UPDATE: Click here for Part Two: Next Pittsburgh’s Guide to Pittsburgh’s larger concert venues
It may sound simple, but when a band comes to town they play at a venue commensurate with their popularity. The more popular a band, the larger the venue. Fortunately for fans of good music, talent does not necessarily lend itself to popularity (the term “criminally-underappreciated” has almost become a music critic cliche). So while concertgoers will almost always have to pay more to see a show at a larger venue, that doesn’t mean that larger venues always have the better shows.
What follows is a brief guide to Pittsburgh’s smaller, more intimate concert venues. They are divided roughly into four categories: DIY venues, bars, promoter-affiliated bars, and clubs/lounges. Catch an incredible show at one of these places and you’ll always have that “remember when” moment. After all, everybody has to start somewhere.
Do It Yourself
In many ways, DIY is live music at its most pure. No one gets rich off of DIY shows, and no one’s looking to, either. Self-promoted, self-billed, and self-organized, do it yourself venues provide a space for bands looking to build a following, or simply get out and play, without having to guarantee ticket sales or pay an arm and a leg to a promoter for a spot on the bill.
The Mr. Roboto Project, which bills itself as a “cooperatively-run show space and art gallery,” is the heart of the local DIY scene. Originally based in Wilkinsburg, Roboto is presently located in Bloomfield, across the street from Spak Brothers Pizza. Anyone can become a member, and its the members who elect the five person board of directors. The formula has worked for over fifteen years now. There’s even a book out about Roboto.
If you see a show at a DIY venue, chances are it is a punk band. There’s plenty of overlap between the punk and DIY scenes, both of which share an antiestablishment ethos centered around freedom of expression, self-sustainment, and self-empowerment. Most of the Pittsburgh’s DIY spaces are also art spaces, and the good ones make an effort to be a positive force in the community at large.
The physical space at Roboto comprises a small front room with a hodgepodge of paintings and other art installations, and a smaller back room for performances that can maybe fit 100 if everyone crams together nicely. Its really not that different from a house show. Given the type of music being played, and the close confines, it gets incredibly loud. (That’s also the reason some of the more recent, residential DIY venues, like 222 Ormbsy, aren’t around anymore.)
Assemble Pittsburgh 5125 Penn Avenue, Garfield/Bloomfield
Garfield Artworks (GarfArt) 4931 Penn Avenue, Garfield/Bloomfield
Pittsburgh Art House 5903 Stanton Avenue, Highland Park
The Shop 4314 Main Street, Bloomfield
There are plenty of bars in Pittsburgh that boast live music, but three in particular stand out from the crowd by bringing in bands worth the price of admission: Howler’s in Bloomfield; Gooski’s in Polish Hill; and 31st Street Pub in the Strip.
All three venues are no-frills and without pretense, which, come to think of it, are the hallmarks of any quality Pittsburgh bar. You can catch both local and national rock acts at any of these venues on almost any given night for about the cost of a shot and a beer. Sure beats listening to the jukebox – unless you’re at Gooski’s, that is.
Gooski’s (21+) 3117 Brereton Street, Polish Hill
Don’t miss: 10/12: The Gotobeds, w/ Dreamsalon and Cyanide Tooth. $TBA
Howler’s Coyote Cafe (21+) 4509 Liberty Avenue, Bloomfield
31st Street Pub (21+)3101 Penn Avenue, Strip District
Don’t miss: 10/20: Shonen Knife, w/ BOILED DENIM, The Lopez. $TBA
Belvedere’s 4016 Butler Street, Lawrenceville
Bloomfield Bridge Tavern 4412 Liberty Avenue, Bloomfield
A Few Steps Up From a Bar
Brillobox and the Smiling Moose are the bottom rung venues for the Coke and Pepsi of Pittsburgh promotion companies, Opus One and Drusky, respectively; they have the backing that other bars just can’t match. As a result, both venues possess an ideal combination of intimacy, low ticket prices, and hardworking, talented bands that might just be on the cusp of fame.