December Concert Preview: An Iron Butterfly, Holiday Chestnuts, and Hometown Heroes

Bret Michaels performs in Massapequa, NY in 2014. photo: Rjkowal and Wikipedia.

Bret Michaels performs in Massapequa, NY in 2014. photo: Rjkowal and Wikipedia.

As we turn up our jacket collars against the chilly northern winds, we seek comfort foods and familiar favorite sounds—for the winter will soon be upon us. Like toy soldiers in The Nutcracker, Pittsburgh’s top troubadours make sure to dutifully perform local shows during the holiday season. Hometown artists who’ll be cooking at the hearth include Donnie Iris and The Cruisers, Rusted Root, Joe Grushecky and The Houserockers, B.E. Taylor, and The Clarks. Another way to heat up the night is by attending the Four Chord Music Festival featuring Anti-Flag, Yellowcard, and The SpacePimps.

If you’re a fan of the great music featured in the “Peanuts” TV specials, MCG Jazz is bringing in noted jazz pianist Dave Benoit—who has written and performed music for several of the specials and the recent movie—to perform a Charlie Brown musical tribute. Butler County native Bret Michaels also is returning home for a holiday show at Jergel’s. Classic rock and early heavy metal pioneering group Iron Butterfly is sure to perform the massive hit “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” at the Altar Bar. Rising stars in town for concerts this month include City and Colour, and Joanna Newsom. Get an extra helpin’ of live music this month; you deserve it.

Wednesday, December 2

Singer-songwriter Dallas Green needed only to look to his name when he was searching for a performance moniker. His first name is a city; his last, a color. (Or, “colour,” as they spell it in his native Canada.) Ergo, City and Colour! Green began City and Colour in 2005 as a side project while a member of the post-hardcore band Alexisonfire. Although Alexisonfire’s future is in flux these days, City and Colour is still going strong. Green recently invited his touring band into the studio with him. (Members include Jack Lawrence, bassist for both The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather.) The result was this year’s If I Should Go Before You. The album went to number one on the Canadian charts and number 29 on the US Billboard 200. If the states have warmed to City and Colour, City and Colour has warmed to the states. Although Toronto will always be home, he recently bought a house in Nashville, and he’s currently touring the U.S. His first post-Thanksgiving stop will be Stage AE. Like City and Colour, opener Bahamas is the project of a single person—Afie Jurvanen. Before Bahamas, Jurvanen played guitar in Feist’s touring band, and he has also opened for Wilco. Doors open 7 p.m. 400 North Shore Dr., North Shore. (CM)

 

Although you can’t really call Iron Butterfly a one-hit wonder, the band’s one big hit was so iconic that it has taken on a life of its own. “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida”—captured above in its full 17-minute glory—was the title track on the first album to be certified platinum, one that has sold over 30 million copies since its 1968 release. The song also embodies just about everything that made rock of the late ‘60s lovable, infamous, and trippy—from an unmistakable downbeat to inscrutable lyrics (which may or may not be an intoxicant-induced garbling of “In the Garden of Eden”), a distinctive drum solo (which starts at around 6:25 in the video), a spacey yet hard-driving sound that’s somewhere between psychedelic rock and heavy metal, and an attitude that says We are flyin’ high and y’all better watch out. “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” has been parodied on the “The Simpsons” and used as the theme music for a New York fashion show. The tune has inspired countless private air-guitar solos by fans of all ages … and it’s fun to think that in some distant future age, when archaeologists dig through the relics of our civilization, they may seize upon “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” as a cultural artifact that typifies our rituals and values.

As for the band: Iron Butterfly itself has refused to die, surviving three breakups by re-emerging from the cocoon of dormancy each time. Iron Butterfly’s current lineup visits The Altar Bar to play a set including other songs from the repertoire, such as “Stone Believer” and “Butterfly Bleu.” But you know what the highlight will be. With Hepcat Dilemma, From the Feet Up, and The Even Three. Doors at 6:30 p.m., music at 7:30. 1620 Penn Ave., Strip District. (MV)

Thursday, December 3

 The Marshall Tucker Band, who began in Spartanburg, S.C., in the early 70’s, is playing at Jergel’s Rhythm Grille this evening. Excelling mainly in southern rock, they also blend in some gospel, R&B, jazz, and country music influences. MTB’s sound is unique and catchy and has withstood the test of time. You may still hear “Heard It in a Love Song” and “Can’t You See” on the radio or in a blues bar on open mic night, but at Jergel’s, you’ll hear the original, which is always better than a remake. They are touring in support of their latest album, Live From Spartanburg, South Carolina. This is a great opportunity to hear an early and important band in southern rock history. 8 p.m. 285 Northgate Dr., Warrendale. (RH)

 

Persistence paid off for Lonestar. The country band played 500 shows over approximately three years before landing a record contract in 1995. Since then, they have had 10 songs go to number one on the country charts. 1999’s “Amazed” was the big crossover hit, going to number one on both the country and Billboard Hot 100 charts. The song, from the multi-platinum Lonely Grill, won the ACM Single of The Year award. The group’s weathered two significant lineup changes. In 1998, bassist John Rich was fired from the band. He and Big Kenny, a country music singer, would form Big & Rich in 2002. Then, in 2007, frontman Richie McDonald left to pursue a solo career. The group carried on with Cody Collins, of the country group McAlyster, until McDonald rejoined in 2011. With McDonald back, they recorded and released 2013’s Life as We Know It, their 11th album. Now they’re coming to Greensburg for a show at the Palace Theatre. Christian Beck Band opens. 7:30 p.m. 21 West Otterman St., Greensburg. (CM)

Friday, December 4

Among many other things, the Christmas season brings us TV specials, typically including one with Charlie Brown of the Peanuts comic strip. And the MCG Jazz series is kicking off its holiday programming with a musical tribute to Charlie Brown. Along with “Linus and Lucy” (above), the de facto theme song for the Peanuts TV shows, jazz pianist and composer David Benoit will play a host of other tunes like the “Charlie Brown Christmas Dance” and many more. Benoit is a prolific musician with 36 albums to his credit. On the Peanuts front he has become heir to the late Vince Guaraldi, who composed and recorded the music for the original Charlie Brown specials from 1965-1976. Benoit also played on the soundtrack for the Peanuts movie released last month. He will be accompanied at MCG Jazz by vocalist Jane Monheit, who is featured on his latest album 2 In Love. The concerts are sold out so you’ll have to rely on friends with tickets or aftermarket sales. Two shows, 7 and 9:30 p.m. Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild, 1815 Metropolitan St., Manchester. (MV)

Saturday, December 5

Area native Donnie Iris, aka King Cool, is performing at Jergel’s tonight with his band, The Cruisers. Sure to be on the set list are top favorites including “Ah Leah” and “Love Is Like a Rock.” Iris was once a member of the Pittsburgh group The Jaggerz in the early ’70s and had a monster hit with the “The Rapper,” which reached no. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. 8 p.m. 285 Northgate Dr., Warrendale. (RH)

 

“One-man jam-band.” The phrase may appear oxymoronic. That is, until you see Keller Williams live. The Virginia native often loops guitar, bass, and percussion while playing solo, creating the effect of a full band. Williams isn’t beneath asking for a little help from his friends, though. He’s recorded, performed, and toured with bluegrass group The String Cheese Incident, and he’s played in a number of additional ensembles. And this year, he’s expanded his one-man show into a trio. Joining him are upright bassist Rob Wasserman and drummer Rodney Holmes. Both are Grammy winners. Wasserman co-founded RatDog with Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead. He’s also played with everyone from Ani DiFranco to Lou Reed. Holmes has played and toured extensively with Santana, and his beats can be heard on the mega-hit “Smooth.” Together, the Keller Williams Trio are playing Williams songs both young and old at Mr. Smalls. Williams’s newest is 2015’s Vape, his 20th studio album and one he describes as “highly concentrated music that can be heated up and inhaled through your ears.” 8:30 p.m. 400 Lincoln Ave., Millvale. (CM)

Monday, December 7

“Can We Still Be Friends,” “Hello It’s Me,” and “I Saw the Light” were three monster hits in the 70’s for accomplished pop rocker Todd Rundgren. A musical composer, performer, and producer who plays many different instruments, Rundgren is a free spirit whose creativity is limitless and songs melodically beautiful. He’s produced top albums for many individuals and groups, including Hall and Oates, Cheap Trick, Patti Smith, and The Psychedelic Furs. Rundgren is currently touring in support of his latest release State. This is a great chance to see a top pop composer and musician. 8 p.m. Carnegie of Homestead Music Hall,  510 E 10th Ave., Munhall.

 

Now in its third year, O Starry Night 3 celebrates a particular type of celestial body—the pop star. Four of them, in fact, each bringing their own twist on popular music to the Petersen Events Center. There’s the sultry-voiced Elle King, whose single “Ex’s & Oh’s” abounds as much with hooks as it does double entendres. England’s 22-year-old George Ezra sings like Lead Belly meets British pop (for proof, see “Budapest”). Nate Ruess, meanwhile, is arguably best known as the frontman for indie-pop trio fun. His rousing vocals helped propel “We Are Young” and the rest of their sophomore album, Some Nights, to the top of the charts. The trio is on hiatus now, but fans aching for those vocals should check out his debut solo album, this year’s Grand Romantic. Last is Rob Thomas, arguably as well known for fronting Matchbox Twenty as he is for “Smooth,” that ubiquitous Santana single which Thomas also co-wrote. Unlike Ruess, Thomas’s solo career is a little more tenured, with three solo albums to date. His latest, this year’s The Great Unknown, finds him in tip-“pop” shape, making him the perfect choice to top O Starry Night’s bill. 7 p.m. 3719 Terrace St., Oakland. (CM)

 

 Celtic Woman are hitting Heinz Hall, accompanied by the Pittsburgh Symphony, in their Home for Christmas concert (although they don’t actually live in the ‘Burgh). The multi-platinum-selling group of angelic-voiced women rose to fame on their vocal talents and quality production values. Many people learned of the group through their popular performance specials on PBS. Sharon Browne and David Downes, a former musical director of the long running Irish stage show Riverdance, created the ensemble. Although members have changed over the years, the sound remains the same. 7:30 p.m. 600 Penn Ave., Cultural District. (RH)

Friday, December 11

When 10,000 Maniacs played their first show in 1981, lead singer Natalie Merchant was only 17 years old. (She’d replaced the original lead singer in the formative days of the group, when they called themselves Burn Victims.) Through the late 80’s and early 90’s, the band charted several hits, including their only number one, “These Are Days.” Although Merchant left in 1993 to pursue a solo career, the band continued to tour and has remained largely the same. Their current lineup features lead vocalist Mary Ramsey, guitarist Jeff Erickson, original bass player Steve Gustafson, original keyboardist Dennis Drew, and longtime drummer Jerry Augustyniak. Special guests are Kelsey Friday of Brownie Mary and Paul Luc. 8 p.m. The Maniacs are at Mr. Smalls, 400 Lincoln Ave., Millvale. (CM)

Saturday, December 12

Local rock royalty Joe Grushecky is back in one of his favorite Pittsburgh neighborhoods tonight, the South Side. Grushecky sang about his love for Pittsburgh and the South Side in his ’09 album East Carson Street. He’ll be playing a gig at Club Cafe with his top-notch band, The Houserockers, which includes longtime members Art Nardini (bassist) and Jeffrey “Joffo” Simmons (drummer). Joe Grushecky and The Houserockers played the legendary Jersey shore club The Stone Pony in October where they celebrated the 20th anniversary of their album American Babylon.  They will continue their American Babylon celebration at Club Cafe. Grushecky’s latest album is 2013’s Somewhere East of Eden. 9 p.m. 56 – 58 S. 12th St. (RH)

 

“Sapokanikan” is the first single off singer-songwriter Joanna Newsom’s fourth album, Divers. The title refers to a Native American village that once stood on the island of Manhattan. Newsom then invokes the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and a host of artists and politicians to describe the historical erasures that one often forgets during a visit to the Big Apple. She delivers the tune in a voice that alternates between Joni Mitchell and Liza Minnelli. So goes the complexity of Newsom, whose lyrics and instrumentals demand repeated listens. Yet, despite the denseness of her work, she remains surprisingly accessible. Her debut, 2004’s The Milk-Eyed Mender sold over 200,000 copies stateside. Not bad for a musician whose primary instrument is the harp. Her other work has fared equally well, if not better, including 2010’s triple-LP, Have One on Me. In 2014, she narrated the film Inherent Vice. She is a native of Nevada City, California, a true hippie town, but will be bringing her soprano voice and harp prowess to the ‘burgh for a show at Carnegie of Homestead Music Hall. 8 p.m. 510 E 10th Ave., Munhall. (CM)

Sunday, December 13

Named after an Ataris song, “Four Chord Wonder,” the Four Chord Music Festival is a one-day pop-punk and ska bonanza. Rishi Bahl, a member of local pop-punk group The SpacePimps, began the festival last year. His band, along with many other local acts, will be playing the festival. Also on the bill are punk rockers Anti-Flag, who began in Pittsburgh but have since toured as far as Russia. The band recently celebrated the tenth anniversary of their acclaimed album The Terror State, which was produced by Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello. This May, they released American Spring, their ninth studio album. Yellowcard headline this year’s Four Chord Music Festival. The pop-punk group was launched to international prominence with its fourth studio album, 2003’s Ocean Avenue. The title track was an MTV hit and fans were especially taken by Sean Mackin and his wild violin stylings. They’ve released five albums since then, most recently 2014’s Lift a Sail. The album adds a sprinkling of electronics while still keeping the hooks that fans love. The Four Chord Music Festival takes place at Xtaza, formerly Club Zoo. 9 p.m. 1620 Smallman St., Strip District. (CM)

Monday, December 14

Pittsburgh’s Christmas music ambassador, singer B.E. Taylor, takes the stage for his 19th annual B.E. Taylor Christmas Concert. Taylor reworks classic holiday songs in bold ways to create new traditions. Although he is best known today for his holiday concerts, in the mid 80’s he scored a nationally charted hit with the song “Vitamin L,” which ran on MTV. 7:30 p.m. Continues through tomorrow night. Heinz Hall, 600 Penn Ave., Cultural District. (RH)

Wednesday, December 16

It’s the good-looking man in the red bandanna! You can bet the house will be packed when Butler native and diehard Steelers fan Bret Michaels revisits his home turf for a gig at Jergel’s Rhythm Grille. Michaels, born Bret Michael Sychak, has won fame in practically every way available. In addition to the solo career he launched in 1998 he’s been a founding member and longtime lead vocalist of the glam-metal rockers Poison. He wrote, directed, and starred in the movie A Letter from Death Row, with his friend and colleague Charlie Sheen. He impressed Donald Trump sufficiently to win “The Celebrity Apprentice 3.” Michaels has had his own reality TV shows, and, um … oh yeah, along with playing a half-dozen instruments, he can sing. Expect to hear him doing metal/country hits like “Every Rose Has Its Thorn,” maybe “The App Song,” and more. With special guests The Stickers. 8 p.m. 285 Northgate Dr., Warrendale. (MV)

Saturday, December 26

Many top off the Christmas season by enjoying music from their favorite artists. For some Pittsburghers, that means a Clarks’ show, even though it may be difficult seeing a “Penny on the Floor” as fans file in for The Clarks’ annual holiday show at The Rex Theater. The Clarks’ latest album is Feathers and Bones. 8:30 p.m. 1602 E. Carson St., South Side. (RH)

Sunday, December 27

In 1993, 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 its own, with a Rush level of elaboration and technical skill that has racked up multiple 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 DJs pull out each December. Music like this of course deserves the arena treatment, with a light show and all, and the TSO makes the rounds at the end of each year. Today, the ensemble comes to Consol Energy Center for two shows guaranteed to make this holiday season seem like the most epic one since the last one. 3 and 7:30 p.m. 1001 Fifth Ave., Uptown. (EC)

Thursday, December 31

Rusted Root is a Pittsburgh band that formed in 1990 rising to fame on a world beat fusion mix of rock, acoustic, folk , and a distinctive percussion sound. After winning the In Pittsburgh Music Award for Best Rock Band in 1990, Rusted Root continued on the wining path when their 1994 album When I Awoke with the track “Send Me On My Way” went Platinum. Rusted Root has toured internationally and recorded seven studio albums including their latest, 2012’s The Movement. Jam rock in the new year at the Rex Theater. 9 p.m. 1602 E. Carson St., South Side. (RH)

 

 Lotus, like the jam bands that came before them, tour relentlessly, averaging around 100 shows a year. They are no strangers to Pittsburgh and even played the Three Rivers Arts Festival back in ’08. The five-piece, originally from Indiana, are known for incorporating electronic elements into their music. Their new album, Gilded Age, finds them nostalgic for straight-up jam rock. (Nostalgia acts are a major theme in Gilded Age, hence the title.) The band uses elaborate lighting in their concerts and occasionally performs themed shows. One concert saw David Bowie costumes, another, Willie Nelson. Could a Donnie Iris-themed show be in the works for tonight’s concert at Stage AE? One has to attend to find out. Doors at 8 p.m. 400 North Shore Dr., North Shore. (CM)

Rick Handler is the executive producer of Entertainment Central and loves great music.

Christopher Maggio and Mike Vargo also love great music and were major contributors to this preview.