Thrival Music Festival: A New Sound Emanates from the Long Silent Carrie Furnaces

Musical acts, local and national, play at the packed site of the former iron plant.

A musical blast furnace!

A musical blast furnace!

Day one of the fourth annual Thrival Music Festival was a time of transformation. Foremost was the venue: the Carrie Furnaces. What was once a blast furnace now serves as a brilliant backdrop to the festival’s two stages, framed by a nearly cloudless blue sky. On Friday, as day transitioned into evening and then nighttime, purple lights lit up the broadside of the brick building. The furnace itself shone a fiery yellow and red. The grassy grounds, where thousands of steelworkers would trek to work, were occupied by mostly young Pittsburghers looking to celebrate a summer that officially ended just one day earlier.

Music, especially live music, can often be transformative, and Thrival’s line-up was no exception. Local indie rockers Meeting of Important People opened the fun and then Bastard Bearded Irishmen, also from Pittsburgh, kicked it up a notch with their furious blend of Celtic, punk, and rock.

Daya singing one of her hits.

Daya singing one of her hits.

Daya was next. The Mt. Lebanon native is herself undergoing a transformation from a local act to a national one. She has been touring the country and recently collaborated with one of the evening’s headliners, The Chainsmokers. She blazed through bubblegum pop-rock numbers, such as “Thirsty.” The crowd was starting to thicken as concert-goers flocked to watch her set.

Sir the Baptist getting into the groove accompanied by his tubist.

Sir the Baptist getting into the groove accompanied by his tubist.

The day’s first rap offering came from Sir the Baptist, who told the crowd that a year and a half ago he was living in the car he was also using as a Lyft driver. In two weeks, he will open for Jay Z and Beyoncé. Attendees at Thrival appreciated he could play Pittsburgh in between, raising their hands and jumping along to the beats. Assisting the Baptist were two other emcees: one male, one female. A tubist provided some live musical rejoinder to the backing DJ.

Lettuce in an extended funk jam.

Lettuce in an extended funk jam.

Once the Baptist wrapped up, Lettuce, a funk band from Boston, took the opposite stage. Lettuce, who started in 1992, were one of the older acts on the bill, but their songs, mostly tight instrumentals, won over the kids—the hipsterish crowd was soon grooving like a sea of veteran funkateers.

With the sun finally set, searchlights zigzagged over the crowd, one which had grown to truly festival-sized proportions. They were ready for the night’s two biggest draws: CHVRCHES and The Chainsmokers. CHVRCHES went first. The Scottish synthpop trio took their stage promptly at 9 p.m. with “Never Ending Circles,” also the opener on their latest album, 2015’s Every Open Eye. During their set, frontwoman Lauren Mayberry said the band was on their last tour for this album, yet she and her bandmates gave no signs of fatigue. Rather, Mayberry raced across all sides of the stage, often twirling the microphone cord about her, and always, always maintaining perfect pitch over the synthesizers and samplers commanded by Iain Cook and Martin Doherty.

Chvrches vocalist Lauren Mayberry hitting her notes.

Chvrches vocalist Lauren Mayberry hitting her notes.

A series of multiple rectangular lights provided visual accompaniment to those synthesizers. Their accompaniment was especially notable during the Nine-Inch-Nails-like “Science/Visions.” During the chorus, sung by Cook and Doherty, the lights would burst white when the beats climbed to their auditory apex. Another standout included “Leave a Trace,” which saw at least one couple dancing as if at a ballroom, ironic as the song, lyrically, is at worst a kiss-off and at best a sharing of guilt between two people in a relationship.

The poignant “The Mother We Share” closed CHVRCHES’ set, but the poignancy didn’t last too long. The crowd was ready to party; The Chainsmokers were ready to deliver. Members Andrew Taggart and Alex Pall took the stage to pyrotechnics and a burst of streamers over the crowd. Their DJ equipment stood atop a large monitor, which in the first 15 minutes alternated between psychedelic rays and waves, shots of New York City, and the words “Nobody Listens To Techno.”

Alex Pall (l.) and Andrew Taggart (r.) of the The Chainsmokers creating electrifying music.

Alex Pall (l.) and Andrew Taggart (r.) of the The Chainsmokers creating electrifying music.

Many were hoping the duo would perform “Don’t Let Me Down” with Daya, who appears on the studio version. When she didn’t, at least one person took to Twitter, wondering where she was. Daya replied, “i (sic) had to leave on a flight to vegas dude!! wish (sic) i (sic) could’ve stayed.” Given the love that the crowd showed Daya during her performance, and all the smiles on people’s faces during The Chainsmokers’ set, it appears all was forgiven well before the night’s close.

Innovation and Collaboration

Food trucks were on hand to provide a fun, quality food experience.

Food trucks were on hand to provide a fun, quality food experience.

The name of the game at Thrival is capitalist enterprise, and local startup/innovation incubator Thrill Mill, headed by Bobby Zappala, powers the festival. The musical portion caps off a week of talks and seminars by business leaders and other professionals. The area opposite the two stages reflected the emphasis on empowering independent businesses. Local food trucks from Voodoo Brewery, Wicked Ribs N’at, and PGH Halal kept patrons full while a beer garden, which included Voodoo, East End Brewing Co., and the Pittsburgh Winery, made sure everybody was having a good time. Black Forge Coffee House was on-scene for those looking for something a little more stimulating than beer or water and a little less potent than Red Bull. Additionally, today will see a free water dispensing station as well as more vending stations.

Festivalgoers waiting for some liquid refreshment.

Festivalgoers waiting for some liquid refreshment.

Other businesses included Highway Robbery, a vintage clothing store with a brick-and-mortar location in the South Side. Owner Kate Colussy was on site as was her friend and helper, Sarah Collins. Mark Tran, event operation director for WindPouch, was there to sell the company’s inflatable hammocks, a comfortable option for those wishing to take in the concert horizontally. There was even a booth where you could make do-it-yourself craft items operated by Work Shop, who are located on Penn Avenue in Garfield.

Two friends working on projects at the Work Shop booth.

Two friends working on projects at the Work Shop booth.

There were plenty of nods to the grounds’ history too. Tours of the Carrie Furnaces, conducted through host Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area, ran every hour on the hour until the evening and will continue today. Most spectacular was a scale model blast furnace and the making of a batch of iron that, when super-heated to a liquid form, was poured into molds. The sulfurous smell that permeated the environs was also reminiscent of past days at Carrie Furnaces. Also fascinating was the Mobile Sculpture Workshop, curated by Rivers of Steel Arts (RoSA). Throughout the day, artists casted molds and created sculptures from iron. A towering metal flower displayed the tactile range of their metal work.

A large, beautiful iron flower.

A large, beautiful iron flower.

Sacred Past, Prosperous Future

The ancestors of many a partier at Thrival once toiled upon the very grounds where their descendants will be this weekend. This isn’t an insult to those old steelworkers, many of them European emigrants. Rather, it acknowledges their dream to create a better life for their families came true. In fact, Thrival presents arguably the best version of that dream: a place of both leisure and labor, a place where people can enjoy themselves while also looking forward to the innovations that will hopefully better their own descendents’ lives.

Pouring molten metal into a mold.

Pouring molten metal into a mold.

The Thrival Music Festival continues today until midnight with local acts, e.g., Donora and Beauty Slap, and national acts, e.g., Rubblebucket, Metric, and Thievery Corporation, plus many more. For a full schedule of events and performances, as well as information about parking and the shuttle, visit Thrival’s website.

Fans enjoying The Chainsmokers.

Fans enjoying The Chainsmokers.

Carrie Furnaces
Carrie Furnace Blvd., Rankin.

See Entertainment Central’s day two coverage of the Thrival Festival.

photos: Rick Handler

Christopher Maggio is a Pittsburgh-based writer and editor and loves live music.