As a follow up to our recent guide to small music venues, NEXTpittsburgh brings you this guide to the larger music venues in town, focusing on those that present only (or mostly) bands. We include other great venues in the “See also” section so your guide is complete, as well as don’t-miss bands coming soon.
At Mr. Smalls–formerly St. Ann’s–and at Altar Bar–formerly St. Elizabeth’s–bands perform where the altar once stood, and fans congregate in the nave,long since emptied of pews. These 650-person capacity venues tend to attract buzzworthy national musicians only an album or two into their career, as well as veteran acts that remain relevant but whose heydays have passed. In 2014 Altar Bar hosted The Orwells and Danny Brown, as well as seminal punk icons Black Flag and X. At Mr. Smalls, emerging artists like Gary Clark Jr. and Lake Street Dive, and indie rock icons the Afghan Whigs and Johnny Marr, have all performed in the past year.
At Altar Bar, underneath a wall of plasma TV screens and aging stained glass windows, a glass-topped bar rides along the righthand side of the venue, and a grand curving stairway sits smack in the middle of floor. While the stairs are nice to look at, their position makes a relatively narrow space feel that much more confined. This is especially true during all-ages shows, when a barrier splits the floor roughly in half, to keep the kids corralled to the side opposite the bar. Beat the crush by getting there early and taking the stairs up to the second level, where there is another bar and a long balcony that runs the along the lefthand side of the venue.
Mr Smalls may not have the gleaming amenities of Altar Bar – the stalls in the bathrooms near the entrance have curtains instead of doors – but its still a great place to catch a show. Both CKY and GWAR have recorded live albums at Mr. Smalls. And while they are not the most nuanced of bands, it still speaks to the quality of the acoustics there. It’s relatively easy to claim a spot close to the stage at Mr. Smalls since most people hang in the back at the bar during the opener. Usually the wide open floor space and vaulted ceilings make it feel like there’s plenty of room to spread out but sold out shows can feel particularly crowded. One option is to plunk down some extra money ahead of time for a spot in the VIP area in the former choir loft in the back. There’s also a lounge downstairs if you need a breather, with another bar, some seating, and much nicer bathrooms.
Also worth a mention is the Rex Theater in the South Side. The former vaudeville theater is a bit smaller than either of the two former churches but its location in the heart of the South Side can’t be topped. Grey Area Productions does most of their bookings, and they attract an eclectic mix of jam bands, EDM, metal and hip-hop. Some of the shows are seated so check in advance. If it’s an open floor, head up the stairs next to the bar. It looks off-limits but they lead to a small balcony with an unbeatable view of the stage.
Mr. Smalls Theatre, 400 Lincoln Ave in Millvale
10/28: Pentagram. $20
11/1: Blonde Readhead. $17
Altar Bar, 1620 Penn Ave.in the Strip District
10/29: Big Wreck. $16
11/4: Ty Dolla $ign. $21
Rex Theater, 1602 Carson St.in the Southside
10/29: Adrian Belew Power Trio. $25. (seated)
11/1: Rubblebucket. $15. (open floor)
There’s no denying that the city’s premiere venues for the performing arts – the Byham Theater, Benedum Center, and Heinz Hall – are clustered in the downtown Cultural District. In particular, the Benedum (formerly the Stanley Theatre) has a special place in music history as the location of Bob Marley’s final concert. But despite the rare one-off performances, like when Kansas hosted their 40th anniversary concert at the Benedum, the venues are used primarily for theater, not concert events (excluding the Pittsburgh Symphony’s residency at Heinz Hall, of course).
But not all of Pittsburgh’s opulent concert halls are downtown. Constructed in 1896, the Carnegie Library Music Hall of Homestead is older than any of the Cultural District venues. The 1000-seat music hall is just one part of this magnificent hilltop structure that also houses a library, swimming pool, and athletic club. Like most stately theaters, there is a grand chandelier and intricately molded cornices throughout. A handful of artists pass through every month, including classic rock stalwarts like Yes, Stephen Stills, and Procul Haram, as well as newer acts like Spoon and Iron and Wine.