Biggest stories of 2011 -- Pittsburgh Pop, Rock and Rap
Hometown rapper Wiz Khalifa performs a sold-out show at the Trib Total Media Amphitheatre Aug. 6.
Bruce Springsteen joins Joe Grushecky and the Houserockers for a show at Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall in Oakland.
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Going into the year the hype was building on Pittsburgh rap's Batman and Robin -- Wiz Khalifa and Mac Miller.
Both of them delivered, taking the music to the people throughout the States and Europe and becoming the first Pittsburgh rappers to top the Billboard charts.
There's little doubt they're the story of the year in local music.
1. Wiz Khalifa does it big
It seems like ages ago that the Steelers were heading to the Super Bowl with Terrible Towels twirling and chants of "Black and Yellow."
But it was just this year, in February, when the 24-year-old Wiz Khalifa's hometown anthem went to No. 1 on the charts, thrusting the long-suffering Pittsburgh hip scene into the national spotlight. It ended up faring a little better than the Steelers. As the year progressed, the Allderdice grad had people swinging Terrible Towels from Amsterdam to Coachella.
Khalifa's full-length Rostrum/Atlantic debut, "Rolling Papers," outsold labelmate Mac Miller in its first week (197k), but a certain pop idol named Britney got in the way of its chart-topping glory. "Rolling Papers" charted two more singles in the Top 20: "Roll Up" (No. 13) and "No Sleep" (No. 6). Khalifa appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone's "Hot" issue (OK, it was the back cover) and drew raves, including one from Entertainment Weekly: "Marijuana may not be legal, but 'Rolling Papers' surely will be enjoyed and passed around among Wiz's fans."
It was just announced last week that he's headed to the Grammys as a nominee for Best Rap Song and Best Rap Performance for "Black and Yellow." He already won the Woodie of the Year at the MTVu Woodie Awards and was nominated for Best New Artist at the MTV Video Music Awards (lost to Tyler, the Creator) and the American Music Awards (lost to Foster the People).
He's capping the year with the soundtrack to his movie with Snoop Dogg, "Mac and Devin Go to High School."
2. Mac Miller blows up
"My name Mac Miller, who the [bleep] are you?"
Mac Miller certainly did make a name for himself in 2011.
We knew he was bubbling up from the underground, but the white, Jewish party rapper from Point Breeze shocked the world when he landed at No. 1 on the Billboard charts with his debut album, "Blue Slide Park."
It's only the second indie debut to top the charts, the last one being Tha Dogg Pound in 1995.
There were signs that it was coming: The 19-year-old Allderdice grad made the cover of XXL's 2011 Freshmen issue, appeared all over MTV, played 200 shows all over the country and Europe, saw his "Best Day Ever" mixtape downloaded 460,000 times, hit No. 37 on the charts with his EP "On and On" and topped 37 million hits on his "Donald Trump" video.
Mr. Trump himself posted a video blog referring to Miller as "the next Eminem."
In the first week of November he appeared on the cover of Billboard magazine, hailed as "The Newest Face of the New Music Business." A week later, he left the new "Twilight" soundtrack in the dust and topped the Billboard Top 200 with first week sales of 148,915.
In the 40-plus year history of hip-hop, he is the first Pittsburgh rapper ever to do that.
He's done it all without a hit single or even a smidgen of radio play.
3. Summer concert series is major league
Back in the early '90s, when the concert industry was clicking on all cylinders, Star Lake would do more than 40 summer shows.
Since about 2001, though, the summer season has been on the downslide. The First Niagara Pavilion mustered only 15 this year and a few of those, like the season-opener with Stone Sour, were a bit of a stretch.
This summer, Stage AE was there to pick up the slack. The North Shore venue, with a capacity of 5,000 outdoors and 2,500 indoors, exceeded projections by doing 41 amphitheater shows in its premiere season -- everything from Motley Crue to Death Cab for Cutie to Ray LaMontagne.
You may remember past arguments that a 1,500-to 2,500-capacity venue, a la House of Blues, wouldn't survive Pittsburgh. Well, they built it and people came. Owned by the Rooneys and operated by Columbus, Ohio-based PromoWest Productions, the venue is expected to hold up to 160 shows total by the end of the year.
The similarly sized Trib Amphitheatre at Station Square didn't back down, doing its typical 20 shows over the summer, including Wiz Khalifa and Elvis Costello. There are rumors that the venue is going to be leveled for a soccer stadium, but the Station Square venue has already announced a Rise Against show for May.
The summer season also was bolstered by a record three shows at Heinz Field: Kenny Chesney, Taylor Swift and U2, which arrived with the biggest production ever seen here.
4. Jackie E lives the 'Dream'
Technically, Jackie Evancho is considered "classical crossover," as she's known to sing arias in Latin, but there was a pop element as well in her major-label album this year, which included "When You Wish Upon a Star" and a duet with Barbra Streisand, no less, on "Somewhere."
Working with Grammy winner David Foster, the 10-year-old wonder from Richland took "Dream With Me" to No. 2 on the charts in June -- just below Bad Meets Evil's EP "Hell: The Sequel," of all things! -- and followed that with her first tour, performing with orchestras in Atlanta, Dallas and Omaha, among others. She made her big concert debut here with the Pittsburgh Opera.
She also shot a special for the PBS "Great Performances" series, which was released as a CD and DVD. Last month she topped the Billboard Classical chart with "Heavenly Christmas," her first full-length Christmas album.
5. Smokin' Joe Grushecky
Joe Grushecky will probably make this list just by jamming with Bruce Springsteen every year. He played with the Boss at the Light of Day concert in New Jersey in January and brought him in again for two monster shows at Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall on the same weekend in November.
He did more than that, though.
In the late summer he recorded his first live album since 1999. It's appropriately called "We're Not Dead Yet" (the CD release party is Dec. 17 at Altar Bar with the Igniters).
Warmed up from the Springsteen gig, Joe Grushecky and the Houserockers capped the year with a sizzling half-hour set opening for Bob Seger at the Consol Energy Center. It was a rare arena gig for Mr. Grushecky, who remembers the IC Houserockers opening for the Outlaws at the Civic Arena in the '80s.
Asked why he seemed so restrained at Soldiers and Sailors and so animated at the Consol, Mr. Grushecky said, "It's actually kind of foolish to try to compete with Bruce Springsteen, isn't it?"
The Houserockers also jammed with Ian Hunter in Pittsburgh and Cleveland, played the Pro Football Hall of Fame Week in Canton with Southside Johnny and got featured in Rollingstone.com and rockhall.com, which said the Houserockers "may be the best band in the land that also have day jobs."
6. The Space Pimps over China
The Space Pimps have just a modest following in Pittsburgh -- but they can boast that they're big in China.
This summer, the local pop-punk band went where few Western bands go, playing an extended tour of the communist state, which has a potential fanbase consisting of almost a sixth of the world's population.
It came about because the Space Pimps are signed to the Japanese label Kick Rock Music, which has some of its bands tour China.
"The A&R guy in Japan showed the label in China our music, and they were really into what we are doing," says the Space Pimp Rishi Raj Bahl. "He contacted me over a year ago showing his interest in releasing our album and touring China, but he noted that it was hard, since the government controls some of the music there; as a matter of fact, some tours are completely government funded and some records are completely funded by them as well."
Unlike Bob Dylan, the Space Pimps didn't have any problem with the Chinese government, and managed to play 14 shows there, generally to crowds of more than 200 people. It culminated in an appearance at the MIDI Festival.
"We were the only band on the five-day festival that was from America," Mr. Bahl says. "It was truly an honor, and we played the largest show of our careers, in front of 15,000-plus people. We did press with MTV, magazines, mobbed at airports, it was truly a humbling experience ... then to come home and pick up where we had left off ... [stunk]. The crowds were attentive (probably because they didn't understand a word we were saying in between songs), and very accepting of Western music. It is as if they are eight years behind in musical tastes, because pop/punk rock is now being embraced there."
They got to see grand sights -- "The Great Wall, Tiananmen Square, Mao's Palace, things we have studied about all throughout our academic careers." And not so grand ones -- "two-thirds of us got sick while we were there (that was a nightmare), saw some pretty weird things involving animals being slaughtered in streets, and a multitude of other pretty 'gnarly' things."
7. Anti-Flag conquers more of the world
Frontman Justin Sane acknowledges that it was a quiet year for Anti-Flag, as the band was working on its next album, but even in a quiet year the punk manages to make some noise.
The band ventured into South America -- Brazil and Argentina -- for the first time and headlined a festival in Kraznodar, Russia for 30,000 people.
Anti-Flag also went its own way a little. The two Chrises in the band -- Chris #2 and Chris Head -- joined forces with Roger Harvey (aka Dandelion Snow) and Tyler Kweder (American Armada) to form the band White Wives, which released an album, "Happeners," and toured.
Sane did his first extensive solo tour of Europe and also took his acoustic guitar to Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Chicago while A-F was on tour with NOFX.
The band's local highlight was a packed set at the Warped Tour in July.
8. Jasiri X turns rap reporter
Wiz Khalifa and Mac Miller have the party vibe. Jasiri X delivers the main course.
Jasiri X, working in the vein of Public Enemy, has emerged as one of the country's leading political rappers, on an underground level.
In February, he reported from the protests in Wisconsin, where he happened to be doing a speaking gig, with the song, "American Workers vs Multi-Billionaires," drawing 39,000 views.
More recently, he ventured to New York City's Zuccotti Park to shoot "Occupy (We the 99)."
Also new on his YouTube channel this year were "4Haiti," on the one-year anniversary of the Haitian earthquake, and "Jordan Miles," a Beastie Boys/Run-DMC-style tune detailing the beating of the CAPA honor student by three undercover police officers.
9. VIA lives on ... and expands
In 2010, the VIA Music and New Media Festival came out of the blue with three days of cutting-edge multimedia happenings in Lawrenceville that paired musicians with visual artists.
It was a risky venture that some people figured might be a one-off.
Instead, it returned strong this year, expanded to five days in four neighborhoods (Lawrenceville, East Liberty, Oakland and the South Side) with more than 40 musicians and artists. Among the mashups were electronic innovators Four Tet with Italian duo Abstract Birds, Araabmuzik with Thunder Horse, avant-rock heavies Battles with its own imagination.
The St. Louis based Temporary Art Review wrote, "These internationally renowned musicians' live performances were not just punctuated by the visual accompaniment, but were aggressively collaborative experiences for both performer and audience."
10. Easy as 1,2,3
One of the more elusive accomplishments for Pittsburgh musicians is getting any review on Pitchfork, let alone a positive one.
Over the years, the trend-setting music site has endorsed The Modey Lemon, Girl Talk and Black Moth Super Rainbow, but not a whole lot else. It gave Wiz Khalifa's "Rolling Papers" a 7.2 and ignored the Mac Miller album.
What did capture Pitchfork's attention was "New Heaven," the debut album from 1,2,3, a new oddly named duo from singer-guitarist Nic Snyder and drummer Joshua Sickels from the late Takeover UK. Pitchfork gave it a 6.3, noting that " 'New Heaven' isn't a Ween-style mock survey of the past decade's indie rock trends; 1,2,3 are too good-natured and enthusiastic for that sort of thing. Rather than dutifully checking off a to-do list, 1,2,3 select their sounds a la carte, and the strongest songs within the far-flung coordinates of 'New Heaven' simply scan as of-the-moment."
Jon Pareles of The New York Times caught the band at SXSW and noted, "During its brief set, songs hinted at lurching roots-rock, Talking Heads' new wave funk, the keyboard filigree of progressive rock and the slow roll of a soul ballad."
It remains to be seen whether the acclaim for the first album launches the band into a brighter spotlight down the road.
• Pittsburgh's garage kings The Cynics, dating back to in 1983, emerged with the 10-song "Spinning Wheel Motel," treating fans to the usual blend of monster psych and jangly folk-rock. It was recorded in Detroit with Jim Diamond of The Dirtbombs who produced the first two White Stripes records.
• Donora (labelmates of Wiz Khalifa and Mac Miller at Rostrum) unleashed "Boyfriends, Girlfriends," a second helping of catchy pop-rock, with influences going back to the '50s and '80s, recorded in the home studio of Jake and Casey Hanner. It came with a slick, clever video for the single "The World Is Ours." Also, one track from the first album appeared on the "Abduction" soundtrack.
• Norm Nardini, one of the pioneers of Pittsburgh rock, re-emerged in March with his first set of original material since 1998, the blues-rock album "Bone A Fide." A month earlier, he opened for old friend Bon Jovi at Consol Energy Center before a crowd of 18,571, breaking the all-time Pittsburgh record for indoor concert attendance. Jimbo and the Soupbones won a radio contest to open the second night.
• Pittsburgh rapper Kellee Maize, who goes against the norm with consciousness rap that has a spiritual feminist vibe -- released "Integration" last month and already has more than 100,000 free downloads on the website Frostwire.
• Pittsburgh rap-rock crew Formula 412 returned with a new album, "Reality Show," accompanied by ambitious videos for "Step to the Rear," shot on a Port Authority bus by Bill Paladino ("Black and Yellow" video), and "Got to Give," shot amid rusted blast furnaces at the former Carrie Furnace site.
• The new Pittsburgh metal scene was captured on "Iron Atrocity, Vol. 1," a pummeling 16-track collection on local label Innervenus featuring the likes of Hero Destroyed, Invader, Dethlehem and Abysme.
• Tom Breiding followed his historical folk record "Unbroken Circle," with "Beauty in Paradise," a gentle, mostly acoustic record that reflects the chilled-out beauty of its subject matter.
• Brooke Annibale of Moon released her third and most accomplished album, "Silence Worth Breaking," a lush, polished, major-label-sounding neo-folk record in the spirit of a Sarah McLachlan or Beth Orton, produced by Paul Moak (Third Day, Jennifer Knapp).
• The Gathering Field, which reunited in 2010 for its first show in 10 years, issued "11.20.2010 Live," a double CD, with a new song and three unreleased tracks.
• Producer/bassist Derek White, previously of the Monophobics and Takeover UK, stepped out with "Sing New Shouts," the debut EP from The New Shouts, a quartet that gleefully captures the energy, innocence and precious analog studio sound of old pop/rock/soul.
• Dark industrial rock band Venus in Furs released its first album in 15 years just in time for Halloween.
• The Steelers' run to the Super Bowl sparked the usual spate of fight songs, from the likes of The Pop Rocks, Kelle Maize, Gene the Werewolf and Roger Wood Band.
• Still on hiatus from Modey Lemon, singer-guitarist Phil Boyd dropped another EP as Hidden Twin.
• Host Skull, featuring former Vale and Year members David Bernabo and Will Dyar, released the "Totally Fatalist" LP on Chicago's Antephonic label.
• Power-pop band Meeting of Important People re-released its first album, on vinyl, on Get Hip Records.
Bricks and mortar
• Consol Energy Center, a venue we like quite a bit around here, was named the nation's Best New Major Concert Venue for 2010 at the 22nd annual Pollstar Concert Industry Awards in Los Angeles.
• Promoter Opus One Productions, which books Mr. Smalls and is in league with Stage AE, took over Club Cafe in August from Marco Cardamone and his partners, who turned the former jazz bar it into a multi-purpose live club in 1999.
• The bustling Drusky Entertainment broke in a new/old venue for rock concerts, booking rock legend Ian Hunter at the Andrew Carnegie Free Library in Carnegie in October.
• Paul Olszewski announced that he would close the Bloomfield landmark Paul's Compact Discs early next year after being there since 1993 (it was Jim's Records starting in 1976). Indie musician and Paul's employee Karl Hendricks is set to take over with his own store.
• After a decade in Wilkinsburg and a one-year hiatus, all-ages DIY venue Mr. Roboto Project reopened on Penn Avenue Bloomfield in November with its annual 10-band ADD Fest.
• Static, billed as "Pittsburgh's first electronic dance club," premiered in the Strip spot formerly housing Rosebud, The World, Prive and Fate.
• Levi's Presents: Benefit Braddock was a three-day bash in October that featured headliners Andrew Bird, Built to Spill and The Hold Steady. Proceeds went to rebuilding efforts in the economically depressed town.
• Joker Productions announced in June that it was shutting down operations as a concert promoter after 22 years. "What it comes down to," Jon Rinaldo said, "is the market is oversaturated with promoters and shows ... ."
Mi lestones and markers
• Having risen up from beer-soaked frat basements at Indiana University of Pennsylvania to become one of Pittsburgh's most beloved bands, The Clarks celebrated its 25th anniversary with a show at Stage AE in June. The band started the year performing at the NHL's Winter Classic on New Year's Day, and also played its 2,000th show and released a new EP, "Songs in G."
• Pittsburgh's premier R&B man formed a new band called Billy Price and the Lost Minds. Meanwhile, the Keystone Rhythm Band's version of "Slip Away" was used in an episode of HBO's "Treme."
• With Wiz, Mac and Jasiri all "graduates," the Pittsburgh Hip-Hop Awards honored rapper 2GZZ (aka Muhammad Salaam) as best male artist, Lady Homi (aka Sabrina White) took best female artist and veteran crew Formula 412 won for best rap duo or group. The awards' 40-year-old founder Dwayne Muhammad died last week.
• BackAllie Music, a one-band label, launched a newfangled Pittsburgh Music Awards at The Andy Warhol Museum with winners including The Ghostwrite (punk band), Maesion (metal band), You the Symphony (indie band) and Beyond Daylight (alt-rock band).
• The Pop Rocks, the teen band behind those precious Steelers fight songs, changed its name to Holding Court and competed in the SchoolJam USA teen battle of the bands.
• Herman Pearl, aka Soy Sos, mounted the multimedia installation "Named-UnNamed" that uses as its core the names of Iraqi civilian casualties read by members of the local Islamic community, at 937 Liberty Ave.
• Pittsburgh music enthusiast Paul Carosi unveiled an impressive encyclopedia of local music and put it online as a Pittsburgh Music History virtual museum.
• The Guitars vs. Cancer benefit at Altar in June 2010, remembering Warren King and Glenn Pavone, was turned into a film by Lee Cann, featuring the likes of Billy Price, Norman Nardini and Gil Snyder.
• The Test Patterns and Crown the Lost were among the bands playing breakup shows.
• Grateful Dead tribute band Fungus celebrated the two-decade mark in August.
• Pittsburgh pop-rock band Crossing Boundaries crossed the Ohio border and came home with a victory in the 15th annual Tri-C High School Rock-Off at Cleveland's House of Blues.
• One more thing about that Springsteen/Grushecky gig: The Boss actually hit the stage earlier with The Composure, a band featuring son Johnny Grushecky, for a garage-rock version of "Dancing in the Dark."
• One of the oddball stories of the year was Cory Muro, the drummer for Punchline, getting into a dust-up with Albuquerque, N.M., band Brokencyde and its security on the South Side that required treatment for a gash on his head. The fight allegedly started when he came out of a different bar and trash talked the trashy band.
On the road
There are too many local bands touring to mention them all, but here are few:
• Girl Talk, Pittsburgh's favorite mashup artist, didn't release a new album in 2011. But he was busy as ever, hitting all the big festivals: Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo, Summerfest, Outside Lands, Governors Ball (with Mac Miller), etc. In addition, his "All Day" album landed at No. 106 on the Voice's Pazz and Jop Poll.
• M.O.T.O. (aka Masters of the Obvious) boldly proceeded with its tour of Japan in early May, six weeks after the devastating earthquake. The latest version of his band had two wily Pittsburghers -- guitarist Dan McNellie (Test Patterns) and bassist Sam Matthews (Carsickness, The Crow Flies, Devilish Merry) -- backing Paul Caporino, who formed the New Orleans band in 1981.
• Southern-leaning rock band 28 North got a spot on the SPIN@Stubb's bash at the SXSW festival, headlined by TV on the Radio. Among the other Pittsburghers at SXSW were Wiz Khalifa, The Cynics, 1,2,3 and Lovebettie.
• Pittsburgh drummer Paul Quattrone's tour with dance-punk band !!! included a stop at Coachella.
• The offbeat Squonk Opera went to prime time, competing on "America's Got Talent" in July. Needless to say, Squonk was a little weird for the mass taste.
• Lohio toured the Midwest with Donora and premiered a stunning video for the song "Adelai," directed by Thom Glunt (Anti-Flag, RJD2).
• Christina Aguilera got off to a rough start this year botching the lyrics of the national anthem at the Super Bowl and then getting arrested for public intoxication. She rebounded though doing a great job as a coach on the hit NBC show "The Voice" and earning a Grammy nomination for her guest spot with Maroon 5 on "Moves Like Jagger."
• Bret Michaels of Butler reunited with Poison and hit Stage AE in July with arch-rivals Motley Crue and the New York Dolls.
• Shady Side Academy grad Chris Frantz returned home with wife Tina Weymouth to headline the Three Rivers Arts Festival with Tom Tom Club, the funky spinoff of Talking Heads.
• Avant-garde rock band Battles, featuring former Pittsburghers Ian Williams and John Stanier, returned with a second album, "Gloss Drop," that marked the departure of "singer" Tyondai Braxton, replaced by guest artists including Gary Numan.
• Reid Paley, who broke out here in the late '70s punk band The Five, cut an album with Pixies frontman Black Francis called "Paley & Francis."
• Rapper Sied Chahrour, best known here for being in Strict Flow, went from Pittsburgh Slim to Slimmie Hendrix. You could say it's getting worse ...
Jimmy Adler, Allies, Bastard Bearded Irishmen, Black Crash, Boaz, Boca Chica, Big House Pete, Big Hurry, Chad Sipes Stereo, Chux Beta, Christiane D, Dirty Charms, Ennui, Furious Styles, German Shepherd, Icon Gallery, Yves Jean, Kim Phuc, Neighbours, JD Eicher and The Goodnights, Mace Ballard, Nik and the Central Plains, Oh S--- They're Going to Kill Us, Paperback, Pete Bush and the Hoi Polloi, The Pump Fakes, Shade, Ben Shannon, Slim Forsythe, The Slow Reel (formerly Small Cities), Lenny Smith, Brett Staggs, Summer-Winter, Bill Toms, Weird Paul, Chevy Woods.
John Garrighan (Berlin Project), Ron 'Byrd' Foster (Silencers), Frank "Tookie" DiLeo (Michael Jackson's manager), Dwayne Muhammad (Pittsburgh Hip-Hop Awards).