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8046Clip: Pittsburgh CP Music Year in Review

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  • Carl Zimring
    Jan 1, 2004
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      CP Music Year in Review
      Six great things that happened in Pittsburgh Music, 2003


      Justin Hopper, music editor at CP (not necessarily in any particular order):

      3 Generations Walking burned down dance halls from London to Tokyo and
      back. Pittsburgh-NYC connection 3GW was brought to the forefront of the
      spiritual house movement, putting organic and acoustic instrumentation and
      styles (reggae and Latin rhythms, mid-tempo rockers and atmospheric swells)
      back into an otherwise tepid pool of dance-music status quo.

      David Long went on a 12-month bluegrass rampage. A hundred gigs or more in
      2003, plus the release of Midnight From Memphis in March, took him from
      mostly unknown mandolin upstart to "the up-and-coming [Bill] Monroe-style
      mandolist, making waves among those 'in the know'..." He's gone from a
      student to a partner of Mike Compton's, spending December touring with the
      man best known for picking mando on O Brother, Where Art Thou, in
      preparation for the release in 2004 of a Compton & Long duets album.

      Modey Lemon (above) recklessly embraced rock. Modey Lemon kept the
      Pittsburgh-rock torch aloft with three important steps: a release (Thunder
      + Lightning) that trumpeted mighty stirrings; a new member and outlook,
      which renewed both the band's riveting onstage abandon and offstage
      commitment; and constant touring both with high-profile headliners (Shonen
      Knife, Warlocks) and in places most Steel City bands only daydream about
      (Australia, the U.K., Canada ... umm, okay, I guess nobody daydreams about

      Weird 2003 success stories: Beam/Opek/Thoth Trio proved that unique artists
      can (gasp!) draw crowds. This incestuous axis packed in crowds (to
      different degrees) while playing music that, on paper, looks like a club's
      nightmare. Beam released a weird and wonderful album (Inception) and sold
      out its South Side haunts with all-improvisational drum and bass/hip-hop
      jazz. Opek continued teaching lessons to all comers at its monthly Club
      Café residency, regularly packed near capacity, with Sun Ra tunes and
      inspirations of otherworldly origin. And Thoth Trio began commanding crowds
      with naught but drums, sax and bass of similarly quirky ilk. The Working
      Poor didn't need no stinkin' records or articles or publicists or anything
      to become one of the most talked-about Pittsburgh bands of the year. All
      they did is write brilliant songs and play 'em in a style no one else even
      tries. Add the threat of implosion at any given moment and a healthy dose
      of awe inspired amongst local musos, and you've got bodies in venues. Grand
      Buffet coupled onstage insanity with on-record cleverness, threw the whole
      meal in the back of the van and toured, and toured, and toured. The result?
      There's at least one Grand Buffet fanatic in every city in America -- and
      most of Europe. And he's telling his friends ...

      Metropol closed. I've been arguing for ages what a bad thing this would be,
      and those arguments still stand: trickle-down means that Clear Channel
      books more big-ass shows at Club Laga and even Mr. Small's, leaving fewer
      slots for the mid-sized stuff that local promoters such as Joker
      Productions bring in; fewer (and less tempting) slots for those venues to
      book the bigger local shows they've done; and fewer opening-act slots for
      local bands (Joker, for example, almost always has a local band on its
      bills). But ya know what? Metropol was the worst venue I've ever seen a
      live band in. Anywhere. No one denied that it was never meant to host live
      music -- Metropol's layout was dance-club by design, with areas
      specifically made to not have sightlines to the stage. Here's to its
      relegation back to its intended purpose.

      Pittsburgh took notice of -- umm -- Pittsburgh. It's happened before, but
      not quite to this extent. The Sprout Fund's "100 Bands" event at Club Café
      galvanized mainstream interest in Pittsburgh's underground; irregularly
      held guerrilla events like Element 5's Momentum series and the Flux events
      brought hundreds, even thousands, of people to see artists they'd never
      even heard of before; the release of Advanced Calculus, WRCT-FM's
      compilation of Pittsburgh artists recorded live on the air, showed
      everybody that a local-band comp didn't have to be poorly recorded, poorly
      publicized, poorly distributed or provincial -- AC may be a regional comp,
      but it's also just a good disc; big-name local artists held big-ass
      CD-release gigs that re-sparked interest in the scene outside of the usual
      other-band-members set, as well as in mainstream music media (the dailies,
      WYEP, Clear Channel radio and promotions).

      Five brilliant musical offerings CP never covered

      Justin Hopper, music editor at CP (not necessarily in any particular order):

      Gotan Project, La Revancha del Tango (Beggars). Argentine tango in a
      downtempo Euro-dance-floor vibe could've been such a bad idea. But it
      wasn't: Gotan Project plays Frank Zappa and Astor Piazzolla with equal
      amounts of soul and ease, and manages to thread chilled dance music with
      something it frequently lacks: passion.

      Dizzee Rascal (above), Boy in da Corner (XL). The "It" boy of 2003 won't
      get official U.S. release 'til January, but since every chip-on-shoulder
      music critic is including it, I'll jump on the bandwagon and admit: This is
      some of the most original hip-hop music in ages. Half East End gangsta rap,
      half schoolboy tears and longing, all with s-s-s-syncopated rhythms and
      weirdo bass-and-treble fluctuation that'd make Dr. Dre take notes. All from
      a teen-ager -- which makes you wonder if he'll ever be able to follow it up.

      African Head Charge, Shrunken Head (On-U). Along with producer Adrian
      Sherwood's artist-album debut (Never Trust a Hippy), On-U's release of this
      AHC collection proved that the venerable post-dub label has had more
      influence on modern music than will ever be spoken aloud.

      Missy Elliott, This is Not a Test (Elektra/Asylum). There's some real dreck
      on here, but for the good stuff is such an invigorating combination of 2005
      riddims, non-boring socially conscious lyrics, humor, and pure
      top-down-and-hands-in-air uplift that a few rotten eggs only make Missy and
      Timbaland seem human.

      Van Morrison and Solomon Burke live in Boston, June 2003. The audience may
      leave a bad taste in the mouth -- after all, where would Van be today
      without crystal merchants, aging massage therapists and Rod Stewart fans?
      But when Solomon Burke waddled onstage and plopped into his throne, wearing
      a crown and looking like he ate Van (himself no weight slouch) for lunch,
      an amphitheater full of ex-hippies turned into a debaucherous
      chitlin-circuit wood-paneled hall. Four hundred pounds, and the ladies
      couldn't keep from shrieking. Likewise, Van, drunk on piss and vinegar,
      misanthrope'd his way into the hearts of dozens of all cynics present,
      berating his band and silencing hippies with near-violent vocal turns.

      Five "oldies" that made my list

      Justin Hopper, music editor at CP:

      MIDIval Punditz, MIDIval Punditz (Six Degrees). A 2002 release that took a
      while to pick up -- shouldn't have waited. Underground South Asian bhangra
      taken in a new direction: drum and bass, click and glitch, Indian classical
      and Punjabi rhythms all stewed together in a way not just "cool," but
      exciting by these New Delhi laptop traditionalists.

      Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, various recordings. Sometimes all it
      takes is a new context: "Dawn," at the end of a Sopranos fourth-season
      episode, became desperate and terrified in that shrieking high tenor;
      "Stay" is as sexual as the new Missy Elliot (and ripe material for a
      lecherous Nick Cave cover); "You're Ready Now" makes it hurt to stay seated.

      Van Morrison, Goin' Down Wembley (live), 1996/1998 (bootleg). A lesson
      learned from a master: When, in one of the disc's near-silent moments, an
      audience member screams for "Brown Eyed Girl," Van responds in his usual
      Gollum-esque hermit's first-person plural. "That was then, this is now.
      This is all happening in present tense. That was how we made a living. This
      is what we do for fun."

      Various artists, After Hours -- Northern Soul Masters (WEA) and Northern
      Soul Floorshakers (Music Club). Ike & Tina prove they founded rock as we
      know it with "Somebody Somewhere Needs Me"; Willie Hutch's immeasurable
      "Lucky to Be Loved By You"; the Exciters get lyrically bizarre on "Blowin'
      Up My Mind"; Ella Fitzgerald goes soul on "Get Ready"; Johnny Copeland's
      catharsis etched on vinyl, "Sufferin' City" -- of the hundreds in
      existence, the two best northern soul compilations available, hands down.

      The Copper Family (above), Come Write Me Down (Topic).
      Rough-around-the-edges harmony singing from a family that can trace its
      Southern English folk-song lineage back to the 18th century -- at least.
      These recordings from the '50s and '60s are full of earth, mortar and
      strong ale; the songs, even if it's unnoticed by the stoic singers,
      whitewashed with only the thinnest layer of Christianity over more ancient

      Five things I'll remember from this year

      Ben Opie, CAPA music instructor; bandleader/reeds player with Opek and
      Thoth Trio (in no particular order):

      CAPA High School moves Downtown. Pittsburgh's arts high school relocates to
      the Cultural District, into a beautiful new facility, and I remain
      gainfully employed.

      Jason Moran, The Bandwagon (Blue Note). The best thing I heard on CD this
      year. It's a fun and loose piano trio session overall, but the tracks where
      he transcribes and builds compositions on found recordings of people
      speaking are startling.

      Ravi Shankar at the Benedum. I saw Ravi in Pittsburgh some 17 or so years
      ago. That concert was frightening in its intensity; this one was merely

      Dave Holland Quintet at the Manchester Craftsmans Guild. Oh yeah.
      Intellectual concepts applied to music that MOVES.

      Ursula Oppens playing two Conlon Nancarrow canons at the Music on the Edge
      Series. Astounding. Looking totally relaxed onstage, Ursula plays these
      devilish works in which her two hands are playing two entirely different
      tempos simultaneously. I had to remember to breathe when she was done.

      A varied Top 10 of 2003

      Kyle Smith, morning host at WYEP-FM

      10. Top release: The Jayhawks, Rainy Day Music (Universal). Gopher State
      band makes a keeper for years to come. No-frills production, sweet melodies
      and harmonies with nods to the Byrds and Everly Brothers, and a country
      sound that's all their own. Plus, Rainy Day Music is a perfect fit for
      73.2% of the days in Pittsburgh.

      9. Top e-mail from my mother (in Minnesota) after she listens to my show
      online: Please repeat in your best Fargo accent, "Kyle, I'm very tired of
      hearing that depressing brat Dave Matthews. I see and hear him everywhere I
      go. I could shape him up with a good ham sandwich and a day at the beach!!
      Have you seen him Kyle? He looks like someone has been feeding him with a
      slingshot! Love, Mom." Extra box of chocolate for Mom this year -- and a
      Dave Matthews poster.

      8. Best live show in Pittsburgh: Michael Franti & Spearhead at Mr. Small's
      Theater. Franti is an honest, emotional, and compelling performer.
      Reminiscent of Gil Scott-Heron and Marvin Gaye, the show left me energized
      and with a little better outlook on some of the social and political issues
      we are all dealing with. Everyone Deserves Music, indeed.

      7. Best breakfast to cause a 5 a.m. burping firefit: Odd food becomes
      normal when you rise at 4 a.m. each day. Funyuns dipped in organic
      strawberry yogurt, Cogo's Worldcup coffee, orange Gatorade and a spicy
      shrimp tortellini dish made for a pleasantly painful four hours in the box
      one morning. Rolaids, anyone?

      6. Local music compilation: Advanced Calculus. A 2-CD set of 28 local bands
      recorded live on WRCT, the CMU college station. Great packaging, well
      recorded and produced, and a way to get the good word out about the
      Pittsburgh music scene.

      5. Worst move by a media organization: PCNC/WPXI not renewing NightTalk
      host John McIntire's contract after seven successful years of building an
      audience and bringing local cable viewers information, commentary, local
      folks, and many hilarious moments. Instead we get, "Tonight at 11 on 11
      we'll go live to the scene of a shooting, we'll try to scare the hell out
      of you with the weather, and we'll bring you a story about a woman who woke
      up on fire!" Bottom feeders.

      4. Independent music labels. If downloading music from the Internet is
      destroying "music" as big-label and corporate execs would have you believe,
      why aren't independent record labels whining about fans sharing music with
      one another? Hats off to Righteous Babe, Saddle Creek, Dischord, and many
      others that continue to survive and thrive in a music industry that is more
      screwed up than our local government.

      3. Most appropriate circus-music CD: It's one that crossed my desk early
      this year, and gets played at high volumes every time I read about city
      budgetary problems, and then continue to read how local political types
      can't compromise or agree on anything to better off the people of the city.
      At least I can pretend I'm on a merry-go-round while listening, reading,
      and shaking my giant pumpkin head. Clowns anyone?

      2. Best performance by a pouty rock star: Up-and-coming singer-songwriter
      and whiner Damien Rice, in his own personal issues with media attention and
      being interviewed live on-air. Does he want to perform for an audience or
      just for his friends?

      1. Things that make me happy I'm here rather than there: Free outdoor
      summer music with the Three Rivers Arts Festival, county parks shows, and
      Market Square; Flux events; being able to sit almost anywhere you want at
      PNC Park by June 1; great local independent record stores; working with a
      bunch of talented, motivated, and creative people.