New Year’s Eve Done Right: Your Guide to Highmark First Night Pittsburgh

Some enchanted evenings have a Grand Finale. This one launched us into the current year and the next one is due up soon.

Some enchanted evenings have a Grand Finale. This one launched us into the current year, and the next one is coming up soon.

When 50,000 people show up for something, there must be a good reason. There are actually many reasons why crowds of that size keep coming to the city’s annual New Year’s Eve party, Highmark First Night Pittsburgh, and we’ll point out a few shortly.

But the main reason is that the party is lots of things rolled into one. Being a project of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, it is first of all a 6-hour (6 p.m. to midnight) festival of music and the performing arts—see highlights below—plus visual arts in the downtown Cultural District galleries.

With shows and activities for children, Highmark First Night Pittsburgh is a premier family event. With numerous non-couples among the 50K, it is also a big singles event. If you’re out to meet someone, the odds are good … or if you’d rather just ignore the mating game and be with all kinds of folks who are enjoying themselves, good again.

To state the obvious: this party is a PARTY. People dance in the streets at the outdoor concerts, dance to the parade music at the Allegheny Health Network Parade, and dance inside the August Wilson Center at the Silent Disco. (No loudspeakers. Instead, three DJs feed their beats into wireless transmitters, and you’re given headphones you can tune to the tracks that move you the most.)

Then at midnight, it’s anything but silent. The Future of Pittsburgh Grand Finale brings in the New Year with a mass countdown, fireworks, more music, and cheers all around.

Entertainment Highlights

Out of more than 100 total attractions at Highmark First Night Pittsburgh—which range from the children’s activities to art exhibits to you-name-it—this year’s lineup has over 30 featured music and performance acts. The emphasis is on local talent, mixing big names and longtime favorites with intriguing up-and-comers.

Byron Nash and Plan B (above) are real eye-openers: Nash drew his early inspiration from classic metal bands like Metallica and Motörhead, but he and his mates channel the Muse of Metal into sounds distinctly their own. Singer-songwriter Trinity Wiseman splits her time between Pittsburgh and Nashville, turning out songs that reflect the spirit of both. And The Crew of the Half Moon, with their idiosyncratic indie rock, are forecast as WYEP’s 2018 Band of the Year.

Joe Grushecky and The Houserockers are local legends; ditto the River City Brass Band; ditto with bagpipes the Balmoral Pipes and Drums. And this year’s headliners come from the fabled land known as Brooklyn. Making a special stop in Pittsburgh before a 2018 world tour that will take them from Europe to Australia are Lee Fields and The Expressions, who travel with soul.

Comedy is such a perennial hit at First Nights that the multi-artist Comedy Showcase has graduated from its cabaret origins into the 1300-seat Byham Theater. Meanwhile, improv comics Penny Arcade perform in their new Arcade Comedy Theater. Dance troupes include the strikingly eclectic Texture Contemporary Ballet and The Legacy Arts Project’s Dance Africa, with Sankofa Village for the Arts.

See the full events schedule here. All performances are within the 14-block Cultural District and many repeat at multiple times. Please note that some shows require online seat reservations, which come free with the hard-to-believe-it’s-that-cheap $10 overall admission charge. (Kids 5 and under ride totally free.)

And now, to enhance your fun and ease your worries, we close with an Entertainment Central exclusive.

7 Reasons to Do New Year’s Eve at Highmark First Night Pittsburgh

At the indoor venues or out in the street, it's all good on First Night.

At the indoor venues or out in the street, it’s all good on First Night.

What do people like best about this citywide celebration?

Aside from particular shows or activities, there are general features that make it an attractive choice on New Year’s Eve.

Diligent research—including an interview with Sarah Aziz, the woman in charge, as Festival Director at the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust—has identified several items which are widely popular and/or address major concerns. They are the seven cardinal virtues of Highmark First Night Pittsburgh.

Something for everyone, all the time. Tastes may differ even among a group of BFF adults. And with so much happening at any given time, decision-making is made easier. For example, as Aziz put it: “You can say, ‘Okay, we’ll go to this event while you go the Comedy Showcase and you see Dance Africa. Then we’ll meet up.’”

The weather won’t spoil the party. Many events are indoors, including children’s activities and much of the entertainment. Outdoors, there will be numerous “warming stations” this year, plus cell phone charging stations to keep your batteries happy.

It’s alcohol-free. Restaurants in the Cultural District that serve drinks indoors can still do so, but no alcohol is served at or around First Night events and no BYO is allowed. “People really appreciate that,” according to Aziz: They know the atmosphere will be festive but not festering; they feel safer—and, she adds with a smile, “on January 1 they’ll be starting the year off without hangovers.”

A safe environment.  Avoiding hassle and harm on New Year’s is a primary concern for many. Pittsburgh’s Cultural District ranks among the safest major center-city areas crime-wise, and the new Pittsburgh Police substation on Liberty Avenue, combined with the legions of event staff and volunteers who are everywhere for Highmark First Night Pittsburgh, should further contribute to safety in every respect.

Fireworks early and late. The Children’s Fireworks launch at 6 p.m. for the benefit of parents with little ones. This also means that any adults who want to leave early can catch a display before the midnight extravaganza fires up.

Puppets on parade.

Art on the march in the Cultural District.

A state-of-the-art parade. Traditional parade elements are great, but a parade with nothing else is so 20th century. The 8 p.m. Allegheny Health Network Parade is an art festival in motion, with giant walking-and-dancing puppets, amazingly decorated “art cars,” and other such features in addition to marching bands, drill teams, and fire trucks with sirens wailing. It will be led by this year’s grand marshal, the noted Pittsburgh artist Randy Gilson, creator of Randyland.

Cheap thrills + easy reservations. The year’s biggest party just might be the best entertainment bargain. As noted, a $10 admission button is good for all attractions, and children 5 and under attend free. The trick is to buy early—online, or at Giant Eagle stores or the Theater Square ticket office—and then stay (or go) online to reserve seats at the indoor shows you want. Even big venues like the Benedum Center can fill up in advance for popular acts, so click the link expeditiously.

And one more thing.

This is Pittsburgh. We don’t drop the ball. Why celebrate the start of a new year by dropping the ball? On the spire atop Penn Avenue Place, the official Future of Pittsburgh Ball RISES as the Countdown to Midnight culminates, and when the magic moment arrives, that ball is where we like to be. Top of the world at the top of the morning!

For More Info …

Visit the Highmark First Night Pittsburgh website, which is comprehensive and has a “Contact Us” link for email queries. This year marks the 24th annual First Night, a production of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust with support from numerous corporate sponsors and foundations. Love, Peace, Pittsburgh is the theme for this year’s evening. Dec. 31 from 6 p.m. – midnight, various locations, Cultural District. Note: Due to the extremely cold weather this year many events have been moved indoors. See the event website above for the latest information.

Photo credits: 2017 Grand Finale and parade puppets, courtesy of Pittsburgh Cultural Trust. Crowd scene, by Martha Rial for EC.

Mike Vargo, a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer, covers theater and arts for Entertainment Central.