It was supposed to be another down year for the concert business, and there were certainly some cracks showing, with a number of cancellations, from Christina Aguilera to Kings of Leon.
But with two new significant venues opening and Pittsburgh promoters going full-tilt on bookings, the concert-industry recession didn't seem to hit us too hard.
The quality was high, with a steady flow of rock legends, cult legends, crowd-pleasers and up-and-comers.
1. "Live Forever: A Bob Marley Celebration" (Benedum, Sept. 23): Rita Marley prayed that the spirit of Bob Marley would visit the Benedum Center that night. Where else would it be? In the same building 30 years to the day of his final show, Julian, Stephen and Damian Marley led a reggae charge with an unstoppable six-piece band. Slamming through the climax of "Get Up, Stand Up," "Jammin'." "Exodus," "Could You Be Loved" and "One Love" the vibe was nothing short of ecstatic. Kudos to organizer Ed Traversari for pulling off this beautiful event.
2. The Avett Brothers (Ches-A-Rena, June 6): Of the many Avett appearances in Pittsburgh, this was probably the best. "I remember seeing some footage of Buddy Holly playing in a skating rink," Seth Avett said. "I always wanted to play in a skating rink." Buddy Holly never could have imagined what they'd do with their insanely high energy punkabilly. It was so hot the walls were sweating, which only added to the fever.
3. John Mellencamp (Heinz Hall, Nov. 20): It's not like John Mellencamp to rank this high on such a list. But, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, take note: The Indiana rocker found a way of presenting all sides of his music, and personality, in an exquisite set that ranged from accordion-violin duets to all-out heartland rock.
4. Bruce Springsteen with Joe Grushecky and the Houserockers (Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall, Nov. 3-4): Bruce played only a handful of shows this year and you could feel it in his enthusiasm for these gigs. Veering from the usual Springsteen/Houserockers playlist, he ventured into deep cuts like "A Good Man Is Hard to Find (Pittsburgh)" and "Save My Love," rocked out on classics like "Pink Cadillac" and "Darkness on the Edge of Town" and relished his role as lead guitarist. Of course, Joe and the Houserockers more than hold their own.
5. Lady Gaga (Consol Energy Center, Sept. 5): We've seen pre-fab hitmakers in all shapes and sizes. Lady Gaga isn't one of them. She sang, she danced, she played, she bled (fake though it was), and she gave her little monsters an unforgettable evening of uplift while cracking us up with Steelers jokes and Terrible Towel-twirling. In the end, the greatest spectacle going didn't overwhelm the Lady's sizable talent.
6. Paul McCartney (Consol Energy Center, Aug. 18-19): He made history at the Civic Arena all those decades ago with the Beatles and hadn't played here for 20 years. He was the natural choice for the grand opening of the new arena, and Sir Paul came and conquered, sounding more youthful than he has any right to be through nearly three hours of beloved classics.
7. My Morning Jacket (Trib Amphitheatre, Aug. 27): The Kentucky band, which spent a few years outta sight, outta mind, returned with a vengeance for a long and LOUD show that unleashed its full sonic range, from Band-like jams to Radiohead-inspired art-rock frenzy.
8. Bonnie Prince Billy (Warhol Museum, Aug. 21): The indie icon from Louisville, who inspired many over the past decade to return to simple, quiet folk-based roots music, arrived on tour with the Cairo Gang, concentrating on songs from "The Wonder Show of the World." The best comparison I can make, for the classic-rock fans out there, is David Crosby fronting the Grateful Dead, with a touch of Velvet Underground tension. With the acoustics immaculate and the audience hushed, every sound was meant to be savored.
9. Jay-Z/Trey Songz/Young Jeezy (Mellon Arena, March 16): The energy in the room was off the hook, starting with Trey's sexy opening set. The extremely loud mix wasn't perfect and Jay could have gotten more out of that 10-piece band, but he also made his point loudly why he's the reigning King of Hip-Hop, from the basic turntable beats of "Reasonable Doubt" stuff right up to the anthemic "Empire State of Mind."
10. Rush (Mellon Arena, Sept. 16): We got the "holy rock trinity" in its full sonic arena-rock glory, not only playing all of the classic "Moving Pictures," but rolling through hits and deep cuts in a generous three-hour tour de force. Do we even have to bother saying that it was epic? Or do you already know that roof-raising singer Geddy Lee (in a hilarious RASH T-shirt!), guitar hero Alex Lifeson and drum god Neil Peart are a Swiss watch?
• Most honorable mention: 21/2 hours in, Jeff Tweedy didn't wanna quit as Wilco lavished its faithful with more than 35 (really good) songs at Carnegie Music Hall.
• Best moment: Streamers, balloons, confetti and frontman Wayne Coyne's giant hamster ball made for a dazzling opening to the Flaming Lips show at Station Square. Even more stunning was that the band miked the tracks alongside the venue, and right at the peak of the show, with the band performing its epic "Do You Realize?," a train roared past, turning the whole scene cosmic.
• Most Pleasant Surprise: Question Mark and the Mysterians coming out and absolutely killing it on "96 Tears" at the WQED Oldies Spectacular. Someone needs to bring them back for a full set.
• Biggest dud: Somehow, Stone Temple Pilots started strong and then fizzled fast. The bad miking, uneven pacing and lack of warmth and enthusiasm didn't help.
• Biggest bummer: Rain soaked the Bamboozle Roadshow and shows by Tom Petty, B.B. King and Eric Burden. The biggest bummer was a pre-concert storm wiping out the DEVO show at Station Square.
• Wildest sets: In his trademark whites and swinging hair, Andrew W.K. attacked the Warped stage like a modern-day Jerry Lee Lewis. By the end of his set, it was a frat party. Meanwhile, the DevilDriver circle pit at Ozzfest was more like a street fight.
• Worst concert: It was hard to tell if it was shtick or if Nickelback singer Chad Kroeger is really that unlikable.
• Biggest new spectacle: Toss-up between Lady Gaga and Black Eyed Peas, who came with a stage that looked like the set of a Hollywood sci-fi blockbuster and rolled out robot suits, ramps, risers, lasers, fog, confetti, a flying cycle for Taboo and enough wardrobe changes to require a separate truck.
• Biggest old spectacle: Roger Waters pulled the 30-year-old rock opera "The Wall" out of mothballs and gave it a technological upgrade at Consol Energy Center. It launched with flag-waving storm troopers, Roman candles and a fiery plane crash and moved on to wall-building. Musically, "The Wall" gets pretty dreary and incoherent in the second half, or it would be in the top 10.
• Most disappointing legend: Toss-up between Eric Clapton, who seemed slightly disinterested, and Bob Dylan, whose pipes were more haggard than usual. You can also throw in Kris Kristofferson, who proved to be too quiet and low-key for a big Three Rivers Arts Festival crowd.
• Best comeback: Heart's Ann and Nancy Wilson were both on top of their game at Station Square.
• Too big for the room: Thanks to Opus One, the alt/indie crowd at Mr. Smalls was treated to two marquee bands -- Interpol and Smashing Pumpkins -- that were testing things out for bigger gigs.
• Best acoustic jams: Jorma Kaukonen and David Bromberg in a stunning song swap at the Hazlett, and obscure legend Bert Jansch sounding like three players at once at the First Unitarian Church.
• Sweetest pairings: A headliner couldn't be found for a proper Mellon Arena finale, so it fell to the already booked James Taylor-Carole King Troubadours concert, which had no shortage of golden hits and sweet rapport. Along similar lines, the Swell Season was swell once again at the Byham.
• Concerts I most regret missing: Eddy Current Suppression Ring at Gooski's, because reports are that it was epic; Sleigh Bells at the Brillobox; Iron Maiden at First Niagara Pavilion; and Richard Thompson at the Byham.
• Most dramatic exit: Matt Berninger, of The National, walked atop the seats right through the middle of the Carnegie Library of Homestead crowd, still singing, and out the front door, where he greeted the fans.
• Best displays of Black and Gold pride: For the opening month of Stage AE, Pittsburgh had two nontraditional local headliners -- Girl Talk and Wiz Khalifa -- who were able to sell out four nights, for a total crowd of around 9,600 people. There were Terrible Towels twirling at both, and a good time was had by all.