A lot has changed in the last ten years in nightlife in Pittsburgh. You can get a ride at 1:45 in the morning within a matter of minutes. The bar scene centralized to South Side after the Strip District club scene imploded before fanning out in a huge way to every corner of the city and even into the suburbs. Lawrenceville has gone from divey, to hip, to hip with douchey pockets moving in. It only seems like a matter of time before the AMPD Group opens a roof top bar with a hot tub likely breeding the super-bug follow up to Zika and a menu that falls well short of mediocre. In the blue collar, artsy spirit of the neighborhood, it’ll be called “Hipster” and will be as hipster as “Local” is local and serve an assortment of “house made” charcuterie that amounts to a bunch of Uncle Charley’s sausage varieties left to dry out on the underneath a radiator.
Besides Lawrenceville, Downtown has gotten a huge boast to its nightlife with some slightly more upscale joints extending business hours into the small hours of the morning. Shadyside remains a strong option for a night out but has a considerably younger feel than it did 10 years ago. Either that or I’m ten years older and I’ve just gotten past the cut off. East Liberty has a real “we’re gentrifiying the place and don’t a give a crap. That’ll be eleven dollars for a three ounce mixture of gin, sours and lavender infused water I gave you” vibe. Even Mt. Washington’s Shiloh St. has become a hotspot. Breweries and multiple suburban iterations of some Pittsburgh city classics have opened up the suburbs to nightlife options.
Fueling the nightlife expansion is a new youthfulness in the city and capital investment. Pittsburgh has solved the policy mystery of attracting early millennials with career prospects by getting them drunk and keeping them drunk, thanks to disposable income leftover from a still reasonably priced housing market. Still, I have to question whether or not we’ve reached a saturation point. Ten years ago, the newest and hottest place on the South Side would be elbow to elbow just past midnight. The Abbey, Upper Lawrenceville’s sprawling new addition, was crowded but had enough space to easily order from without leaning on some sweaty dude just after twelve. Coupled with a walk past a shuttered New Amsterdam and it’s easy to question how much more room for new nightlife there is. Either that or it’s just the churn needed to keep a scene vibrant and fresh.
The expansion of the nightlife has led to an increased offering in live music, something sadly just beginning to enter Pittsburgh’s late night experience a decade ago. In the early days, you’d get a guy with an acoustic guitar playing standards to lure people up to a seldom utilized second floor bar or prolific party bands covering all mid nineties and early 2000’s staples playing three shows a weekend or groups like Irish inspired Ceann who mostly wrote about drinking but also delved into stranger subject matter like imaginary norse scapegoats.
By and large though, the scene in 2006 was crap metal bands composed of a few dudes who had some musical ability on guitar, but by and large could not sing (or even scream properly) or compose music in any coherent manner. God love them, they tried, but they sucked. I sat through a countless number of them before I could see a friends act, Forgotten Nobody. Now broken up, they were a bass heavy power/punk pop trio who churned out some legitimately catchy music. They had their flaws, but they were a breath of fresh air following two hours of garbage that did little more than damage my hearing.
Ten years later and I still had to sit through metal bands before getting to see my friend’s group, though it has improved considerably. The openers now have some serious chops, more expensive equipment, and often did us the courtesy of not trying to sing. While there were a few good songs to start the evening, metal isn’t my thing and I know I’m not alone in saying that. There was still a little too much meandering and a few solid riffs and rhythm sections I enjoyed that were played once and never revisited. Our friend’s act this time is the grunge three-piece who would certainly fit on the Alice in Chains end of the early nineties Seattle spectrum. They feature gritty, but enjoyable vocal styling, a strong bass guitarist with a knee injury that doesn’t seem to heal and to their credit write easy to follow songs. While they operate on the metal fringe, they’re still the easiest band to listen to of any I’ve heard.
This isn’t to say that the Pittsburgh music scene hasn’t had its wins over the past decade. Bizarre rap offerings that dominated locally in the early 2000’s like Grand Buffet made way to more mainstream successes Mac Miller and Wiz Khalifa, with the latter ranking among the area’s most noteworthy national pop stars ever. Though Cleveland could also claim him, the South Hills’ Girl Talk has gained national attention with his brilliant mashups. The rock scene, however, has gone largely unnoticed. Meanwhile, Philadelphia’s produced indie darlings like the War on Drugs, Santigold, Strand of Oaks, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, and Kurt Vile, where only Donora seems to flirt with success here.
Something’s holding Pittsburgh back and it’s certainly not opportunities to play and be heard. There is plenty of nightlife, plenty of venues and a plentiful audience in the target market. So much has changed in this city, but the metal remains. It could be that our most often heard style from this writer’s perspective is a little outdated. Maybe this isn’t a bad thing, as it does feel like a great tie in to a city that’s losing some of it’s hokey, traditional feel as lower middle class residents get priced out, but in a town that has taken steps into culinary, technological and cultural cutting edge, why shouldn’t music follow? Metal should be able to coexist with something more.