It’s hard to imagine a better choice than The New Mastersounds to headline the inaugural show at the new Roxian Theatre in McKees Rocks.
Sporting a fresh funk sound with a bit of a rockabilly/surf vibe, the British group blended an old-world spirit with a decidedly modern spin that accentuated the beautifully renovated Roxian.
Thursday, May 9, marked the debut of performances at the grand opening of the long-vacant Roxian Theatre — as well as the 90th anniversary of the venue’s original opening in 1929.
The range of musical styles showcased the most important aspect of the Roxian experience — the sound quality here is unlike anything else I’ve heard in Pittsburgh. The brass from hometown favorites Steeltown Horns came through clean and undistorted, the vocals of Lamar Williams Jr were deep and beguiling without being dominant, and the surfabilly guitar licks by New Mastersounds frontman and guitarist Eddie Roberts sounded crisp enough to bite into.
Everything about the performance and venue oozed cool from start to finish.
I visited once again on May 15 for Snarky Puppy’s explosive performance and was lucky enough to catch the opening act, House of Waters. Hailing from America, Japan and Argentina, the trio’s eclectic mix of instruments (go look up what a hammered dulcimer is … I’ll wait) further exemplified the stellar sound on offer at the Roxian.
Dulcimer player Max ZT’s every attack and strike on his strings was audible, whether he was tapping out a dancing drizzle or hammering down with the fury of a thunderstorm.
Snarky Puppy’s genre-swerving, acid jazz-fueled headlining set seriously showed off the sound system. The sound crew was on point, as the bass from Snarky’s Michael League was driving and powerful without ever reaching that teeth-shattering point of soundscape dominance that many concert-goers know too well.
The balance in the mix allowed every musician in Snarky Puppy’s expansive lineup to reach out and grip you by the eardrums. Whether you’re experiencing Mastersounds from the balcony or Snarky on the floor, the Roxian’s PA system will bring you to your knees.
The theater’s story of revival will feel familiar to most Pittsburghers: A once thriving cultural venue left abandoned and crumbling for decades, it’s now the freshest example of a local landmark getting another chance to reclaim its glory days.
As reported in February by NEXTpittsburgh, the theater closed in 2003 and remained vacant until local entrepreneur John Pergal — owner of Lawrenceville’s Thunderbird Café & Music Hall — bought the property from the McKees Rocks Community Development Corporation in December of 2017 along with several partners.
With the help of local foundations, they poured $9 million into the renovation and spent two years fulfilling a vision long held by the McKees Rocks CDC to turn the historic landmark into a modern redux of its heyday. Perfido Weiskopf Wagstaff + Goettel served as architects for the project, with contracting work done by Lyco Construction.
In-house production team Roxian Live is working to pump the theatre full of events and visitors with the support of frequent co-presenters Grey Area Productions. One goal is to attract bands that have typically bypassed Pittsburgh.
One thing is for sure: The Roxian embraces the spirit of the McKees Rocks community it calls home while standing out with preserved and polished architectural features in keeping with the original.
The vertical neon sign above the marquee proclaiming “Roxian” shimmers in gold, framed by glowing light. Even the façade manages to combine flashy and new with traditional and classic, in harmony with the neighborhood.
The boldly renovated floor area was designed to allow ease of movement within the ample space. It’s split by a two-step staircase that leads to a lower level directly in front of the stage, creating immaculate sightlines from any angle. There’s not a beam, rafter, wall or support between you and your perfect view of the stage.
Observing the stage from high above in the balcony reveals additional architectural splendor. Half the fun of this venue is watching how the lights dance across its many features, creating a captivating sideshow.
If I had to choose only one takeaway from my visits, it would be the love and grit evident in the remaking of this local legend. And while the renovation is thorough and classy, the staff is caring and kind, and the vibe warm and welcoming. Venues of this size can often feel insincere and bland, but The Roxian sports detail and elegance throughout.
The importance of this venue to McKees Rocks cannot be overstated. With a capacity of 1,470 between the floor, balcony and VIP area, each event will bring a herd of hungry concertgoers to the neighborhood.
The theater also features a full-service bar on each of its three floors. And while Roxian Live has decided to bring in a pair of food trucks when possible, local businesses should also benefit.
The ultimate winner here is, of course, McKees Rocks, a comeback community that is working hard to improve. Now, with this newly revitalized theater, it boasts a destination venue unlike any other in town.