January Concert Preview: From E Street to Smallman Street

Bruce Springsteen with Guitar. Photo: Bill Ebbesen and Wikipedia.

Bruce Springsteen with Guitar. Photo: Bill Ebbesen and Wikipedia.

Not many musicians can sell out Consol Energy Center while touring an album that came out 35 years ago. But Bruce Springsteen can. The album in question is 1980’s The River, a commercial breakthrough for the Boss and his E Street Band.

If you couldn’t snag tickets for Bruce’s show, there’s still a lot of music this month in the City of Champions, much of it local. Why, on the day of the Springsteen concert, there are two (!) celebrations of Pittsburgh jams. Strip District Music Fest returns for a second year, this time with more acts and venues. Over in Millvale, Steel City Ruins are headlining an evening of local music at Mr. Smalls. 

Springsteen’s not the only Academy Award-winning musician (“Streets of Philadelphia”) playing Pittsburgh in January. Ryan Bingham, who won the award for his work on the Crazy Heart soundtrack, will play here too. And although Wilco may not have won an Oscar, they have won numerous other awards. They will perform cuts from their new album and their alt-country back catalogue for a concert at the Benedum. Wilco lead singer—Jeff Tweedy—performed a solo concert at the 2014 Three Rivers Arts Festival. Also this month, Winter Jam Tour Spectacular, the largest Christian music tour in the country, will make its Consol stop. Lamb of God will not be on that bill, but they are coming to Stage AE, along with some other heavy metal acts. At Altar Bar, Creed-frontman Scott Stapp brings his baritone bellow for a solo show. This month also sees many up-and-comers, like GABI, Torres, and X Ambassadors. And finally, there’s plenty of country, jazz, and ska in between.

January is typically a slow time for live music, but 2016 sees the Pittsburgh scene starting with all cylinders firing—surely a good omen for the rest of the year and a reason to get out of the house this month.

Sunday, January 10

Remember pay phones? Fans of Travis Tritt certainly do. “Here’s a Quarter (Call Someone Who Cares)” was one of the country star’s first big hits when he released it as a single in 1991. The song was from his album It’s All About to Change—and while times and technology have changed, Tritt has just kept going with his straight-ahead country/rock tunes accompanied by memorable lyrics. His resume now includes 11 albums, four CMA Awards, two Grammys, and a host of TV and film appearances. If you’d like an up-close look and listen, Tritt is visiting The Palace Theatre to play a rare solo set. It will just be Travis on stage with his acoustic guitar. He’ll also be talking about his musical influences and relating stories from his career. 7 p.m. 21 W. Otterman St., Greensburg. (MV)

Friday, January 15

If you’re thinking Lamb of God sounds like a good Christian rock band, you’re wrong. Lamb of God is an accomplished heavy metal band from Richmond, Va., formed in 1994 (as Burn the Priest). The band combines doomful/downbeat lyrics and vocals with a rhythmic, hard-driving metal music carrier. Album titles include New American Gospel, Wrath, and Walk with Me in Hell, the last a video album.  Lead singer Randy Blythe was arrested in the Czech Republic in 2012. Two years earlier, during a concert in Prague, he had pushed a fan that had come on the stage. The fan had fell, hit his head, and later died. The court found that he was morally responsible but not criminally responsible. Blythe and band have moved on and are touring in support of their latest album VII: Sturm und Drang, which was released in July of 2015. “512,” a single from the album, is nominated for a 2016 Grammy in the Best Metal Performance Category. This is their fifth Grammy nomination. Opening is AnthraxDeafheaven, and Powertrip. Doors open at 6 p.m. Stage AE, 400 North Shore Dr., North Shore. (RH)

Gabrielle Herbst had auspicious beginnings. As a child, she was classically trained in clarinet and piano. She also studied Balinese dance and gamelan while living in Indonesia. (Gamelan is Bali’s traditional ensemble music, played mostly with percussion.) Later, she enrolled at Bard College, where she shifted her focus to composition and vocal performance. Things got only more eclectic. While there, Herbst studied under Zeena Parkins and Marina Rosenfeld, both accomplished professional musicians in their own right. She relocated to Brooklyn, where Roulette Intermedium, a performance space, commissioned her first opera, Bodiless. In 2015, she and her band recorded her debut album, Sympathy. Songs like “Where” and “Koo Koo” showcase her range. Performing as GABI, she and her band have taken Sympathy on the road, including a stop at the Warhol as part of its Sound Series. Equally atmospheric trio Sleep Experiments, who are based in Pittsburgh, open. 8 p.m. 117 Sandusky St., North Shore. (CM)

Saturday, January 16

The first song that I can remember hearing by multi-Grammy-award winner Bruce Springsteen was “Born to Run.” I loved the music and the lyrics! What I especially noticed was what sounded like tiny bells playing throughout the song. Only later did I learn this was the result of a glockenspiel played by the late E Street Band member Danny Federici. Other early favorites were “Backstreets” and “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out.” I then went on to ravenously enjoy every song on Darkness on the Edge of Town, which produced songs like “Prove It All Night,” and The River, which gave us “Out in the Street” and “Hungry Heart.”

Springsteen and band will be performing all the songs from The River album on this tour of the same name. The songs will be played in a different order at every stop. Each concert of this tour will be recorded and available for download. The tour is in support of Springsteen’s box set The Ties That Bind: The River Collection with the entire The River album and outtakes from those recording sessions.

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band have had continuing success over the years despite obstacles that included the deep loss of saxophonist Clarence Clemons and Federici. However, like great champions, they’ve moved forward and found a new path. When the sum of great musical parts—like Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band—comes together in a positive way, magic happens. This concert sold out quickly, but tickets can be found on re-seller sites. 7:30 p.m. Consol Energy Center, 1001 Fifth Ave., Uptown. (RH)

 

Created as a way to promote local music during a typically slow time of the year, Strip District Music Fest will surely cure your winter doldrums. Now in its second year, the festival boasts some of Pittsburgh’s biggest acts. Like poppy shoegaze? Try Donora or Meeting of Important People. Want something more rockin’? Seek Nevada Color. Prefer your Celtic music infused with some speed? Bastard Bearded Irishmen are your band. How about classical music with a kick? Cello Fury all the way. There are DJs and stand-up comedians as well. The number of acts has increased, from 80 to over 100. Ditto with venues, from 11 to over 20, all located in the Strip. These venues include old standards like Altar Bar as well as non-traditional spots like the Pittsburgh Winery and Wigle Whiskey. Food trucks, like those from BRGR and South Side BBQ, will also be on hand. Although the event is “pay what you want,” patrons are encouraged to donate to artists that they like through the festival’s official website. Like all the artists? Click on a VIP Donation Package, to be split between every act. These packages come with a SDMF T-shirt or a T-shirt and drink vouchers. 12 p.m. – 2 a.m. Penn Ave./Smallman St., Strip District. (CM)

 

Mr. Smalls Funhouse is hosting a concert that’s a veritable cross-section of new music on the Pittsburgh scene. The lineup consists of five new and emerging local bands in a variety of genres. Steel City Ruins (above) is a highly experimental instrumental group playing music that the members call ambient / progressive / jazz fusion. Blackbird Bullet will be on hand to blast through hard-driving ballads like “There’s No Reaction to the Action.” Post-punkers Rainbow Machine released a self-titled EP in October 2015 which includes appropriately titled tracks such as “Fruit Bat.” For a complete change of pace, The Annajames Band (fronted by vocalist Tiara Jeffers) plays in the singer/songwriter ballpark (here’s “Head Over Heels”). And rounding out the bill is a group called Opposite Day—not the semi-well-known Opposite Day from Austin, Texas, but the all-new Opposite Day from Pittsburgh, a band that may or may not be the opposite of Austin’s Opposite Day. Altogether it should be an intriguing evening at Mr. Smalls. 7 p.m. 400 Lincoln Ave., Millvale. (MV)

Monday, January 18

Mackenzie Scott’s star is rising. As Torres, she has released two studio albums in two years, most recently 2015’s Sprinter. Pitchfork named her debut single, “Honey,” a best new track. Other cuts by Scott, like “Strange Hellos,” possess an energy reminiscent of early-career PJ Harvey and Nirvana. She’s also recorded with acclaimed singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten. You can hear Scott’s backing vocals on a couple of tracks off of Etten’s Are We There, an album which appeared on many a 2014 “best of” list. Scott is based in Brooklyn, but she tours often. She has opened for Van Etten as well as other musicians, including Garbage and Brandi Carlile. The 24-year-old Scott is currently headlining her own tour, including a stop at Club Cafe. This could very well be one of those shows where the artist has outgrown the venue in the short span between booking and performance. This is a great opportunity to see a rising talent in an intimate setting.  Palehound open. 8 p.m. 56 – 58 S. 12th St., South Side. (CM)

Monday, January 25

As the front man and leader of alt-rock band Wilco, Jeff Tweedy has really made a name for himself over the past 20 years. Wilco has been highly praised for its experimental take on the alternative rock genre (including Grammy wins). In his solo performances, Tweedy dons the guise of an acoustic folk singer-songwriter. With no prior knowledge of his work, one could easily mistake this approach as his default mode and natural musical habitat. With a voluminous catalog of songs, a penchant for skilled, complex guitar work, and a rich, oaky voice, Tweedy was also a founding member of the band Uncle Tupelo. Wilco’s latest release—Star Wars—was the second album they produced on  their own label and dropped last July. 7:30 p.m. Benedum Center 237 7th St., Cultural District. (EC, RH)

Tuesday, January 26

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 The Pressure and iNCO FidO supporting. 8 p.m. 56 – 58 South 12th St., South Side. (EC, RH)

Wednesday, January 27

Ah, the late ‘90s. All a musician had to do was appear on “Total Request Live,” and he or she would go four-, five-, six-times platinum. (Then came Napster.) But, even with context in mind, sales for 1999’s Human Clay, Creed’s sophomore album, boggle the mind. A Diamond certification by the RIAA—that’s over 10 million copies sold in the U.S. alone. Worldwide, sales reached an estimated 20 million. A single off that album, “With Arms Wide Open,” also earned a Grammy for Best Rock Song. In 2004, Creed split (they’d reunite in 2009), and frontman Scott Stapp went solo, releasing The Great Divide in 2005 and Proof of Life in 2013. With acts 7 Aurelius and The Tea Party, Stapp contributed a song to The Passion of the Christ soundtrack. With the Florida (now Miami) Marlins, he adapted his song “You Will Soar” into a theme for the ballclub—“Marlins Will Soar.” These days, Stapp is soaring once again with a new tour. He lands at Altar Bar for a solo show. Rockett Queen and Descendsion open. 7 p.m. 1620 Penn Ave., Strip District. (CM)

Thursday, January 28

The story of blues-rock outfit Indigenous is really the story of front man Mato Nanji (Ma-TOE NON-gee), who was born and raised on the Yankton Sioux Reservation of South Dakota. A second-generation rocker, Nanji formed Indigenous in his teens with his brother, sister, and cousin—a lineup that lead to an award-winning debut in 1998 and an invite to join B.B. King’s Blues Tour in 1999. The family would stick together through three more releases before splitting in 2006, but Nanji found even more success on his own as songs from his solo album Chasing the Sun wound up on the soundtracks of Deadliest Catch and Sons of Anarchy. It was also the No. 2 Billboard Blues Album of 2006. Nanji has been a member of the Experience Hendrix tour since 2002. He plays a mean version of Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child (Slight Return).” As Indigenous, Nanji currently tours with Levi Platero (guitar), Bronson Begay (bass), and Douglas Platero (percussion). The band’s latest release is 2014’s Time is Coming. Catch Indigenous at Hard Rock Cafe (owned by the Seminole Tribe since 2007). 8 p.m. 230 W. Station Square Dr. South Side. (RH)

 

Listen closely to X Ambassadors‘ debut album, VHS, and you will hear audio from the members’ respective family video albums. This audio harks to skits on albums by De La Soul and the Fugees, rap artists whom the quartet cites as major influences despite being an alternative rock act. You may also hear labelmates Imagine Dragons playing on cuts like  “Fear” and “Low Life.” So goes the ambition of the genre-bending, narrative-rendering X Ambassadors. The band started in Ithaca, New York, but Virginia gave them their first break. A program director at Virginia rock station 96X heard their ballad “Litost” and put it in heavy rotation. A management deal soon followed, then tours. They’ve shared the stage with not only Imagine Dragons but also The Lumineers and Panic! at the Disco. Pittsburgh isn’t foreign territory for these ambassadors. Last year, the group opened for Canadian electropop singer Lights at Mr. Smalls. Now they are headlining Stage AE. Avan Lava open. Doors open 6:30 p.m. 400 North Shore Dr., North Shore. (CM)

Saturday, January 30

Once a single concert in ’95, now the largest Christian music tour in the country, Winter Jam 2016 Tour Spectacular is making its annual stop at Consol Energy Center. Celebrating its 21st year, the tour features numerous Christian rock and rap artists, including Crowder, Lauren Daigle, and Tedashii. For KING & COUNTRY and Matthew West co-headline this year. Both have received commercial and critical acclaim from Christians and non-Christians alike. The former is a duo of Australian brothers; the latter, a singer-songwriter. Run Wild. Live Free. Love Strong , the duo’s sophomore album, addresses marriage, parenthood, and a life-threatening illness suffered by member Luke Smallbone. West, in addition to his prolific solo career, has written songs for artists like Rascal Flatts and Billy Ray Cyrus. As with last year’s Winter Jam, Evangelist Tony Nolan will also speak. And NewSong, Winter Jam’s founders, continue as host for the event. NewSong has been nominated for eight GMA (Gospel Music Association) Dove Awards and have been making music since ’81. 6:45 p.m. 1001 Fifth Ave., Uptown. (CM)

 

For Ryan Bingham’s work on the Crazy Heart soundtrack, he garnered something of a musical Triple Crown. He co-wrote the film’s theme, “The Weary Kind,” with music legend T Bone Burnett, and he also sang vocals on the official version for the soundtrack album. That tune went on to win a Golden Globe, a Grammy, and an Academy Award. The film, released in 2009, stars Jeff Bridges as a down-and-out country musician, a role which would earn him the 2009 Academy Award for Best Actor. For an intimate look at Bingham, check out his show at Mr. Smalls. Although Crazy Heart gave him national exposure, it’s his acclaimed studio albums that have cemented him as one of today’s best Americana singer-songwriters. He may no longer be with his former band, The Dead Horses, but that doesn’t mean his music has diminished in the slightest. 2015’s Fear and Saturday Night, his fifth album, captures him at his most intense. 9 p.m. 400 Lincoln Ave., Millvale. (CM)

 

In the video sample above, you’ll see and hear the jazz pianist Ramón Valle talking for a couple of minutes before he starts to play. It’s worth a listen because Valle is delightfully engaging no matter what he does. Born in Cuba, he emigrated in his 20s and has traveled the world developing his sound, which is actually an eclectic mixture of styles. Along with soulful interpretations of pop anthems like Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” Valle will break out into a souped-up brand of hot Latin jazz—and, being a composer and arranger as well as a performer, he has teamed up with musicians including the Israel Sinfonietta Beer Sheva to play his own compositions. Expect to hear traces of all of the above, plus more, when Ramón Valle visits the MCG Jazz series with double bassist Omar Rodriguez Calvo and drummer Ernesto Simpson. 8 p.m. Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild, 1815 Metropolitan St., Manchester. (MV)

Chris Maggio is a writer at Entertainment Central and a lover of great music.

Rick Handler and Mike Vargo made substantial contributions to this preview.