January Concert Guide: Lean and Mean

Twenty One Pilots in a 2015 concert at Shepherds Bush Empire, London. photo: Drew de F Fawkes and Wikipedia.

Twenty One Pilots in a 2015 concert at Shepherds Bush Empire, London. photo: Drew de F Fawkes and Wikipedia.

Once more, Pittsburgh confounds expectations by hosting (in January, no less) some of the best musical artists around today. These artists include arguably the best rappers (Run the Jewels), the best indie rockers (Deerhunter), the best R&B singer (Ms. Lauryn Hill), the best country outlaw (Kris Kristofferson), the best Christian musicians (as part of the annual Winter Jam Tour Spectacular), and the best, well, whatever genre Twenty One Pilots are exactly.

January also offers three spectacular, albeit different, double bills. At the Benedum Center, Richard Marx and Rick Springfield will play acoustic sets filled with their respective pop hits. Scottish post-rockers Mogwai will play their soundtrack to Atomic: Living in Dread and Promise alongside a screening of the documentary at Carnegie of Homestead Music Hall. Over at Stage AE, Reel Big Fish are teaming up with local punk rockers Anti-Flag. (Reel Big Fish, of course, owe a debt to ska-punk pioneers The Toasters, who will be in town for a headlining show at Club Cafe.)

January is also a great month to catch artists on the rise, all in smaller, more intimate venues. The Suitcase Junket, armed with only his guitar, homemade instruments, and unique “throat-singing,” plays Club Cafe as do the Raelyn Nelson Band, who play a country-punk hybrid and are fronted by Willie Nelson’s granddaughter.

The closing of Altar Bar means this January is short a Strip District Music Fest, but a lean, mean combination of talent should give concertgoers a satisfying start to 2017.

Thursday, January 5

On her online biography, Raelyn Nelson says, “‘I don’t really have any desire to be a  “solo-artist.” Everyone in my family who plays music has always placed a lot of importance on band chemistry . . . . Our band can almost read each other’s minds. Why would I mess with that?’” Humble words spoken by Nelson, the granddaughter of country legend Willie Nelson. You can see the emphasis on group over performer on the album cover of the Raelyn Nelson Band’s 2014 self-titled debut EP. Rather than have Nelson front and center, all four band members stand side by side. The photograph also pays tribute to the Ramones’ first album. However, the album design isn’t the only thing that harks back to the Ramones. Songs like “Brother” draw from punk as well as country in a move similar to one made by another country grandchild, honky-punk Hank Williams III. The Raelyn Nelson Band plays Club Cafe. Aris Paul and Alyssa Hankey open. 8 p.m. 56-58 S. 12th St., South Side. (CM)

Wednesday, January 11


The distinct ska sounds of trumpets, trombones, and electric riffs make for the fun sound of Reel Big Fish. The band is currently touring the 20th anniversary of Turn the Radio Off  and will be playing every song from both sides of the platter. Reel Big Fish hit the mainstream with their aptly titled 1996 single, “Sell Out.” Tired of selling out, the band began its own record label in 2006 to do what it does best — rock out. With no signs of slowing down, the band puts on a high energy show that includes old favorites like “She’s Got a Girlfriend Now” as well as songs from their 2012 album, Candy Coated Fury, such as “I Dare You To Break My Heart.” Dig out your chain wallet and get ready to mosh!

Reel Big Fish are teaming up on this tour with Pittsburgh-based, internationally known punk rockers Anti-Flag, who will be playing songs from their first album, 1996’s Die for the Government. Today, Anti-Flag still enjoy performing, protesting, and recording music. Their latest album, American Spring, was released in 2015. The band is touring in advance of the January 20th drop date for a live album, which they recorded over three nights at the noted Troubadour club in Los Angeles. It’s called Live Vol. 1 and covers their entire catalog up to this date. Ballyhoo! and Direct Hit! open. Doors open 6 p.m. Stage AE, 400 North Shore Dr., North Shore. (EC/RH)

Thursday, January 12

Formed by a bunch of New York City comic book store employees in 1981, The Toasters may have done more than anyone to transform ska from the Jamaican-ized take on American R&B of the ’60s into the fierce, jumpy punk subgenre it is today. They did this not just through their own discography but from the swell of bands that signed with their Moon Ska Records, the first U.S. label specializing in ska. Their last album was 2007’s One More BulletClub Cafe has the honor of hosting The Toasters as the marquee act, with iNCO fIDO and No Person supporting. 8 p.m. 56 – 58 South 12th St., South Side. (EC/RH)

Friday, January 13

Some concerts are more than concerts: they’re moments, something to brag, “I was there,” to friends and family decades from now. The Run the Jewels show at Stage AE this month may be such a moment, for the concert coincides with the physical release of their highly anticipated third album, Run the Jewels 3. Why the hype? Run the Jewels are a hip-hop duo composed of Killer Mike and El-P, both respected performers in each other’s own right. El-P is also a noted producer. When the pair got together for a self-titled album in 2013, it was met with critical acclaim. 2014’s Run the Jewels 2 was even bigger, aided in part by “Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck),” a song which features Zack de la Rocha of Rage Against the Machine. For those hungry for a taste, the new album is available for free digital download on the group’s website. The Gaslamp Killer, Spark Master Tape, and Cuz open. Doors open 8 p.m. 400 North Shore Dr., North Shore. (CM)

Saturday, January 14

The Suitcase Junket is Matt Lorenz, a one-man band, who plays a mean guitar with his hands and some interesting percussion with his feet. In the music video for “Hot Rod God,” a circular saw acts as a cymbal and a baby’s shoe tops the beater of his kick drum. Recent releases include the 2015 LP Make Time and the 2016 EP Dying Star. Did I mention the man can sing too? Throat-singing, as he describes it. Sometimes bluesy, sometimes folky, always rich and moving. Lorenz, a Vermont native, is also a visual artist. Through sculpture, he furthers his “junk” aesthetic by fashioning birds and mirrors out of disparate pieces of wood. However, his music is what has garnered him the most notice. He has appeared on NPR and opened for beloved jazz/soul/rock group Lake Street Dive. He’s on a national tour, including a stop at Club Cafe, before returning to his base in Amherst, Massachusetts. Grandadchilds open. 7 p.m. 56-58 S. 12th St., South Side. (CM)

Wednesday, January 18

Bradford Cox, Deerhunter’s frontman, recently uploaded a concept map onto the band’s website. The map diagrams the interconnected influences on 2015’s Fading Frontier, such as Tom Petty and INXS’s Kick. In the map’s center is, unsurprisingly, “getting hit by car walking Faulkner (dog).” The accident happened in 2014; Cox’s recovery proved artistic fodder for Fading Frontier, the Atlanta indie band’s seventh studio album. It’s the latest entry into a critically lauded, although often commercially overlooked, discography, one which includes 2008’s Microcastle and Weird Era Cont. and 2010’s Halcyon Digest. Songs like “Snakeskin” imbue the experimental with a punk-rock attitude. By playing their songs a little more aggressively, they further crystalize that attitude during live shows, like their upcoming one at Mr. Smalls. You may recognize Cox from the 2013 movie Dallas Buyers Club. He played Sunflower, Rayon (Jared Leto)’s lover. Deerhunter’s other longtime members are guitarist Lockett Pundt and drummer Moses Archuleta. 8 p.m. 400 Lincoln Ave., Millvale. (CM)

Friday, January 20

Once a single concert in 1995, now the largest Christian music tour in the country, Winter Jam 2017 Tour Spectacular is making its annual stop at PPG Paints Arena. Celebrating its 22nd year, the tour features Christian rock and rap artists. There’s too many to list them all, but here’s a sampling:  Crowder, who was a part of last year’s tour, performs folktronica, and his latest LP, his second, is 2016’s American Prodigal. Britt Nicole, a Grammy-nominated singer, has had two songs (“Gold” and “Ready or Not”) crossover into Billboard’s Mainstream Top 40. Also on the bill are Tenth Avenue North, Sadie Robertson, and Steven Malcolm. As with last year’s Winter Jam, Evangelist Tony Nolan will speak. NewSong, Winter Jam’s founders, will also perform. NewSong, from Valdosta, Georgia, have been nominated for eight GMA (Gospel Music Association) Dove Awards, and they have been making music since 1981. Pre-jam party begins at 6 p.m. Show begins at 7 p.m. 1001 Fifth Ave., Uptown. (CM)

Sunday, January 22

Dean Ween, née Michael Melchiondo Jr., is one half of Ween, an alternative rock duo from New Hope, Pennsylvania. Dean met Gene Ween, née Aaron Freeman, in a middle-school typing class. They went on to craft irreverent, noisy, lo-fi rock songs with titles like “Strap on that jammypack” and “Push th’ Little Daisies.” The latter charted on the Billboard Modern Rock Tracks in 1993 and has a way of burrowing into your ear. Dean Ween continues the irreverence (and fun) with his newest band, The Dean Ween Group, and their debut LP, The Deaner Album, which was released in October 2016. The group is embarking on a winter tour, including a stop at Mr. Smalls. When not in Ween or The Dean Ween Group, he also plays in a third band, Moistboyz, as Mickey Moist. This hard rock group, also from New Hope, has released five studio albums. The Mike Dillon Band opens. 8 p.m. 400 Lincoln Ave., Millvale. (CM)

Wednesday, January 25

Mogwai, a post-rock band from Glasgow, Scotland, will perform the soundtrack to Atomic: Living in Dread and Promise alongside a screening of the movie at Carnegie of Homestead Music Hall. Atomic, directed by Mark Cousins, documents the nuclear age exactly how its subtitle intimates it will, exploring topics such as the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (dread) alongside X-rays and MRIs (promise). The film closed the 2016 Edinburgh International Festival and was later broadcast on the BBC. Mogwai, who have been recording and performing experimental, guitar-based music since 1995, created the soundtrack. This isn’t the first time the quartet has worked on films. In addition to their eight studio albums, they also provided the soundtrack to Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, a documentary about French soccer player Zinedine Zidane, and they collaborated with composer Clint Mansell on the soundtrack to the 2006 cult film The Fountain. 8 p.m. 510 E. 10th Ave., Munhall. (CM)

Friday, January 27

Kris Kristofferson has led a storied life. He was a military brat, who spent his high school years in San Mateo, California. Then onto Claremont College, where he played rugby, football, and track and field; joined a fraternity; and graduated summa cum laude in literature. A real over-achiever! His hard work earned him a Rhodes Scholarship to study at Oxford University in England. While there, he had a rocky start to a singing career. He then joined the U.S. Army and earned the rank of Captain.

After leaving the army in 1965, he moved to Nashville and worked several odd jobs to pay for his ill son’s medical treatments. One of the jobs was sweeping the floors at Columbia recording studios. He met June Carter Cash and asked her to give a tape of his to her husband, Johnny Cash. Cash received the tape and put it in a pile with a bunch of others he was given. Kristofferson didn’t give up when he didn’t hear from Cash; he simply landed a helicopter in Cash’s yard, but Cash was not home at the time. Plan B worked, however, as later that year Cash recorded Kristofferson’s “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down,” which became a number one hit for Cash and won Kristofferson songwriter of the year at the country music awards. He dated rock/blues singer Janis Joplin for a period preceding her death in 1970, and she recorded a song he wrote, “Me and Bobby McGee.” The album with it—Pearl—came out after her death, and the song went to number one and stayed there for several weeks. Kristofferson songs became hits for other artist too including Ray Price, Gladys Knight & The Pips, and Waylon Jennings. He also teamed up with Jennings, Cash, and Willie Nelson to form the outlaw country super group The Highwaymen.

Film acting is on his resume too with roles in many films including most notably A Star is Born opposite Barbra Streisand. He won the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy for that role. Kristofferson has recorded 18 albums; his latest is The Cedar Creek Sessions released June 2016. He played the Three Rivers Arts Festival a few years ago. This is a great opportunity to see a major cultural touchstone and enjoy some great music. 8 p.m. The Palace Theatre, 21 West Otterman St., Greensburg. (RH)

Can’t decide if you like rock or hip-hop more? You won’t need to pick when you see Twenty One Pilots at PPG Paints Arena. The Columbus natives work in an indie sub-genre commonly referred to as alternative hip-hop. A little funkier than Aerosmith’s mashup with Run-D.M.C. in “Walk This Way,” the duo combines various tempos and rhythms that will have you dancing and headbanging simultaneously. As demonstrated in “Holding Onto You,” the verses are rap-based with a seamless flow into a chorus and raw beat reminiscent of early Linkin Park. The end result: rock and rap had a love child and named it Twenty One Pilots. They are touring in support of their second album, 2015’s Blurryface, although they released new music in 2016: “Heathens” appeared on the Suicide Squad soundtrack, and The Mutemath Sessions is a collaborative EP with alternative rock band Mutemath. The concert is sold out, but for those lucky enough to have tickets, the fun starts at 7 p.m. 1001 Fifth Ave., Uptown. (EC/CM)

Saturday, January 28

Attention ladies: Rick Springfield, former soap opera hunk (“General Hospital”) and Grammy Award-winning pop singer, takes the stage in the Cultural District with another classic heart-throb: Richard Marx. Both will be performing full acoustic sets. Springfield’s breakout hit was “Jessie’s Girl” in 1981 and other top songs include “Don’t Talk to Strangers” and “I Get Excited.” His latest release is 2016’s Rocket Science. Marx—who recently helped subdue a crazed passenger on a Korean Air flight—will bring his roster of hits to the affair, including “Satisfied” and “Don’t Mean Nothing.” (The music video for “Don’t Mean Nothing” starred his first wife, Cynthia Rhodes. Marx has been married since 2015 to former model and MTV host Daisy Fuentes.)  He also has a new single out: “Last Thing I Wanted.” 8 p.m. Benedum Center, 237 7th St., Cultural District. (RH)

Tuesday, January 31

For the past 16 years, Ms. Lauryn Hill has been both here and not. Her last studio album was also her first: 1998’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, its brilliance and commercial success long documented. Yet even as the music world “misses” her, she releases or is featured on a new song roughly every year, including collaborations with artists like John Legend, Joss Stone, and Ronald Isley. Since the mid-aughts, she has toured, but it’s been sporadic: a festival appearance here, a solo spot there. However, 2016 saw her at multiple cities, and she begins 2017 in Pittsburgh at Heinz Hall. Her last single was 2013’s “Consumerism” from an as-yet-to-be-released project called Letters from Exile. She also contributed six tracks to the documentary What Happened, Miss Simone?. Hill’s music career began with the Fugees, one of the greatest hip-hop groups of all time. Their last album, 1996’s critically acclaimed The Score, features a beloved cover of “Killing Me Softly” with Hill’s angelic vocals front and center. 8 p.m. 600 Penn Ave., Cultural District. (CM)

Christopher Maggio is a Pittsburgh-based writer and editor and enjoys great music.

Rick Handler, Entertainment Central’s executive producer, also contributed to this piece.