December Concert Guide: Local, National Acts Join the Holiday Fun
’Tis the season to reconnect with old friends, family, and favorite local musicians. For although December is short on national acts, there are plenty of Pittsburgh artists who are helping to spread holiday cheer, such as Emerson Jay and Eastend Mile, who will bring electronica and jazz, respectively, to Club Cafe. Poogie Bell, an excellent Pittsburgh percussionist, plays the Backstage Bar at Theater Square. Making her homecoming is Tamara Tunie, a McKeesport native. “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” fans will recognize Tunie as Dr. Melinda Warner. This month, she and other musicians will honor Pittsburgh music greats, such as Lena Horne and Henry Mancini, with Legends from the ‘Burgh at City Theatre.
That’s not to say there aren’t any national acts visiting this month. David Crosby will perform at WVU’s Lyell B Clay Concert Theatre just down the road in Morgantown. Pete Yorn plays Mr. Smalls. Club Cafe will host Steve Forbert, who wrote “Romeo’s Tune.” And The Verve Pipe, best known for the single “The Freshmen,” play Jergel’s Rhythm Grille.
Other acts coincide with the season. Trans-Siberian Orchestra performs at the PPG Paints Arena, and Mannheim Steamroller at the Benedum Center. Straight No Chaser, who prove a cappella is alive, will perform at the Benedum too. The annual O Starry Night concert returns, this time at Carnegie of Homestead Music Hall with Andy Grammer headlining. Delta Rae’s Winter Acoustic Tour takes the group to Club Cafe. Third Eye Blind also have the spirit. They headline The X’s Kickass Christmas Show at Stage AE. Local rockers Sweet Earth and Moment Being host a holiday sweater jam party at James Street Gastropub & Speakeasy. There’s also Holidays Rock in Blawnox at Moondog’s with Norm Nardini, Bill Toms, and 8th Street Rox. Finally, Lotus will take us into the New Year with two shows at Stage AE.
Time off from school or work provides opportunities to enjoy these artists plus others that we’ve highlighted below. Grab an eggnog and be merry.
Thursday, December 1
Singer-songwriter David Crosby, on a solo acoustic tour, takes the stage at West Virginia University. The veteran performer, of The Byrds and Crosby, Stills & Nash fame, promises to draw on music from throughout his 50-year career, from both solo albums and collaborative works. At 75, the two-time Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Famer hasn’t lost his urge to create new music. One of his latest solo efforts, Croz, was released in January 2014 after a long recording hiatus and was described by Rolling Stone as “a triumphant solo return.” The producer on the album was Crosby’s son, James Raymond, who also co-wrote some of the tracks and recorded them in his home studio. It’s easy to imagine the spare, stripped-back tunes translating beautifully into an acoustic show. He’s working with Raymond on a follow-up to Croz. In October, Crosby released another album, Lighthouse, on which he worked with Michael League of the band Snarky Puppy. 7:30 p.m. Lyell B Clay Concert Theatre, 2261 Monongahela Blvd., Morgantown, WV. (HM/RH)
Friday, December 2
Maybird’s lead vocalist sounds a bit like The Strokes’ Julian Casablancas, although he looks more like guitarist Nick Valensi. The instrumentation dates a little further back, to ’90s alt-rock bands, such as Garbage. Comparisons aside, there’s something original about Maybird’s psychedelic-indie sound. That originality might explain some things. Like why Danger Mouse, who has produced albums by artists such as Gorillaz and The Black Keys, signed the New York quintet to his record label, 30th Century. Or like how, despite releasing only an EP, this year’s Turning into Water, the band is in the middle of a six-state, 10-city tour, one which includes a stop at Club Cafe. Expect a full-length album soon, but in the meantime, enjoy the chance to see a rising act in an intimate venue. Zeve opens. 7 p.m. 56-58 S. 12th St., South Side. (CM)
Saturday, December 3
This late show at Club Cafe offers a double-billing of local, atmospheric music with Emerson Jay and Eastend Mile. You will sometimes shoegaze. Other times, dance. It depends on how Emerson Jay (née Jared Gulden) and his backing band work the synths or modulate the guitars and drums, all of which they can turn on a dime. Music blogs have lauded him, and he has played festivals such as North Coast in Chicago and Electric Forest in Rothbury, Michigan. This year, he opened for indie-pop royalty Haim at Stage AE, a venue which he has headlined too. Eastend Mile, meanwhile, will bring the jazz (along with a little fusion and hip-hop). The quartet has toured the northeast, and this October, they got passing crowds bobbing their heads at the Squirrel Hill Block Party. Earlier, in September, they released their sophomore album, I Had a Wonderful Time. Such will be patrons’ experience for this weekend pairing of exceptional homegrown talent. 10:30 p.m. 56-58 S. 12th St., South Side. (CM)
We Are Scientists are a duo who write striking indie songs that skew slightly to the irreverent. The title of their fifth album, released this year, is Helter Seltzer. The music video for “Buckle,” a single from that album, depicts lead vocalist and guitarist Keith Murray hurling various foods, silly string, and, yes, seltzer water at bassist Chris Cain. The duo also starred in Steve Wants His Money, a series of comedic shorts which aired on MTV UK. The band formed in Berkeley, California, in 2000. They relocated to Brooklyn the following year. They are one of many New York bands featured on the soundtrack to the romantic teen comedy Nick & Nora’s Infinite Playlist. Their contribution, “After Hours,” also appears on 2008’s Brain Thrust Mastery. Their concerts, which include touring drummer Keith Carne, are known for witty banter and band members performing in the audience. Expect nothing less for their Cattivo show. Shade opens. 8 p.m. 146 44th St., Lawrenceville. (CM)
Three legendary Pittsburgh rockers performing at Moondog’s: what more could you want for a holiday rock party? Rockin’ the ‘dog will be Norm Nardini, “Pittsburgh’s uncrowned king of rock-n-roll;” Bill Toms, poet-guitar lord; and good-time band 8th Street Rox. Anything could happen when you combine these three rockers and the holidays. Should be a fun night. 8:30 p.m. 378 Freeport Rd., Blawnox. (RH)
Sunday, December 4
You can’t help but smile when you listen to a song by Andy Grammer. With every note, the singer-songwriter with the soaring voice makes it clear that he loves music and wants to spread the joy. Though his name may not immediately be recognizable, you’ve probably had one of his hit singles, such as “Keep Your Head Up” and “Fine By Me,” stuck in your head at some point in the past few years. Both songs appeared on Grammer’s self-titled and widely acclaimed debut album. His follow-up album, Magazines or Novels, was also a smash, propelled by the single “Honey, I’m Good.” Grammer headlines O Starry Night 4 at Carnegie of Homestead Music Hall. The show’s openers include rock ‘n’ rollers We The Kings and Chris Jamison, a North Hills native turned The Voice contestant. He is also the lead vocalist of his own Chris Jamison Band. 8 p.m. 510 E. 10th Ave., Munhall. (RH/CM)
Delta Rae must love Pittsburgh. This summer, the folk group played a free outdoor concert at Hartwood Acres Park Amphitheater. A year earlier, they played the late Altar Bar. Now they are stopping at Club Cafe on their Winter Acoustic Tour. Formed in Durham, North Carolina, the group is one-half a family act: three of the six members are siblings. The sextet released their debut album, Carry the Fire, in 2012. An EP followed in 2013, Chasing Twisters. The EP saw Fleetwood Mac guitarist Lindsey Buckingham declaring his fandom. He played on a re-recorded version of “If I Loved You,” a song which first appeared on their debut. In 2015, Delta Rae released After It All, their sophomore album. No newer music just yet, but for this special winter concert, fans can look forward to acoustic versions of Delta Rae originals and holiday covers. Penny and Sparrow open. Sold Out. 8 p.m. 56-58 S. 12th St., South Side. (CM)
2009 to 2010 was a busy time for folk singer-songwriter Pete Yorn. Break Up, a collaborative album that he recorded with actress Scarlett Johansson in 2006, was released. He also recorded and released Back and Forth and Pete Yorn, the latter of which was produced by Pixies’ guitarist Frank Black. Yorn, who is based in Los Angeles, is no stranger to multitasking. He scored the Farrelly brothers’ 2000 film, Me, Myself & Irene, while mixing his critically acclaimed debut LP, 2001’s musicforthemorningafter. Still, the man must have needed some rest. Six years have passed between Pete Yorn and his newest album, this year’s ArrangingTime. The break did him good. ArrangingTime sees him in top form, incorporating some electronic flourishes to his folk sound. “She Was Weird,” his latest single, features a music video chronicling an actress’s metamorphosis into a character that looks straight out of James Cameron’s sci-fi epic, Avatar. Yorn plays Mr. Smalls this month. 8 p.m. 400 Lincoln Ave., Millvale. (CM)
Tuesday, December 6
A cappella singing has garnered a loyal audience with movies like Pitch Perfect and TV shows like “Glee” having gained huge fan bases. See what all the buzz is about with Straight No Chaser at the Benedum Center. The group’s 2013 album, Under the Influence, features the likes of superstars Rob Thomas, Dolly Parton, and Phil Collins, among others. SNC’s 10 intertwining voices make for a rich, smooth sound, kind of like a fine bourbon (thus, the name). Don’t expect traditional alma mater tunes though. When covering songs like Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” and Jason Mraz’s “I’m Yours,” SNC shows us that a cappella is not only relevant but also worth seeing live. They are celebrating 20 years as a group and are touring their newest release: I’ll Have Another … Christmas Album. 8 p.m. 237 7th St., Cultural District. (EC/RH)
Friday, December 9
Tamara Tunie, star of stage, screen, and TV, is also a talented singer. Tunie is a McKeesport native best known for her ongoing role as Medical Examiner Dr. Melinda Warner on the NBC series “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.” In addition to theater, Tunie studied classical voice at CMU. Tunie, a Tony and Drama Desk Award winner, has performed Legends from the ‘Burgh on tour and in New York City to large crowds and critics’ raves. She is back home and will be performing the program at City Theatre. The performance will take place in a cabaret setting and will include the songs of Pittsburgh music legends Lena Horne, Henry Mancini, Phyllis Hyman, and George Benson. Backing Tunie is a band of current Pittsburgh jazz all-stars, including Roger Humphries (drums), Max Leake (conducting and piano), and Jeff Grubbs (bass). City Theatre, in addition to its great theatrical performances, has had some interesting, related entertainers on its stages. Last month, actor Bryan Cranston gave a talk about his life in support of his recent autobiography. Performances are December 9 and 10 at 7:30 p.m. on the main stage. 1300 Bingham St., South Side. (RH)
“Romeo’s Tune,” with its catchy piano hooks and driving melody, rocketed up the charts to No. 11 on the Billboard Top 100 in 1980. The song received heavy FM radio rotation and brought Steve Forbert and his 1979 album, Jackrabbit Slim, into the American lexicon. Although he released critically successful albums afterwards, he mostly dropped out of the public consciousness, that is, until Any Old Time, a Jimmie Rodgers tribute, which was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Traditional Folk Album. This year, he released a new album, Flying at Night, and a memoir, Big City Cat. As an added bit of fun trivia, Forbert appears as Cyndi Lauper’s boyfriend in the “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” music video. You’ll have the chance to see Forbert, a native of Meridian, Mississippi, in the intimate setting of Club Cafe. 7 p.m. 56-58 S. 12th St., South Side. (RH/CM)
Saturday, December 10
Don your favorite holiday sweater and get ready to jam. It’s a holiday sweater jam party at James Street Gastropub & Speakeasy featuring Pittsburgh’s two funkiest instrumental groups. Sweet Earth pride themselves on being a power trio that uses no samples or loops. Just guitar, bass, drums. Who is playing what can be anyone’s guess as the band members will sometimes switch instruments. Such antics are sure to keep the audience on its toes. The trio has played festivals as close as Johnstown’s Flood City and as far as Arizona’s Gem and Jam. They’ve also shared a bill with the likes of Papadosio and The Werks. Sweet Earth were based in Los Angeles, where they recorded and released a self-titled LP in 2014, but they’ve since returned home much to their longtime fans’ appreciation. They count Moment Being as funk friends. A power trio too, they take their name from the idea of “being in the moment—alive to what’s happening now with love, intelligence, and compassion.” Arguably no better motto could serve a jam band. 9 p.m. 422 Foreland St., North Side. (CM)
Sunday, December 11
San Francisco rockers Third Eye Blind headline The X’s Kickass Christmas Show at Stage AE. Since the band burst onto the scene in 1997 with their six-times platinum eponymous debut—featuring the hit “Semi-Charmed Life”—there have been no shortage of musicians adding “former Third Eye Blind member” to their resumés. But vocalist Stephen Jenkins, the remaining founding member, has been the common factor through the years. They’ve never repeated the commercial success of that debut, which sold 6 million copies in the US (but then, it’s hard for anyone to sell 6 million albums anymore), but they’ve hardly been sitting around collecting royalties. The band—in various iterations—has continued to record and tour, and they have been growing a new fan base, particularly with the release of 2009’s Ursa Major, which debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard 200. They followed up last year’s LP, Dopamine, with an EP, We Are Drugs, this year. The Struts, Holy White Hounds, and Daily Grind open. Doors open 6 p.m. 400 North Shore Dr., North Shore. (HM/CM)
Tuesday, December 13
Mannheim Steamroller will bowl you over with their combination of great holiday music, special effects, and innovative lighting. Grammy Award-winner Chip Davis founded Mannheim Steamroller—named in part after an 18th-century German musical technique, the Mannheim roller—in 1974 to play a blend of rock and classical music. No record company would produce their records, so Davis set up his own, American Gramaphone, which paved the way for the band’s success. Mannheim Steamroller hit a higher level of popularity in ’84 with its first holiday album and are now one of the highest rated Christmas music acts in entertainment. There is such a demand for their shows during the holiday season that two different tours crisscross the country spreading rock ‘n’ roll joy. The Red Tour will be the one visiting Pittsburgh this year. 8 p.m. Benedum Center, 237 7th St., Cultural District. (RH)
Poogie Bell is the featured jazz artist for the weekly performance series at the Backstage Bar at Theater Square. Bell is one of Pittsburgh’s top percussionists and has toured with jazz great Marcus Miller and played with numerous other big name musicians. His father, Charles, was a jazz pianist and band leader. Bell performed with his dad’s band at the early age of two and a half at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Music Hall. As a sideman, he has worked on three Grammy Award-winning albums: Chaka Khan’s 1992 album, The Woman I Am, which won the 1993 Grammy Award for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance; Marcus Miller’s 2001 album, M2, which won the 2002 Best Contemporary Jazz Album; and Angélique Kidjo’s 2007 album, Djin Djin, which won the 2008 Best Contemporary World Music Album. Bell tours the world and has recorded five albums of his own. The latest is 2013’s Suga Top. Bell is also a noted music producer. No cover. 5 p.m. 655 Penn Ave., Cultural District. (RH)
Friday, December 23
Home in time for the holidays, Steel Blossoms play Club Cafe this month. The country-folk duo is Sara Zebley and Hayley Prosser. While still living in Pittsburgh, Zebley asked Prosser to join her band Girlz in Black Hats. Although the group had a solid following in Western Pennsylvania, both women wanted to move to Nashville because it offered more venues and the chance to play music 24/7. On Aug. 29, 2014, they relocated. By Sept. 1, they were Steel Blossoms. The pair has released one EP, Year Number One, and one LP, Country Enough. While performing in Nashville, they met many families who would host them during their 2016 Summer House Concert Tour. House concerts are an important part of Steel Blossoms’ brand. You can find a page on their website that explains how you can “[b]ring the magic of Nashville live music to your home.” Whether at a house or a club, Zebley and Prosser bring humor, conversation, and original music to every performance. 7 p.m. 56-58 S. 12th St., South Side. (CM)
Tuesday, December 27
In 1996, musician/rock band manager Paul O’Neill hit upon the idea that Christmas tunes could be totally progressive and the Trans-Siberian Orchestra was born. The TSO plays holiday music, traditional and originals, with a Rush level of elaboration and technical skill, all of which has racked up millions of album sales. You probably know the band’s wailing, synth-infused version of “Carol of the Bells.” It’s one of the most hardcore tracks that DJs pull out every December. Music like this of course deserves the arena treatment, with a great light show and all, and the TSO makes the rounds at the end of every year. The ensemble will engage local audiences for two shows at PPG Paints Arena, which are guaranteed to make this holiday season even more epic than last year’s. This year’s show is “The Ghosts of Christmas Eve.” 3 and 8 p.m. 1001 Fifth Ave., Uptown. (EC/RH)
Thursday, December 29
The Verve Pipe’s “The Freshmen” is a lesson in patience and persistence. The Michigan rock band recorded an acoustic version for their 1992 debut, I’ve Suffered a Head Injury. Neither the song nor the album made ripples outside their home state. Later pressings of I’ve Suffered a Head Injury dropped “The Freshmen” altogether. The band included a re-recorded version on their major label debut, 1996’s Villains, an album produced by The Talking Heads’ Jerry Harrison. They then recorded a single version, which was altered a final time for radio release. Finally, The Verve Pipe had a crossover hit: “The Freshmen” reached No. 1 on the Billboard Modern Rock Tracks and No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100. In the 2000s, the group released two children’s albums: A Family Album and Are We There Yet?. In 2014, they released Overboard, their first non-children’s album in over a decade. The band continues to tour, and you can catch them at Jergel’s Rhythm Grille. 8 p.m. 285 Northgate Dr., Warrendale. (CH)
Friday, December 30
Lotus are no strangers to Pittsburgh. In 2015, they played two shows at Stage AE: one in January and another on New Year’s Eve. They return to Stage AE for another two concerts, this time on consecutive nights, but once again helping Pittsburghers usher in the New Year. The festivities begin New Year’s Eve Eve. Lotus, originally from Indiana, are known for incorporating electronic elements into their music. On their latest album, this year’s Eat the Light, they tried something new: vocals, with a different guest musician on every track. In concert, the band uses elaborate lighting and occasionally performs themed shows. One 2009 concert saw David Bowie costumes. During themed shows, the band plays covers as well as originals. (Some Bowie covers, if not an outright theme, would definitely be appropriate this year to honor the late Ziggy Stardust.) RJD2, known for hip-hop instrumentals like “Ghostwriter,” opens. Doors open 7 p.m. 400 North Shore Dr., North Shore. (CM)
Friday, December 31
Happy New Year! Electro-jam band Lotus play their second of two shows at Stage AE. Baltimore-based (but nationally known) Pigeons Playing Ping Pong, who describe themselves as “electro-funk” and their fans as “The Flock,” open. Doors open 7 p.m. 400 North Shore Dr., North Shore. (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.