The weather forecast: beautiful. The Pirates: deceptively competitive. The potholes: plentiful. Springtime in Pittsburgh — that three-week period after the freezing rain ends and before the sweat and the bugs arrive. We’re ready to get outside. And music is moving outdoors too.
It’s Pittsburgh’s music festival season — including the always outstanding Pittonkatonk; the Millvale Music Festival, a neighborhood-wide, local band showcase; and a newcomer, the Maple House Music + Arts Festival at Hartwood Acres.
As always, please note that some indoor venues require proof of vaccination, negative Covid tests and/or masks, so check with each club.
May 5-7: Alba Flamenca “Flamenco Extravaganza and Farewell:” Greer Cabaret Theater, Downtown
This festival of flamenco — the rhythmically dexterous folk music of southern Spain — will showcase music and dance from Alba Flamenco, which is celebrating 12 years in Pittsburgh before “closing shop and moving on to its next act.”
May 5: Japanese Breakfast: Roxian Theatre, McKees Rocks
Japanese Breakfast is the alter ego of Philadelphia’s Michelle Zauner. Her sly, sophisticated art-pop is extremely of-the-moment — which also implies a musical wormhole to the 1980s, a decade now seen as a time of great experimentation in pop music. Japanese Breakfast started as a monthlong, song-a-day writing challenge, but her meticulous, synth-heavy sound seems carefully crafted rather than improvisational. Zauner is also an acclaimed author, who wrote the memoir, “Crying in H Mart,” about growing up Korean-American and the loss of her mother to cancer.
May 6: We Are All MC5 with Wayne Kramer, Murder for Girls: Thunderbird Cafe, Lawrenceville
One song in 1969, “Kick out the Jams” was the Big Bang for punk rock, kicking off a musical revolution that still reverberates to this day. Wayne Kramer supplied the thunderous chords and much of the mighty MC5’s militant, snarling anger at the corruption of Vietnam-era America. There was a faction of hippies that weren’t just peace-and-love — they were bent on breaking the system — and the MC5 was their voice.
May 6: Valerie June: Carnegie of Homestead Music Hall, Homestead
Folk, blues, soul, gospel. At some point, they all got separated into different categories, with different paths for black and white performers. Valerie June, born in the flatlands of west Tennessee, joyfully rejects this sorting mechanism, making music that’s authentic enough for traditionalists, but gives her distinctive voice the freedom to explore in any direction.
May 8: High Pulp, Jared Mattson, Dan Koshute: The Government Center, North Side
My new favorite place in Pittsburgh to hear music is The Government Center — not because the stage is so great (though it’s nice), but because you can browse the infinite stacks of albums at this North Side record shop. This concert features the hypnotic Seattle experimental jazz-rock band High Pulp. Government Center is adding a coffee shop, too.
May 12: Hatchie: Club Cafe, South Side
From the sun-baked land at the bottom of the world (Australia), comes the dreamy, hazy indie-pop of Hatchie. Harriette Pilbeam’s richly textured new record “Giving the World Away” balances melancholy and introspection with undeniable hooks-within-hooks, recalling the heyday of the Cocteau Twins, Cardigans and Mazzy Star without imitating them.
May 12: Avery Sunshine: August Wilson African American Cultural Center, Downtown
A throwback soul singer with a penchant for improvisation, Avery Sunshine’s music is as bright and radiant as her name. The Chester, Pennsylvania-born singer grew up singing jazz and hymns in church, and found her voice while studying philosophy at Spelman College in Atlanta, forming a gospel/R&B duo with a Broadway-bound friend. Then, a friend put a house beat behind her song “Stalk You,” and it became a club hit in Japan. She’s since pursued a musical path like none other, lending her voice to Beyonce’s movie “The Fighting Temptations” and her keyboard to Tyler Perry’s mega-hit stage shows.
May 14: Pittonkatonk May Day Brass BBQ (featuring Son Rompe Pera, Gili Yalo & Anbessa Orchestra, Kiko Villamizar, Undertown Brass Band, Detroit Party Marching Band, Bitch Thunder and Afro Yaqui Music Collective): Vietnam Veterans Pavilion, Schenley Park, Oakland
Several traditions of brass music have run parallel to the mainstream of popular and folk music forms: Balkan/Gypsy brass, New Orleans second-line jazz and funk, Afrobeat, swing jazz and the myriad uses for a marching band — from halftime shows to protest marches. Pittonkatonk assembles it all in one place for community-building through music and a really big party. This year’s event features the return of 19-piece brass Providence punks What Cheer? Brigade — now called the Undertow Brass Band. There’s the Ethiopian jazz of Gili Yalo & the Anbessa Orchestra and the Argentine cumbia-punk marimba band Son Rompe Pera. Pittonkatonk is free — which is amazing — and outdoors in Schenley Park.
May 15: EarthGang, Pigeons & Planes: Stage AE, North Shore
Atlanta is still the center of gravity for the planet-spanning world of hip hop (though London and L.A. are making a play at the moment). The most essential rapper in the world at the moment might actually be the fictional “Paper Boi” in the brilliantly surreal show “Atlanta.” But in the realms of the real, the duo EarthGang reigns. They chronicle the city’s strange magic, while keeping some sonic distance from their obvious antecedents, Outkast.
May 18: Bad Cop/Bad Cop, Homeless Gospel Choir, F—k Yeah, Dinosaurs!: Mr. Small’s Theatre, Millvale
OK, those are great band names. Pittsburgh punks Homeless Gospel Choir (who are neither homeless nor a gospel choir) are on tour with the fun, feminist, all-female punk band Bad Cop/Bad Cop. Homeless Gospel Choir is touring Europe this summer (with dates from Berlin to Glasgow), so it seems like they’re getting close to breaking through to new audiences. Bad Cop/Bad Cop make old-school anti-authoritarian punk rock, and F–k Yeah, Dinosaurs! make us play the best band name/worst band name game every time.
May 19: Built to Spill, Whiteface, Blood Lemon: Mr. Small’s Theatre, Millvale
Shimmering, incandescent post-psychedelic pop driven by fretboard-shredding guitarists with piccolo player-sized egos. They’re indie rock’s eternal guitar heroes, but beyond the guitar prowess of Built to Spill, you’ll find Doug Martsch’s simple, exquisite pop songcraft. Somehow, the two- or three-guitar army never overwhelms his catchy, mercurial melodies and lyrics.
May 20-21: Millvale Music Festival (featuring The High Level, Dive Bombs, Anton Ego, The Super Babes, Liz Berlin, Bastard Bearded Irishmen, Mud City Manglers, Submachine and The Granati Brothers): various locations, Millvale
This is it, your general 101-level survey course of Pittsburgh’s many music scenes, circa now. Well, some of these artists have been around for decades — such as singer/songwriter Liz Berlin, who broke out with platinum-selling jam band Rusted Root in 1994, and The Mud City Manglers, who have been playing 100-proof Pittsburgh garage-punk since the turn of the century. There are new bands galore too — more than 200, it’s claimed — on 24 stages, from the expected, such as Mr. Small’s Theatre, to the unusual, such as LumberjAxes (an ax-throwing place).
May 21: Maple House Music + Arts Festival (featuring Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, Black Pumas, Lake Street Dive, Ghost Hounds, Elle King and Big Sam’s Funky Nation): Hartwood Acres, Gibsonia
Jason Isbell was once part of the “Southern Rock Opera”-era Drive-By Truckers, and it seemed like there was no way a solo career could surpass that. Well, he has done it with The 400 Unit, breaking through into the mainstream primarily as a country singer-songwriter — with the temerity to title an album “The Nashville Sound.” In every way, he’s different — an unabashed progressive in a conservative genre, and a newly sober, introspective ballad specialist when country radio prizes upbeat party tracks. He’ll be joined at this new festival at Hartwood Aces by Black Pumas, who dig deep into the crevasses that cracked between soul, funk and rock in the early ‘70s — when Sly and the Family Stone and Parliament-Funkadelic pointed the way to other possible futures.