Sunday, April 09, 2017

Last Night: Non-Punk Pittsburgh, Rock Against Trump

Last night was a bit of a whirlwind, in which I started off feeling tense and anxious, but ended up feeling energized and positive about a number of things.

The "Non-Punk Pittsburgh" art show opened last night at the gallery SPACE in Downtown Pittsburgh. Curated by local musician Dennis Childers and photographer Larry Rippel, it featured blown up reproductions of photos that Larry and a cast of dozens took during the first wave of the local punk scene, from 1979 to about 1983. Many of the pictures appeared in a zine that Bill Bored aka Bill Von Hagen published back around that time. (Bill was in one of the earliest bands, the Puke, and later the Cardboards and the Cynics). At some of the RePunk events, slides shows were set up to show the pictures. But it was great seeing them in such high definition.

Plus, it's also great to see these photos again and to run into some of the people who were in the pictures. The friends that have died this year already have made me think harder about, and appreciate, works like this. It makes me think of how mortal we all are. In fact I was supposed to interview Dennis Childers earlier this week and he never showed up.At first, he didn't reply to my voicemail or texts. Thinking about some serious surgery he had last year, part of me started to worry a little. I hope he's okay and that there's nothing seriously wrong.

A few hours later, I received an apologetic text. Turns out he got hit hard by the flu bug, went home and fell asleep, missing our time. So it was serious, but not deadly serious.

There was some music provided by Zach Keim (of the Nox Boys, soon to be a solo artist on Get Hip) and a band featuring Childers, his former Carsickness bandmate Steve Sciulli and a few other people. But I had to get over to the Funhouse at Mr. Smalls to play a Love Letters show. Also, I had to get some food and coffee in me. Naturally I stayed at SPACE longer than I should have, talking to folks about the photos (pointing out my brother to people, one of whom said his youthful look resembles my son; see below), hearing stories about what these photos mean to people, and swapping stories about records from that era.

Prior to showing up at SPACE, as I mentioned I was edgy. I meant to bring a Love Letters record along to give to Gregg Kostelich (Get Hip/The Cynics) who was DJ'ing. When I realized I left it in the car, I was walking under an overpass and my expletive echoed down the street, and was probably heard by the folks coming out of the Amtrak lot.

The conversations at SPACE helped swing me in a more positive direction, though. From there, the drive across the Allegheny River and up Route 28 wasn't too bad or too long. But upon entering the Funhouse (the more intimate, upstairs room of the concert hall located in a former church), I was greeting by a weird sensory experience. In the past it was usually cigarette smoke that hit the nose upon entry. Last night, it was the smoke of cooked ground beef. Strange times.

The event was the first Rock Against Trump show, organized by Evan Knauer of ATS. Along with them and us Love Letters, the bill featured Raised by Wolves and Qlitterati. Jen Saffron, local activist and arts educator, served as our enthusiastic emcee. Raised by Wolves features Evan's wife Melissa and guitarist Chris Carnevali, who both played in the Fuzzy Comets, along with bassist Justin Brown (who I think might've been a Comet at one point) and drummer Tracey Whorton. Their music focused on Melissa's vocals, but the songs were pretty dynamic. Chris was playing an electrified acoustic, which sometimes wasn't loud enough to match Justin's bass, but it was a good time.

Our set went really well. I had thrown the idea to the band of seguing nearly the whole set together, making it more like a suite. That is, a suite inspired by the likes of the Minutemen or Husker Du. To hit a little closer to home in terms of style, my touchstone would probably be the Volcano Suns. I saw them several times and while they might not have played one big set like those other two bands, I always loved to hear their first song roar out of the gate, to be followed immediately by the next one. Those first two revealed a good bit of confidence and cohesion on their part, which set the standard for the rest of the set. And that's the way a good set should feel.

There were a few gaps amidst the songs we were trying to segue, but that still meant they came off as having minimal breaks in between. When I started the songs, they were definitely coming one after another. After our last show, I wasn't too sure how I was feeling about the whole idea of playing out again, but tonight made it worth it. We even had a decent crowd of people listening. Before our first song, Mike did a little introduction about how we're against Trump but we're also for a lot of other things. He mentioned Dave V and Karl Hendricks and the passing 24 hours earlier of Don Rickles. Along with that I was thinking back on seeing Evan play with Da Shunts at a Rock Against Reagan show in 1983. That in turn made me wonder how much of my writing and onstage delivery was inspired by seeing Evan with ATS during all those formative years.

While ATS headlined, the evening really belongs to Qlitterati, a supergroup of sorts featuring three charismatic vocalists - Phat Man Dee, Christiane D and Gena [there should be a tilde over the n, but I can't get it to work] Musica. Highly charged, politically and socially, their set was funny, racy, intense and really tight. One audience member thought some of the music was like Frank Zappa, which might be true, but it added the wild force of the Slits, in the vocal department. Add to that some incisive, wry observations that you'll only get in Pittsburgh, and you might have half an idea of what they're about.

By the time ATS hit the stage I think I was on my third drink, but even if I hadn't been, they still probably would've sounded great. With Steve Seel on board semi-permanently as second guitarist, and Downtown Steve Brown playing trumpet for most of the set, they banged out a bunch of newer songs, some written in the wake of #45 taking office. Plus, Evan pulled out "Dream Song," or whatever it's actually called. It dates back to Da Shunts but the surreal, apocalyptic/metaphorical imagery of the US Steel Building falling across the Allegheny River seems just as relevant today. 32 years after their inception, ATS is still writing new chapters.

Incidentally, Evan is organizing a Rock Against Trump show every first Friday of the month. The next one is Friday, May 5 at the Bloomfield Bridge Tavern.

As I was writing this I realized that I never closed out my bar tab, so that kind of sucks, but oh well. I'll do it soon.  

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