together, the venues for throwing the party and the Strip for the vision that is transforming the small town we call home.