Pittsburgh music got outta town in 2006

A breakout year

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This could have been the best year for Pittsburgh music nationally since the City of Champions days, when the Iron City Houserockers, The Silencers, Norm Nardini and Donnie Iris all had major label contracts.

In 2006 the sound from Pittsburgh was much more diverse, as we had the likes of Girl Talk, Anti-Flag, Wiz Khalifa, the Dirty Faces and Weird Paul all touring and gathering attention in the rock press.

That's two punk bands, a mashup artist, a rapper and a lo-fi "freak folk" artist. And that's not even mentioning the return of Wexford's own Christina Aguilera, the rise of the Indiana County-bred teen-pop girl group Everlife or the amazing exploits of TV on the Radio (featuring two Pittsburgh members).

Here's a look at the biggest local pop music stories of 2006:

WIZ KHALIFA: STAR IN THE MAKING

Rolling Stone calls rapper Wiz Khalifa one of the new faces to watch.
Click photo for larger image.

It was such a good year, Pittsburgh even had a breakout hip-hop star in 18-year-old Wiz Khalifa, an Allderdice High grad who made his debut on Rostrum Records with "Show and Prove," a record that drew comparisons to the Wu-Tang Clan and Three 6 Mafia.

It landed him a feature in Rolling Stone as one of the New Faces to Watch, a review in the January Vibe and a holler in Mass Appeal as the No. 1 up-and-comer for 2007. Khalifa seems unfazed. "I take those type of things in stride," he says, "and just hold on to them. It's really exciting to see that, but I have a lot more to do."

Among the things to do is field numerous calls from major labels wanting to make him a star.

"We do have a lot of companies calling," says Arthur Pitt of Rostrum. "We're definitely willing to start talking to majors."

Khalifa (real name Cameron Thomaz) was an Army brat born in North Dakota who moved to Pittsburgh in 1996 and started rapping when he was 9, inspired by Jay-Z. As a Pittsburgh-based rapper, he hasn't had a lot of models for mainstream success.

"There's a couple people," he says, "artists who didn't get as much recognition as I did that made it possible for me get to the point where I am now."

The highlight of his year, he says, was the CD release party earlier this month at the Brew House on the South Side that drew 500 people.

"It was all Pittsburgh artists and lot of people from around here came and showed a lot of love."

ANTI-FLAG'S MAJOR MOVE

Bill Wade, Post-Gazette
Anti-Flag, from left, Justin Sane, Chris #2, Pat Thetic and Chris Head, signed with RCA but did not abandon its political activism.
Click photo for larger image.

The spiky political punks totally sold out, signing to RCA and playing a patriotic Super Bowl halftime show with Jessica Simpson, Toby Keith and the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders.

Actually, only the RCA part is true.

Anti-Flag went about its usual business of taking down the Bush administration with "For Blood and Empire," a world tour and a headlining slot on the Vans Warped Tour. Anti-Flag also made its network debut, ripping through "Die for Your Government" to a circle pit on "Jimmy Kimmel Live."

The band also kept its hand in political activism, this time supporting the troops. Anti-Flag teamed with Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., to help pass an amendment to study the health effects of depleted uranium in equipment used by U.S. soldiers.

DIRTY FACES CLEAN UP

Dirty Faces produced one of the most hair-raising punk/jam records of the year.
Click photo for larger image.

One of the most hair-raising punk/jam records of the year came from this band of wily Steelers-loving veterans led by Iggy Poppish frontman T. Glitter.

The band, on the Indiana-based Brah Records, toured the Midwest and the Dirty South, played the CMJ festival in New York with other bands from Brah/Jagjaguwar and the Oneida CD release party at the Knitting Factory.

The Faces also drew some high-profile reviews from Pitchfork and The Village Voice, which praised the band's "excellent, batter-dipped boogie sludge punk" and said "There's a heavy air of sleaze to these Philly swillers, so should they invade your local dive, keep your gal a safe distance away ..." OK, so they got the city wrong ...

WEIRD PAUL IS DISCOVERED

Singer songwriter Paul Petroskey, aka Weird Paul, "got into a new groove" with the help of a computer.
Click photo for larger image.

After decades of working under the radar, indie-folk singer-songwriter Weird Paul had his breakout with the release of "Weird Paul: A Lo-Fi Documentary," a film by Stacey Goldschmidt that premiered at the Harris Theater and then went on to play the Chicago Underground Film Festival and the Leeds International Film Festival in England. The film featured interviews with such indie heroes as Calvin Johnson, Lou Barlow (Sebadoh) and Britt Daniel (Spoon).

Along with that, his video to "I Got Drunk at Chuck E. Cheese" was required viewing at YouTube.com (go there and type in "Weird Paul"). He closed out the year with the release of "Medically Necessary," a new CD that includes his hysterical should-be-a-hit "Wine Coolers" (watch for that coming on YouTube soon).

Did he expect all this excitement in 2006?

"Not at all," he says. "I started out the year, I was feeling a little down on myself. I haven't been doing a lot musically in the last few years. I just sort of got into a new groove here. I never had a computer before, but I got one and it opened up a new recording world that made it more fun for me than it had been in a long time. It really inspired me to try some new things."

HILLBILLIES HIT THE HIGHWAY

Rust Records
The PovertyNeck Hillbillies played before huge crowds this year and released a CD, "Don't Look Back." However, to the dismay of some fans, steel guitar player Crafty, fourth from left, is no longer in the band.
Click photo for larger image.

Six years ago, the PovertyNeck Hillbillies were a little-known country band completely out of place at the Graffiti Rock Challenge.

They started this year playing for 40,000 fans at a Steelers pep rally at Heinz Field, and the highlights kept coming, including a crowd of 4,000 at the Chevrolet Amphitheatre and opening slot for Big & Rich and Trace Adkins at the massive Fan Fair CMA Music Festival.

In June, the Fayette County country band released "Don't Look Back," with an accompanying DVD, on the Cleveland-based Rust Records, giving them global Sony Music distribution.

The Hillbillies, who parted with steel guitar player Crafty (to the dismay of some fans), also played the Jamboree in the Hills and toured the country, including Vegas gigs with Toby Keith and Kenny Chesney. Getting back to the Steelers, in October the Hillbillies recorded the video for its new single, "Mr. Right Now," with Mr. Ben Roethlisberger.

ZOMBI AND THE DON

Instrumental powerhouse Don Caballero re-emerged from the shadows with a new lineup and "World Class Listening Problem," its first record in six years. The new edition Don finds drummer Damon Che with Jason Jouver on bass and Gene Doyle and Jeff Ellsworth on guitars.

Che told the PG, "We've outlived so many different labels that people have put on us. You want to say we're jazzy? Go ahead and say we're jazzy. You want to say we're math metal? Go ahead and say that. We're probably going to outlive the label you put on us because we've done it so many times before."

Don Cab released the record in a sold-out Garfield Artworks show with Blunderbuss and Relapse labelmates Zombi, who were releasing "Surface to Air," a stunning piece of cinematic progressive rock.

Zombi -- Steve Moore and Anthony Paterra -- had a huge year playing a total of 135 shows, including its first European tour, and three tours of the States and Canada, including a set at the prestigious South by Southwest conference.

JOE AND BILLY KEEP GOING AND GOING ...

Before it appeared on Joe Grushecky's new album, "A Good Life," the song "Code of Silence" had already won a performance Grammy for Bruce Springsteen. The new Grushecky CD found the hometown rocker and the Boss barking out the vocals together on the song they co-wrote a few years back. It led off a fine new album that revealed Grushecky as still passionate and fiery but also comfortable with where he is in life.

The Philadelphia Inquirer wrote, "The Pittsburgh rocker continues to walk it like he talks it." Grushecky capped off the year by being featured on NPR and performing with the Boss at the annual Light of Day concert in New Jersey.

The Billy Price Band toured extensively and released the widely acclaimed "East End Avenue," of which Blues Revue wrote, "If Billy Price represents a Pittsburgh soul scene, East End Avenue begs the question: Why isn't Pittsburgh on the same map as the Motor City and Memphis?"

Price and the band are nominated in three categories in the Blues Critic Awards 2006 for Contemporary Blues: Best Soul Blues Album, Blues Singer Male and Horn Section (Rick Matt, Eric DeFade).

WELCOME TO LARRY-VILLE

Hipsters have been taking up residence in affordable Lawrenceville for a few years, and now the music scene is following them.

The Thunderbird Cafe was already doing blues, rock and alt-country shows. This year, the Lawrenceville Moose, way down on 51st Street, became a player as a rental hall, with shows by indie bands like Islands, the Queers and Witchcraft.

One of the biggest local shows of the year -- aside from those Clarks and Rusted Root gigs -- was a sold-out November gathering with indie heavy-hitters Girl Talk, the Modey Lemon and Centipede E'est.

DEBUTS AND SIDE PROJECTS

It was a big year for local artists stepping outside their usual gigs. Greg Joseph, songwriter and bassist for the Clarks, made his solo debut with "American Diary," an exercise in heartland rock.

Phil Boyd, frontman of the Modey Lemon, released "Phil Boyd and the Hidden Twin," 15 tracks of offbeat psychedelic folk.

As usual, there was action in the Rusted Root camp. Jenn Wertz, a new mom, collected assorted tracks and released them as "Shotgun Sessions," and frontman Michael Glabicki debuted his solo band at the Hard Rock Cafe.

Chris Cannon, formerly of the Johnsons Big Band, returned with the debut of Skinks, his stripped-down, Beatlesque new band.

David Bernabo not only contributed to the eighth Vale and Year record, he issued a solo album, "Word Roses," described as a "meditative song cycle," on Sort of Records, a new Pittsburgh label.

MORE NEWS

Ed Masley, longtime PG pop music critic and frontman of the Breakup Society, left the city he loves for Phoenix, where he is living a parallel life in the desert, writing about music and assembling a left-coast version of the band.

Hardcore band Caustic Christ, made up of members of Aus Rotten and The Pist, released its second LP, "Lycanthropy," and did a tour of Europe. Cult Punk wrote "Caustic Christ have to be on anyone's list of top 10 current American hardcore bands, and this album is a solid showing."

In addition to Khalifa, the hip-hop scene was active with releases by Damien Voxx and Scotty Coles.

Bobby LaMonde split with three members of the Science Fiction Idols, who went on to form The CosmoSonics. LaMonde returned late in the year with a revamped version of the Idols.

The Cynics returned from 15 dates in Europe, including their London debut, and played their first show here since 2004 at the Rex in April.

In February, Killed By Drama won the 20th annual Graffiti Rock Challenge. This year the Challenge, at Moondog's, was challenged by the Rex Rock Rumble, were the winner was Shatterpak. Missing Pages won at the Station Square Street Jam.

After disappointing returns on its Universal debut, Cherry Monroe parted ways with the label and its Youngstown-based singer and songwriter, Matt Toka.

Pittsburgh folk group The NewLanders released "Born of Fire: Songs of Steel and History," a collection of mostly old songs written about Western Pennsylvania and performed in contemporary folk arrangements. It went hand in hand with an exhibition at the Westmoreland Museum of American Art in Greensburg.

Under the direction of Curt Gettman (aka Unclecrut), local underground musicians and artists joined forces for "Unicorn Mountain Anthology Vol. 2" and "Wolfman's Got Nards: A Compendium of New American Monsters," a pair of acclaimed art/comic books accompanied by a music collection and live shows that included the likes of Don Caballero, Zombi and Black Moth Super Rainbow.

Post-hardcore band Young Men's Dept. broke up, and the rhythm section of Jeff Schreckengost and Dan Tomko (who played together in 1985) took its abrasive sound to the new band Ludlow. Guitarist Mike Siciliano joined Brain Handle, which released two 7-inch singles and is planning a recording on the Feral Ward label.

Local acoustic musicians paid tribute to Joni Mitchell at the Make Your Mark Artspace & Coffeehouse and Simon and Garfunkel at Modern Formations.

Looking a bit beyond these borders, Aguilera hit the top of the charts with her retro-return, "Back to Basics," and girl group Everlife (formerly of Indiana, Indiana County, now of Nashville) signed to Disney's Hollywood/Buena Vista Records, toured with the Cheetah Girls and had a song on the "Hanna Montana" soundtrack.

Other artists with notable releases: Blindsider, Boogie Hustlers, Built Upon Frustration, Camera, Chaibaba, Chancellor Pink, Conelrad, Mark Cyler, Daryl Fleming, The Gothees, Eric Graf, Eric Himan, Peter King, Mandrake Project, Microwaves, Nomad, Omega Love, Pleasure Technicians, Poogie Bell Band, Radio Beats, The Sea Like Lead, Shade, Strangeway, Stuck in Standby, Vale and Year, The Working Poor.

RIP: D.C. Fitzgerald, Wanda Ricker (Teen Riot) and local jazz beacons Walt Harper, Carl Arter and Danny Conn.


PG pop music critic Scott Mervis can be reached at smervis@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2576.


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