January 2020 Concert Guide: Courtney Barnett, Motion City Soundtrack, Winter Jam, Umphrey’s McGee, The Motels, and AJR

Courtney Barnett performing at a concert in 2015. (photo: Paul Hudson and Wikipedia)

Courtney Barnett performing at a concert in 2015. (photo: Paul Hudson and Wikipedia)

January often sees a decrease in the number of big-name concerts, as artists presumably spend time with friends or family or return to the recording studio.

Not this January.

Two major acts sold out shows early: emo/power-pop group Motion City Soundtrack at the beginning of the month and Australian rocker Courtney Barnett toward the end. But there are still plenty of great concerts left.

Winter Jam Tour Spectacular, the largest Christian music tour in the country, arrives in Pittsburgh in January with headliner Crowder and multiple supporting rock and rap acts. Greensky Bluegrass, Grace Potter, and Trampled by Turtles represent bluegrass and folk music for their respective shows. Mike Gordon of Phish, Umphrey’s McGee, Lettuce, and local trio Sweet Earth are all on the jam band scene. Tōth, one half of indie-dance group Rubblebucket, stops here in support of his first solo album.

Also of interest is Peter Asher, who palled around with (and worked for) the Beatles back in the ’60s. If the ’80s was your decade, then perhaps check out Totally ’80s Live with the Motels, Bow Wow Wow, and When in Rome II. The Tubes, which had their heyday in the ’80s too, headline their own show this month. More contemporary music includes AJR, a pop-rock trio of brothers.

It’s a strong start to 2020, and a great way to do the new year right is by supporting music, whether a national or local act. The Entertainment Central Concert Guide can help. It is made up of two sections: EC Spotlighted Concerts and On the Radar. Each section lists concerts in chronological order. Rick Handler (RH) also made substantial contributions to the Guide.

EC Spotlighted Concerts

Saturday, January 4

Motion City Soundtrack will perform a sold-out concert at the Roxian Theatre. Vocalist and guitarist Justin Pierre and guitarist Joshua Cain formed the band in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1997. After many line-up changes, the group solidified into a quintet for its debut LP, 2003’s I Am the Movie. One of the new members was keyboardist Jesse Johnson, who in concert often performs a “moogstand,” that is, a handstand on his Moog synthesizer. The Moog is not just a prop though; it’s a staple of their sound, which vacillates between rock, power pop, and emo. Cain is credited with integrating the Moog into their compositions. They were mainstays on the now defunct Van’s Warped Tour, and they also performed at the local Thrival Music Festival in 2014. Their latest album is 2015’s Panic Stations. The Sidekicks open. 8 p.m. 425 Chartiers Ave., McKees Rocks. (CM)

Motion City Soundtrack in action at the 2016 Riot Fest in Chicago. (photo: swimfinfan and Wikipedia).

Motion City Soundtrack in action at the 2016 Riot Fest in Chicago. (photo: swimfinfan and Wikipedia).

Thursday, January 9

Peter Asher hosts a delightful program on SiriusXM’s Beatles Channel titled “From Me to You.” He sounds as much a fan as any Beatlemaniac, and it’s arguably easy to forget his own remarkable career. He was one half of the pop duo Peter and Gordon with the late Gordon Waller. Their biggest hit was 1964’s “A World Without Love,” credited Lennon-McCartney but really written by Paul McCartney. (McCartney was dating Asher’s sister, Jane, at the time.) Peter Asher ran the A&R department at Apple Records, which the Beatles founded in 1968. He signed James Taylor and later was Taylor’s manager. Asher is also a successful producer. His credits include many Linda Ronstadt albums, two of which (1977’s Simple Dreams and 1989’s Cry Like a Rainstorm, Howl Like the Wind) earned him Grammys for Producer of the Year, Non-Classical. He’ll talk about his career and perform music during Peter Asher: A Musical Memoir of the ’60s and Beyond at Club Cafe. 8 p.m. 56-58 S. 12th St., South Side. (CM)

Wednesday, January 15

Tōth is the solo project of Alex Toth, perhaps best known as one half of Rubblebucket. The other half is singer, saxophonist, and former romantic partner Annakalmia Traver. If you attended the 2016 Thrival Music Festival, you may recall Rubblebucket and its touring band started a dance party during their set. The party culminated with the band parading through the audience during “Came Out of a Lady.” Toth sat on one concert-goer’s shoulders while still playing the trumpet. Traver then announced it was his birthday. Toth and the audience couldn’t have looked happier. Alas, Toth and Traver split, but they continue to collaborate musically, touring in support of Sun Machine, which was released in 2018. He then released a solo album, Practice Magic and Seek Professional Help When Necessary, in 2019. Toth will perform at Club Cafe. Mal Devisa opens. 8 p.m. 56-58 S. 12th St., South Side. (CM)

Thursday, January 16

The Motels’ sound was built upon the foundation of lead singer Martha Davis’ melancholy, crystalline vocals, with keyboard, bass, and percussion highlights. That sound resulted in big success for the band in the early days of MTV. 1982’s “Only the Lonely” and 1983’s “Suddenly Last Summer” both reached No. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in their respective years and were in heavy rotation on the new music network. The group’s latest effort is the 2018 LP The Last Few Beautiful Days. Also performing on the Totally ’80s Live music bill are Bow Wow Wow and When in Rome II. 285 Northgate Dr., Warrendale. Jergel’s (RH)

Friday, January 17

Once a single concert in 1995, now the largest Christian music tour in the country, Winter Jam Tour Spectacular is stopping at PPG Paints Arena. 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 previous tours, now headlines. He performs folktronica, and his latest LP, his third, is 2018’s I Know a Ghost. A regular at the Grand Ole Opry, he’s won three GMA (Gospel Music Association) Dove Awards and has been a multi-Grammy nominee. Andy Mineo will perform too. He’s a frequent collaborator with fellow Christian rapper Lecrae; the two co-headlined a show at Mr. Smalls Theatre in 2018. Also on the bill are Building 429, Austin French, Hillsong Young & Free, and RED. Zane Black, the founder of Lovin’ Life, a Christian youth outreach organization, will speak. NewSong, Winter Jam’s founders, will also perform. NewSong, from Valdosta, Georgia, have been nominated for 12 GMA Dove Awards, and they have been making music since 1981. 7 p.m. 1001 Fifth Ave., Uptown. (CM)

Sweet Earth, a local prog-rock power trio, will headline a late show at Club Cafe. The band was based in Los Angeles, where it recorded and released a self-titled LP in 2014, but the members have since returned home much to their longtime fans’ appreciation. They 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. Squaring the Circle opens. 10:30 p.m. 56-58 S. 12th St., South Side. (CM)

Sunday, January 19

If you missed Phish at the Pete this December, or just didn’t get enough “Phish Food,” bassist (and banjoist) Mike Gordon headlines Mr. Smalls Theatre. He has recorded five solo albums, most recently 2017’s OGOGO. His studio band will be touring with him. He has also recorded two albums with folk/Americana guitarist Leo Kottke: 2002’s Clone and 2005’s Sixty Six Steps. Phish, meanwhile, formed at the University of Vermont in 1983. Thanks mostly to word-of-mouth and tape sharing, it garnered a following with domestic album and DVD sales surpassing 8 million. The group went on hiatus in 2000 and in 2009, but the current lineup has been intact for over 30 years. Like Phish, Gordon’s solo output has a jam sound, and his live shows are known for improvisation. His other ventures include filmmaking and writing. 8 p.m. 400 Lincoln Ave., Millvale. (CM)

Greensky Bluegrass will perform at the Roxian Theatre in support of this year’s LP All For Money. Ironic because if you’re in a bluegrass band in 2020, chances are you aren’t in it for money. Still, Greensky Bluegrass has done pretty well for itself. Its previous album, 2016’s Shouted, Written Down & Quoted (produced by Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin), peaked at number three on the Billboard Bluegrass Chart. The album before that, 2014’s If Sorrows Swim, went to number one. The band has sold out venues like Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colorado. Greensky Bluegrass began as a trio in Kalamazoo, Michigan in 2000, and it has since swelled to a quintet. No drummer in this band; instead get ready for banjo, bass, dobro, guitar, and mandolin. Its live shows are also known for fantastic light displays. 8 p.m. 425 Chartiers Ave., McKees Rocks. (CM)

Tuesday, January 21

The A stands for Adam. The J for Jack. The R for Ryan. Simple as that. AJR’s music, however, is a little more elaborate with multiple instruments, harmonies, and some samples. The brothers’ last name is Met. They are from New York City and began busking in Washington Square Park in 2005. Jack was eight years old then. They have since released three albums as AJR. Their first was 2015’s Living Room, which was recorded in their living room. 2017’s The Click followed. 2019’s Neotheater is their most recent. Their sound mixes rock, pop, and a little dubstep. “I’m Ready,” their 2013 debut single, interpolates SpongeBob SquarePants repeating the eponymous lyrics, his catchphrase. Past collaborators run the gamut from Ingrid Michaelson to Mike Love of the Beach Boys. The trio comes to the UPMC Events Center. Flora Cash opens. 8 p.m. 6001 University Blvd., Moon Township. (CM)

Thursday, January 23

Grace Potter will play at the Roxian Theatre in support of her fourth solo album, 2019’s Daylight. (Appropriately, it follows 2015’s Midnight.) She is a living survey of American music, having performed with Kenny Chesney, The Rolling Stones, and alternative psych-rockers The Flaming Lips. Potter hails from Vermont, where she and other musicians formed Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, an indie band which also dabbles in blues, folk, and jam. She and drummer Matt Burr were married, but they divorced in 2017, and Burr subsequently split the band. Prior to that, the group founded Grand Point North, a music festival, in Burlington, Vermont. Other festival appearances for Potter include the AmeriServ Flood City Music Festival in Johnstown 2009 and 2016. She has also lent her vocals to a number of television and film productions, such as “One Tree Hill” and Tangled. Devon Gilfillian opens. 8 p.m. 425 Chartiers Ave., McKees Rocks. (CM) 

Friday, January 24

San Francisco rockers The Tubes hit the charts (and MTV) in the 1980’s with the mega-hit songs “She’s a Beauty” and “Talk to Ya Later.” However, before those big hits they had a smaller, but influential hit with “White Punks on Dope” in 1975. Several other performers covered the song including Mötley Crüe. It’s been even called an “absurd anthem of wretched excess” and in concerts lead singer Fee Waybill who was known for frequent costume changes, played the character of Quay Lewd (Quaalude) a drugged out British rock star and wore two-foot high platform shoes and a long blonde wig. You can see them at Jergel’s Rhythm Grille in Warrendale. 8 p.m. 285 Northgate Dr. (RH)

Progressive rock jam band Umphrey’s McGee, from the Fighting Irish town of South Bend, Indiana, will be in concert at Stage AE. Influenced by the likes of the Grateful Dead, Yes, King Crimson, and Pink Floyd, the group’s unique sound can be heard in the songs “Wizard Burial Ground” and “Mulche’s Odyssey.” In 2018, the band members released their 11th album, It’s Not Us, to mark their 20th anniversary. The band continued the anniversary celebration with an EP, It’s Not Them, and then a 12th album, It’s You, all released in 2018. Umphrey’s McGee, who performed at the first Bonnaroo Music Festival, are known for their live shows: all solos and bright lights. They performed in March 2019 at Stage AE and return early in the new year on their appropriately titled Hindsight 20/20 Tour. The New Deal opens. Doors open 6 p.m. 400 North Shore Dr., North Shore. (RH, CM)

Monday, January 27

Like Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain before her, Courtney Barnett plays a mean southpaw. Her pairing of deadpan lyrics with a deadpan vocal delivery is one of many things that sets her apart. Don’t expect her to be any less sharp for her sold-out show at the Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland. The concert is part of the Warhol’s Sound Series and will feature Barnett solo, no band.  She rose to international prominence with 2013’s The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas. Her brilliant debut LP, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, followed in 2015. Tell Me How You Really Feel, her sophomore album, followed in 2018. In between LPs, she recorded Lotta Sea Lice with one of rock’s other great contemporaries, Kurt Vile. The pair wrote originals, covered other artists’ songs, and covered each other’s songs. She released MTV Unplugged Live in Melbourne in 2019. Hachiku opens. 8 p.m. 4400 Forbes Ave., Oakland. (CM)

Wednesday, January 29

Think Mumford and Sons sped up, and you’ll start to have an idea of what Trampled by Turtles’ music sounds like. If you missed them at the Dollar Bank Three Rivers Arts Festival in 2014, catch them at Mr. Smalls Theatre. The Duluth, Minnesota six-piece forgoes percussion for instruments like the banjo, cello, fiddle, and mandolin. They’ve been making music for over 15 years and scored a number one hit on the Billboard Bluegrass charts with 2010’s Palomino. Stars and Satellites followed in 2012. The band released its first live album, Live at First Avenue, in 2013, and somewhere in between, did a pretty awesome cover of the Pixies’ “Where is My Mind?” (Other great covers: Radiohead’s “Fake Plastic Trees” and Arcade Fire’s “Rebellion (Lies).”) Trampled by Turtles’ newest LP, Life Is Good on the Open Road, was released in 2018. Them Coulee Boys open. 8 p.m. Sold out. 400 Lincoln Ave., Millvale. (CM)

Thursday, January 30

Lettuce, a funk band from Boston active since 1992, were one of the older acts at Thrival Music Festival 2016 at Carrie Furnace. But the group’s songs, mostly tight instrumentals, won over the kids—the hipsterish crowd was soon grooving like a sea of veteran funkateers. Lettuce returns to Pittsburgh, this time at the Roxian Theatre.. The band toured to places as far as Tokyo before releasing its first studio album, 2002’s Outta Here. Its 2017 LP Witches Stew was recorded live at the Catskill Chill Music Festival in Lakewood, Pennsylvania in 2016. It pays homage to Miles Davis’s 1970 jazz-fusion masterpiece, Bitches Brew, and it even covers some songs from that record. No surprise that the musicians from Lettuce would tackle such a project: all are accomplished musicians with many having studied at Berklee College of Music in Boston. Their latest album, Elevate, dropped in June. 8 p.m. 425 Chartiers Ave., McKees Rocks.  (CM)

Lettuce in an extended funk jam.

Lettuce in an extended funk jam at Thrival Music Festival in 2016. (photo: Rick Handler)

On the Radar

Saturday, February 1
Little Big Town (Benedum Center)
Roots of Creation (Thunderbird Café & Music Hall)
Rave Ami feat. Weird Paul Rock Band (Mr. Smalls Theatre)

Monday, February 3
Dr. Dog (Roxian Theatre)

Wednesday, February 5
Citizen Cope (Carnegie Lecture Hall)

Thursday, February 6
Standard Broadcast (The Thunderbird Café & Music Hall )

Saturday, February 8
Donnie Iris and The Cruisers, Joe Grushecky and The Houserockers 2nd Show (The Palace)

Sunday, February 9
Cheap Trick (The Palace Theatre)

Friday, February 14
Queensryche (Roxian Theatre)
Durand Jones and The Indications (Spirit Hall)

Monday, February 17
Jake Shimabukuro (The Oaks)

Saturday, February 15
The Cadillac Three (Mr. Smalls Theatre)

Sunday, February 16
Boyz II Men (Rivers Casino)
The Spinners (The Palace)

Wednesday, February 19
Tedeschi Trucks Band (UPMC Events Center)

Friday, February 21
Cécile McLorin Salvant & Sullivan Fortner (MCG Jazz)

Saturday, February 22
Brittney Chantele (Thunderbird Café & Music Hall)

Sunday, February 23
Gaelic Storm (Jergel’s)

Monday, February 24
Post Malone (PPG Paints Arena)
The Toasters (Club Cafe)

Tuesday, February 25
The Lumineers (PPG Paints Arena)

Saturday, February 29
Brooke Annibale (Thunderbird Café & Music Hall)
Starship Mantis (Spirit)

Christopher Maggio is a Pittsburgh-based writer and editor.