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Pittsburgh Music Scene

Lauren Wells | March 7, 2014

The History

1930s Pittsburgh introduced pop/Big-Band singer Perry Como to the city’s music scene.  His easy-listening style and personality fit for television made Como a legend with a career spanning over six decades.  Ray Brown, also from Pittsburgh, notably worked with Ella Fitzgerald and Oscar Peterson as a jazz double bassist and cellist.  The 1950s saw the successes of Grammy award winning jazz guitarist George Benson as well as rhythm and blues icons The Del-Vikings.  During the 80s and 90s Pittsburgh churned out edgier acts like punk rock veterans Anti-Flag and hardcore punk band Aus-Rotten.  Mellowing out as the 90s progressed, Pittsburgh’s music scene watched as Rusted Root began their jam band notoriety, touring throughout the U.S.  Pop star, actress, and philanthropist Christina Aguilera also hails from Pennsylvania, having had a lucrative career in the entertainment industry since her Mickey Mouse Club days.  Most recently, the millennium has welcomed experimental, hip-hop, mash-up artists like Girl Talk and rappers like Wiz Khalifa and Mac Miller.  Pittsburgh’s sound changes with the trends and always reflects what’s hot in the mainstream market while also seeking to innovate its sound and churn out new acts each year.  Check out some up and coming and established acts at this city’s impressive roster of venues.

The Venues

Home to the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and the Pittsburgh Youth Symphony Orchestra, the Heinz Hall for the Performing Arts is a 2,661-seat cultural hub.  Located in the Cultural District of the city, the Heinz Hall began as the Hotel Anderson in 1880 before being replaced by the Loew’s Penn Theater in 1927.  Known as a “Temple of the Cinema,” this magnificent theater features 50-foot-high Venetian ceilings, ornamental columns, bronze and crystal chandeliers, silk drapes, and artwork galore.  Forced to close in 1964 due to the decline in cinema’s popularity, the Lowe’s Penn Theater was salvaged by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, who was seeking a place to call home.  After a major renovation, the venue was opened as the Heinz Hall in 1971 and has since featured Broadway musicals, symphonies, concerts, and orchestral performances.  Past shows have included Bruce Springsteen, the Dixie Chicks, James Taylor, and Trey Anastasio of Phish.

Stage AE, the second indoor/outdoor venue in the U.S., is located on the North Shore of Pittsburgh.  With a 2,400 capacity indoor concert hall, a 5,550 capacity outdoor amphitheatre, and a 400 capacity nightclub, this versatile venue brings in performances by Girl Talk, Cake, Anberlin, Wiz Khalifa, the Clarks, and Alabama Shakes.  Stage AE also hosts sporting events, weddings, banquets, charity functions, meetings, and parties. 

Located in the Strip District, Altar Bar is a 650 capacity venue that was once the St. Elizabeth church.  Artists like Snoop Dogg, Hoodie Allen, Imagine Dragons, Neon Trees, MuteMath, Grouplove, Misfits, Less Than Jake, Sum 41, and Anti-Flag flock to Altar Bar to entertain Pittsburgh locals.  Not only will you catch some of the better-known names in music, but also Altar Bar makes sure to tap into the local Pittsburgh music scene by featuring up and coming bands and musicians.  This three-level event space features impressive acoustics, two bars, and a VIP lounge, so gather your friends and get ready for a night of top-notch music.

At the University of Pittsburgh, the Petersen Events Center serves as a much-needed break from classes for the students and a great way to enjoy a show for Pittsburgh natives.  Opened in 2002, the 430,000 square foot event space accommodates 12,508 people for basketball games and 9,000 for concerts.  Counting Crows, Avett Brothers, Old Crow Medicine Show, Cirque Du Soleil, Cher, Hilary Duff, Bob Dylan, and Good Charlotte are among the many events that come through the Pete, as it is lovingly called.  Sporting events for the Panthers’ basketball teams as well as HBO’s boxing events are also regular mainstays at this venue.

The Byham Theater dates back to 1903, when it was built as a vaudeville house called the Gayety Theater.  Located in the Cultural District, the Byham is one of the many venues owned by the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust.  The venue features acoustic shows, ballet and other dance performances, readings, comedians, plays, Broadway musicals, and concerts.

Also owned by the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, the Benedum Center is a 2,800-seat theater hosting performances by the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, the Pittsburgh Orchestra, the Pittsburgh Dance Council, and the Pittsburgh International Children’s Theater, among other organizations.  For a night of memorable, classic entertainment, check out a show at the Benedum Center.

Built in 1895, Carnegie Music Hall is a 1,950 capacity theater featuring entertainment from popular comedians like Amy Schumer to concerts by bands like Neutral Milk Hotel.  The building that houses Carnegie Music Hall also is home to the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Carnegie Science Center, and the Carnegie Museum of Art.  Founded in 1895 by Andrew Carnegie, these museums and event spaces promote exploration of the cultural arts.  The four spaces reach 1.3 million people per year through their special events and educational outreach programs, putting on more than 130 exhibitions, films, and theater shows.  The Carnegie Museums have something for the whole family!

Rod Stewart, Paul McCartney, Lady Gaga, Roger Waters, Rush, George Strait, Reba McEntire, Lee Ann Womack, Santana, Arcade Fire, and other big names in entertainment play the 20,000 capacity Consol Energy Center.  The venue opened in 2010 and has since hosted major sporting events and concerts. Located in the Hill District, the massive multi-purpose arena is home to the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins and the Arena Football League’s Pittsburgh Power.

Mr. Small’s Funhouse is just that: a funhouse.  Featuring a theatre, two full service recording studios, an art gallery, a skate park, an in-house talent buying and production department, and a Rock Hostel for musicians, Mr. Small’s Funhouse is a music-lover’s dream!  The 650 capacity theatre includes a bar, custom acoustics, a monitor room, and professional sound and lighting technology.  Housed in a former Catholic church, Mr. Small’s Theatre has been named the “best place to rock” in Pittsburgh by the USA Today and Esquire Magazine.  Having hosted acts like Ryan Adams, Rusted Root, They Might Be Giants, Anti-Flag, Ziggy Marley, and many indie acts, the theatre’s standing room only space allows for a night of dancing and absorbing all the talent.  Bring your skateboard, guitar, talent, and love for music to Mr. Small’s Funhouse for a whirlwind of entertainment.

An under-21 nightclub, Club Zoo is a 21,000 square foot venue with numerous soft-drink bars, three floors, two VIP spaces, and a massive dance floor.  Located in the Strip District, Club Zoo features DJs and live music.  Juicy J is making a stop at Club Zoo on his “Never Sober” tour, ironically enough.  Previous events have included Wiz Khalifa, Mac Miller, Ben Folds, Rise Against, Alkaline Trio, Underoath, Brand New, The Used, Chiodos, AFI, Jimmy Eat World, Robin Thicke, Steve Aoki, Gavin Degraw, and Thrice, among many others.

An intimate live music space, Club Café is located in Pittsburgh’s South Side.  Club Café is a true lounge space where you can get up close and personal with acts like Broke Stranded and Ugly, Rhett Miller, Josh Krajick, and Charlie Parr.  Want a side of French toast with your music?  No worries – their brunch is delicious!

The Rex Theatre has hosted bands like Punch Brothers, Deer Tick, the Werks, Big Freedia, Glass Harp, Trombone Shorty, and Loudon Wainwright III.  With a good selection of beer and bands, this live music venue keeps it straightforward and traditional with crisp acoustics and great lighting.  For a loud, no-muss no-fuss kind of concert-going experience, the Rex has you covered.

Home to the MLB’s Pittsburgh Pirates, PNC Park opened in 2001 as a classic ballpark.  Located along the Allegheny River, the park allows for great sightlines of the city’s skyline.  Along with hosting many MLB games, the park also has seen performances by icons like the Rolling Stones, Pearl Jam, Jimmy Buffett, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Dave Matthews Band, Zac Brown Band, Jason Aldean, Miranda Lambert, and Florida Georgia Line.  With your typical ballpark amenities, PNC Park kicks it up a notch with its world-class entertainment programming.

The Festivals

Held in June at Point State Park, the Three Rivers Art Festival brings in names like Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, Ralph Stanley, Cello Fury, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, and the Airborne Toxic Event for ten days of celebrating Pittsburgh and its talented artists.  This free festival features live music, theater and dance performances, art installations, gallery exhibits, a visual artist market, activities, and food vendors.  Produced by the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, this is a festival worth attending. 

THRIVAL Innovation + Music Festival opened with its inaugural event in September 2013 at Bakery Square II.  Hosting acts like Frightened Rabbit, RJD2, De La Soul, and Formula 412, Thrival also offers Innovation Row and PIT Talks, featuring technology and entrepreneurship panels and project showcases in the film, media, art, and TV industries.  Startup companies are even given the opportunity to present their ideas to shareholders and the community—Thrival is a place to enjoy a beer, some live music, and potentially get your big professional break! 

The Winter Jam Tour makes a stop in Pittsburgh, bringing Christian musical acts like Newsboys, Lecrae, Tenth Avenue North, Thousand Foot Krutch, Plumb, Newsong, and Colton Dixon.  For ten dollars at the door, you can see some of the talented acts that this religious festival has been responsible for producing since 1995. 

If classical music is more your thing, the Mozart Festival may be just the event for you.  Held over the course of a week, the festival explores the foundations of Mozart’s compositions while scholars, pianists, and composers gather to honor his work.  A true entertainment and learning experience, the Mozart Festival will leave you inspired and in awe of Mozart’s musical genius. 

If you’re open to taking a drive, Schuykill Haven in Pennsylvania offers the Some Kind of Jam Festival, Madsummer Meltdown, and the Meeting of the Minds Festival.  All the festivals are produced by Jibberjazz Productions and take place on a 60-acre fairground with indoor and outdoor stages, camping space, nature trails, food and craft vendors, and fishing areas.  Acts like Assembly of Dust, Goosepimp Orchestra, the Felice Brothers, Tea Leaf Green, the Budos Band, Antibalas, and the Pimps of Joytime have performed at past festivals. 

Held in August, the Peach Music Festival in Scranton features some of the biggest names in music.  The Allman Brothers Band, Bob Weir and Ratdog, Lotus, Tedeschi Trucks Band, and the Trey Anastasio Band have flocked to play the four-day festival at Montage Mountai