A look back at the biggest stories of 2012 in rock, pop and hip-hop
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1. Wiz and Mac sell out
In the first 30 years of hip-hop, Pittsburgh had little luck in producing a bona fide rap star while seeing most of the legends pass through here: from Run-DMC to Jay-Z to Eminem.
Through all that time, there was never a hip-hop show that invaded Burgettstown like it was a Jimmy Buffett concert. Amazingly, the first hip-hop to sell out in B-town was headlined by a pair of Pittsburgh city kids, Wiz Khalifa and Mac Miller, on their Under the Influence Tour in August. It was also the first time local artists sold out the Pavilion since Rusted Root in 1995.
Miller took the stage in a Pirates cap, Heath Miller 83 jersey and a cast on his hand, shouting, "It looks like a Dave Matthews concert in here!" In only his second time opening for fellow Allderdice grad Khalifa, the Point Breeze native kept the crowd hyped with early viral "hits," "Blue Slide Park" tracks and heavy "Macadelic" stuff.
As usual, the lanky Khalifa oozed charisma and fulfilled his promise of not sticking to genre by adding a live band that mixed in reggae, rock, funk and jazz.
It was another productive year for both of them. Khalifa dropped the "Taylor Allderdice" and "Cabin Fever 2" mixtapes before delivering the "O.N.I.F.C." album this week. He scored another hit single with "Work Hard, Play Hard" (No. 17), but got his biggest exposure taking a verse on the chart-topping Maroon 5 single "Payphone." Earlier in the year, Khalifa purchased a home in Canonsburg and proposed to fiance Amber Rose, who is expecting their first child.
Miller played big festivals like Bonnaroo and released his seventh mixtape "Macadelic," along with singles from his forthcoming collaboration with Pharrell, "Pink Slime." He announced that his next album, "Watching Movies With the Sound Off," would arrive early next year.
2. Anti-Flag conquers five continents
The tireless Anti-Flag released another raging punk album, "The General Strike," dealing with the economic crisis in harsh terms, and celebrated on a Sunday night in March before a modest-sized crowd at Altar Bar.
But, man, did Anti-Flag kill it outside these boundaries, playing more than 100 shows on five continents, beginning and now ending in Australia. Where do we even start?
Maybe with Poland.
A-F took the stage there to an insane, throbbing mob of more than 300,000 at the Przystanek Woodstock, Europe's biggest festival.
"We've played some pretty big festivals before," says frontman Justin Sane, "but this festival is by far the biggest thing we've ever done, so there was a lot of anticipation and excitement for it. Maybe a few butterflies but I think there was more excitement to rock the faces off of more than 300,000 people. At that point in the year we had probably played 60 to 70 shows, so as a rock unit we were a fine-tuned machine and more than prepared."
The singer-guitarist, "questionable" on the injury sheet, faced the Polish throng with a head cold and pulled leg muscle, which he says "isn't really how one wants to go into the biggest show of his life. I popped a few Advil, downed a couple of Red Bulls and just focused on performing our songs the way I would at any other show -- that and I prayed that all that Red Bull didn't give me a bleeping heart attack!"
In its concerts in Berlin and Hamburg in June, A-F was one of the first bands to stand up for Pussy Riot after the Russian band was arrested and charged with hooliganism. It also released a cover of the embattled Russian band's "Punk Prayer," followed by two benefit concerts for the group.
Stateside, Anti-Flag visited Occupy Wall Street last year. In 2012, its song "Nothing Recedes Like Progress" landed on the star-studded "Occupy This Album" compilation. At the SXSW Conference in Austin, Anti-Flag joined Tom Morello (of Rage Against the Machine) in a late-night, impromptu Occupy protest gig that got shut down by police.
In Pittsburgh, it came through as one of the headliners of the Vans Warped Tour, and played to a packed crowd at the First Niagara Pavilion. It will end 2012 with a midnight performance in Melbourne, Australia, at the Pyramid Rocks Festival and will release an anti-police brutality vinyl piece called "Bacon" on Dec. 27.
3. Jasiri X spreads the word
Rapper Jasiri X continues to stay mad, stay hungry and stand up for social justice with an impressive reach beyond Pittsburgh.
He joined Anti-Flag on the "Occupy This Album" compilation with the anthem "Occupy (We the 99)," just a few songs down from Arlo Guthrie and Crosby & Nash on Disc 4.
His song "Trayvon," protesting the handling of the Trayvon Martin case in Florida, was used on NPR, and "10 Frisk Commandments" was featured on the "Rachel Maddow Show."
Among his other hard-hitting songs this year were two about the campaign ("Don't Forget About the Hood" and "Candidates for Sale"), and he and Paradise Gray took part in the #Ignite2012 tour, talking politics with young people.
While on tour, he performed at the historic Apollo Theater, the Democratic National Convention, the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and he did speaking gigs at SXSW and the Yale Law School. His album, "Ascension," is due in January.
4. Root, Black Moth rally the base
Two of Pittsburgh biggest exports, Rusted Root and Black Moth Super Rainbow, turned to their fan bases to fund their new records. In exchange for cash, Root offered its fans access to the studio and soundchecks, Black Moth created special vinyl and ghoulish masks.
Both got nice returns, raising more than $100,000 each.
The albums, of course, are polar opposites. Root's "The Movement" (its first on Shanachie) is a tribal hippie rock album to rally and inspire the masses. Black Moth's self-released "Citrus Juicy" is typically dark, creepy and a little alienating, with a video, "Windshield Smasher," that shows a nightmarish mob attacking (and grooming) a pair of traveling hipsters.
Both bands toured widely, and BMSR's release was covered by Pitchfork, Pop Matters and the New Yorker, among others.
5. Keeping up with brick and mortar
Although there was nothing as earthshaking as the Station Square amphitheater going down or Stage AE going up, there were buildings in motion as usual.
• After 13 years on Baum Boulevard, The Shadow Lounge -- which foreshadowed the East Liberty revival and served as showcase for such artists as Mac Miller, Joy Ike and Gene Stovall -- announced it would close it doors in the spring and look for a new location for 2015.
• Also in East Liberty, when the adventurous VIA Music & New Media Festival returned for a third year, some of its events took place at the VIA collective's new permanent space on Penn Avenue.
• Earlier in the year, Club Zoo in the Strip -- a weekend under-21 club and sometime concert venue -- took off for Harmarville, giving way to Exit.
• Grim's Roadhouse in Imperial, which had been booking '80s hair-metal bands shut down due to sound ordinance issues, and will be resurrected as the Dead Horse Cantina & Music Hall in McKees Rocks.
• ID Labs, the studio to Mac and Wiz, announced it will move across the river from Lawrenceville to Etna soon.
• After vacating Wilkinsburg and going idle for 18 months, punk collective The Mr. Roboto Project had a successful first year at its new home in trendy Lawrenceville. "It has been surprising how many people are putting on shows, playing in bands or just coming out to shows at the new space that had never been to the old space at all," said Mike Q. Roth, a Roboto board member. "Toward the end of the old space, Roboto definitely was specializing in a few specific subgenres of punk and hard-core. I think since opening the new space we have seen a more diverse mix of music styles and types of performances."
6. Skyliners movie hits the screen
Gavin Rapp hasn't found a distributor for his movie "Since I Don't Have You," but he has found an audience, slowly but surely.
The locally made film, which takes the name of the Skyliners 1959 hit, tells the story of his tumultuous childhood and the stormy marriage between his father and late mother, the group's singer Janet Vogel Rapp.
It was shot with a budget under $200,000 and a cast that includes Kristin Spatafore as Janet Vogel Rapp, who took her own life at age 37 in 1980; Kenny Champion as her controlling husband; and Cameron McKendry as young Gavin.
It has yet to get a theatrical run, but there have been five sold-out screenings in Pittsburgh and one in Cleveland with healthy turnout.
7. Sound Cat leaps in
The storefront at 4526 Liberty Ave., Bloomfield, became a landmark for music geeks when Jim Spitznagel opened Jim's Records in the '70s and it stayed that way as Paul's CDs since the '90s.
Things looked bleak, though, late last year when Paul Olszewski announced that business was down and he was getting out. Rather than letting 4526 turn into another coffee shop or dollar store, Karl Hendricks, a respected local musician and longtime buyer for both stores, stepped up in April to maintain the space as Sound Cat Records.
One of the new records that can be found there is "The Adult Section," the first Karl Hendricks album since 2007.
• In other record store news, Rather Ripped Records, a legendary store in Berkeley, Calif., in the '70s opened by Pittsburgher Russ Ketter, re-opened its doors -- 2,500 miles away in Lawrenceville.
8. Punchline is no joke
Veteran Pittsburgh pop-punk band Punchline filled 2012 with a variety of goofy fun. Early in the year, its EP "So Nice to Meet You" topped the iTunes Rock album chart after bassist Chris Fafalios had publicly declared (somewhat seriously) he'd leave the band if that didn't happen.
Coinciding with the release, the band appeared on the season premiere of the Fox show "Mobbed," where frontman Steve Soboslai was introduced to his online crush, a girl named Dana, with a gorgeous flash mob.
In July, the band marked its 15th anniversary at Altar Bar by playing 37 songs, a nod to the band's fourth album, "37 Everywhere," which did not in fact include 37 songs.
9. Scene rallies for a friend
In 2012, musicians once again rallied for countless causes, from Mac Miller recording a song with a Make-A-Wish kid to benefit concerts for Hurricane Sandy, Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh and many other charities.
One particular cause was personal and street-level.
Dave Whaley -- the mild-mannered manager at Dave's Music Mine on the South Side and drummer for The Pump Fakes and other bands -- was assaulted on East Carson Street in early November after hollering at a car to slow down. The angry driver sent Mr. Whaley to the ER with a broken orbital bone and no health insurance.
His fellow musicians and artists jumped in with "Justice for Dave" T-shirts and a number of benefit concerts, including an encore of Chris Theoret's David Bowie tribute (at the Rex) that added Bobby Lamonde's Cursed Cabaret tribute to T. Rex.
The good news is that Mr. Whaley was back at work last week. "My health is improving," he says. "I still have double vision because of nerve damage but hopefully that will improve in time. The support has been unbelievable! I'm overwhelmed."
10. Kim Phuc hits the floor
While not the best known band around, Kim Phuc was nonetheless one of the great white hopes of Pittsburgh punk, with its take-no-prisoners, Stooges-style attack.
The 8-year-old band, led by former members of Direct Action, Brain Handle and Aus Rotten, looked to get off to a strong start in January with the long-awaited release of its full-length debut, "Copsucker," on the national label Iron Lung. It ended abruptly when frontman and hard-core punk veteran Rob Henry hit the floor of The Shop in a stage dive incident that ended with a concussion and 11 stitches.
The band took some time off to heal, then in August announced that it was splitting. "It had nothing to do with Rob, Rob's head, or even Herman's head," said guitarist Ben Smartnick. "It had everything to do with the fact that this band became a toxic environment."
The first spinoff from the band is the Gotobeds, which features guitarist Eli Kasan and drummer Tom Payne, and just debuted with a cassette.
"It's far less structured and rigid," he says of this band. "There's more room for [messing] the songs up or improvising (think Swell Maps or Sonic Youth) where Kim Phuc was going for monotonous repetition a la Stooges/Wipers." The guitarist is also in a new indie-pop band called The City Buses with Sean Finn (Red Western) and Stacy Dean (Icon Gallery).
Mr. Smartnick is getting a new band together, while also playing gigs with the internationally touring hard-core band Integrity. Singer Henry is now a hard-headed hard-core veteran for hire.
• The Povertyneck Hillbillies, which became the unofficial band of the Steelers in the '00s (with Ben Roethlisberger even in its video), bummed out its fans when the guys parted ways in 2008. Singer Abby Abbondanza ventured off to a solo career, only to realize not long ago that he missed the gang. This summer, they re-formed as The Hillbilly Way. The group celebrated the reunion with the release of a new EP.
• Stage AE had another strong year, booking nearly 175 events, surpassing last year's 160. Once again, the summer season amounted to more than 40 events, this time with no competition from an amphitheater at Station Square.
• The Cynics didn't make much noise in Pittsburgh, but the garage kings continued to be a force on the road with an extensive European tour.
• AltarTV, a video music network and discovery platform founded at Altar Bar, has now shot more than 200 episodes, including features on Anti-Flag, Imagine Dragons, Snoop Dogg and SXSW.
• Cancer survivor and industrial musician/promoter Jim Semonik returned with a six-CD compilation "Electronic Saviors, Volume II: Recurrence," stocked with more than 100 industrial bands.
• The young, wild, free and very hard-core Code Orange Kids -- a contender for Pittsburgh's most intense band -- unleashed "Love Is Love // Return to Dust," its Deathwish debut recorded with Kurt Ballou (Converge guitarist). According to singer/drummer Jami Morgan, "The first press [of 3,000] is through and we are about to go to second press in the midst of a tour with Gaza and Full of Hell in the U.S. and will be touring the U.S., Europe and others throughout the rest of the year." This week, he posted on Facebook that the band was robbed of $10,000 worth of valuables in New Orleans.
• Triggers, formed in 2005 with two members from Monarch and two from The You, endured a four-year lapse after its 2007 album due to a dead-end deal with a fledgling national label, Anomaly. Free from those chains, the power-pop band returned with the fine "Forcing a Smile," cut at Kingsize Sound Lab in Los Angeles with producer Dave Trumfio (Wilco, Built to Spill).
• Similarly, the third album from Americana band Bear Cub was delayed when the band abruptly parted ways with New York-based label I Surrender Records. The Pittsburgh band, which split for Nashville in 2010, ultimately came north with "Good Morning, Every Morning," a 15-song album that builds a bigger wall of sound around Jesse Hall's songs.
• Another partly Pittsburgh Americana band Good Night, States -- divided between Lawrenceville and New Jersey -- did many a mile on the PA Turnpike and the Internet to deliver a second full-length album, "Country/Static," blending an indie-pop style that bears resemblance to such beloved bands as Wilco and Arcade Fire.
• The more settled Americana band The Harlan Twins issued its second album, "Old Familiar," once again combining the Appalachian-style vocals of Carrie Battle with the more ragged soul style of James Hart.
• One of the best local releases was the second full-length from Meeting of Important People, "My Ears Are Having a Heart Attack!," a must-hear for fans of charming '60s-style Britpop.
• Indie oddball Weird Paul celebrated a milestone with the 36-track "25 Lo-Fi Years" on Thick Syrup Records. It ranged from tracks recorded as a kid in his bedroom to the full power of the Weird Paul Rock Band to collaborations with Half Japanese's Jad Fair.
• The weirdest album of the year came, not surprisingly, from Microwaves ("Psionic Impedance"), the longtime Pittsburgh band that's still on the leading edge of avant-noise-thrash.
• One of the heaviest records of the year came from Motorpsychos with "Sheppard's File," a high-adrenalin ride with thick, sludgy guitars, manic drumming and vocals that roar out of the speakers like beasts from hell.
• Beedie (real name Brian Green), Mac Miller's former partner in high school rap duo The Ill Spoken, issued an EP "Above the Weather," with a lush R&B/soul feel.
More notable releases
Armadillos, Judith Avers, Ball of Flame Shoot Fire, Beagle Brothers, Big Snow Big Thaw, Boaz, Boca Chica, Broken Fences, Call to Attraction, Carousel, The Cheats, Chip DiMonick, City Dwelling Nature Seekers, The Composure, The Deceptions, Byrd Foster, Kevin Finn, Grain, Gutrench, Ben Hackett, Icon Gallery, "Iron Atrocity v.2," Majeure, Travis Malloy, Tom Moran, Neon Swing X-perience, Instead of Sleeping, Oh S--- They're Going to Kill Us, Olympus Mons, Paul Labrise & the Trees, Satin Gum, Slices, Sneaky Mike, Squirrel Hillbillies, Una de Luna.
New bands, familiar faces
• Giuseppe Capolupo, former drummer for Haste the Day, took the leap to frontman in the local Americana band Gypsy and his Band of Ghosts, which released its debut album. "Playing heavy metal night after night," he explained, "leaves a definite yearning for music that's a bit easier on the ears."
• Abby Krizner, formerly of Motorpsychos, debuted with Fist Fight in the Parking Lot, the band she formed with members of Mojo Filter. The album delivers sludgy, stoner metal in the Sabbath/Queens vein with hard, pile-driving riffs and her tough-chick vocals.
• Ed Crawford, the singer-guitarist from Steubenville, Ohio, who fronted fIREHOSE in the '80s, has been living in Polish Hill for a few years, as the crowd at Gooski's well knows. This year he teamed with drummer Mike Quinlan (briefly with The Cynics) and bassist Eric Vermillion (Gumball) to release "Four Pieces From Candyland," the debut EP from FOOD, an acronym for "Far Out Old Dudes." The sound ranged from R.E.M. to Crazy Horse-meets-Dinosaur Jr. Mr. Crawford also fronted a fIREHOSE reunion at Coachella.
A few of the tributes
• Three Houserockers -- Joe Grushecky, Art Nardini and Joffo Simmons -- were joined at the Rex by an all-star cast, assembled by WDVE's Randy Baumann, that included Donnie Iris, Billy Price, Rob James and Scott Blasey (Clarks), Jeff Scmutz (Good Brother Earl) and Jon Belan (Gene the Werewolf). They celebrated the 40th anniversary of "Exile on Main Street" by playing the Stones classic in full.
• Raised By Machines, led by Steve Sciulli (Carsickness, Life in Balance) performed a reimagining of Kraftwerk's "Autobahn" at Howler's in May.
• The Official Ironmen Rally found the Weird Paul Rock Band, House of Assassins, Trashed Aircraft, The Red Western, Horse Garbage, Marvin Dioxide and more paying tribute to Guided by Voices (who played Mr. smalls) at the Thunderbird Cafe in March.
• The Nighthawks took part in a tribute to late Pittsburgh guitarist Glenn Pavone as part of the Allegheny County concert season.
• Mac Miller followed in Wiz's footsteps by winning the MTVU Woodie of the Year Award, which he received at the SXSW Music Conference in March.
• Wiz Khalifa appeared at the Grammy Awards, where he was nominated twice for "Black and Yellow." Kanye West grabbed the prizes.
• Acoustic blues master Ernie Hawkins won an Independent Music Award for his cover of Big Bill Broonzy's "Shuffle Rag."
• Dethlehem and Chux Beta were the big winners in the second annual Pittsburgh Rock Awards, presented by BackAllie Music at Diesel in January.
• Danielle Barbe won a contest among 11 bands to become the new Iron City Sound Ambassador.
• Bastard Bearded Irishmen won the City Paper poll for Best Pop/Rock Band That's Not the Clarks. Other winners included The Armadillos (Best Alt-Folk/Alt-Country Band) and Fist Fight in the Parking Lot (Best Metal Band).
First Published December 6, 2012 12:00 am