It’s the most wonderful time of the year … if you love Christmas music.
For every other kind of music, it’s as bleak and hollow as the Steelers’ defense without T.J. Watt.
OK, it’s not that bad (nothing is). There are still some good shows coming up this early winter, so don’t pack it in and hibernate just yet.
Please note that most venues require proof of vaccination, negative Covid tests and/or masks, so check with each club. (But really, do that stuff anyway). There are also likely to be additional Covid-related cancellations, so double-check before you go.
Here are our picks for the best concerts in December and January:
Dec. 2, Black Violin: Byham Theater, Downtown
Hip-hop and classical fusion? Seems like a stretch … but Black Violin gamely tries to make the violin relevant to kids these days, and seems to be succeeding. Expect hip-hop beats and violin riffs from two classically-trained strings players, Kev Marcus and Wil B. They’ve opened for Wu-Tang Clan and won “Showtime at the Apollo,” so the doubters should be in full retreat.
Dec. 4, Andrea Bocelli: PPG Paints Arena, Downtown
Opera is a hard sell nowadays, but the blind Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli has cracked the code, selling more than 75 million albums worldwide. He’ll be joined onstage by the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh. Take grandma — she’ll be so excited that she’ll probably make you pierogies or cookies or something.
Dec. 4, Amythyst Kiah: Kelly-Strayhorn Theater, East Liberty
Tennessee singer/songwriter Amythyst Kiah makes a hypnotic swirl of rock, blues, soul, folk and even country, music — all anchored by a powerful voice that effortlessly spans the breadth of American musical history. She got started in Rhiannon Giddens’ string band, Our Native Daughters — part of an effort to reclaim the Black roots of country music — mainly due to her dexterity on the guitar. As a solo artist, Kiah got her first Grammy nomination in 2019 for the protest song “Black Myself.” Her third album, “Wary + Strange,” fearlessly explores what it means to be a Black queer woman living in the South at this fraught moment in time.
Dec. 5, Playboi Carti: UPMC Events Center, Moon
Hip-hop is an ever-changing, endlessly mutating thing. Atlanta rapper Playboi Carti is pretty much the man of the moment, cramming so many musical and lyrical ideas into each song that he sounds like nobody else. His album “Whole Lotta Red” got both the kids and the critics nodding their heads, though sometimes at a pace so brisk it’s like a head-banging speed-metal record. The bass-dominated “Stop Breathing” has got to be one of the heaviest jams dropped by anyone in the rap game in a long time.
Dec. 7, Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit, Strand of Oaks: UPMC Events Center, Moon
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, Isbell 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 (he vowed to make a cover album of all Georgia artists if the state went blue in the last election, and made “Georgia Blue”), and a newly sober, introspective ballad specialist when country radio prizes upbeat party tracks. He’s also an actor; look for him in Martin Scorsese’s upcoming Western murder mystery “Killers of the Flower Moon.”
Dec. 8, Leo Kottke & Mike Gordon: Carnegie Library Music Hall of Homestead, Munhall
One of the world’s greatest fingerpicking-style guitarists ever, Leo Kottke creates a borderless puzzle of folk, blues and jazz, while dealing with partial hearing loss and tendon damage to his right hand that would have ended the careers of many. He’s also known for his exceptionally weird liner notes, on-stage banter and driving a rental car and unloading his own gear while touring by himself. This time, however, he’s accompanied by his bassist Mike Gordon of Phish, who convinced his idol to make his first new album in 15 years.
Dec. 8, Blood Incantation, Primitive Man: Mr. Small’s Theatre, Millvale
If the idea of psychedelic death metal — and lyrics concerned primarily with space and death — makes your blood boil (in a good way), then Blood Incantation has been summoned just for you. Jams like “Inner Paths (to Outer Space)” give death metal a much-needed blast of ambition and planet-spanning scope, with hypnotic intensity and less reliance on the infamous “Cookie Monster” vocals endemic to the genre.
Dec. 8, Live Skull, Thalia Zedek Band, Emily Rodgers Band: Spirit, Lawrenceville
One of the best unheralded bands of post-punk/early indie rock’s golden era (’85-’95) was Live Skull. Led by the sandpaper-rough vocals of Thalia Zedek, Live Skull surrounded her songs with dense layers of atonal guitar, loud and heavy. It’s a raspy voice that has aged well, even though it sounded aged to begin with. Now, she’s touring with both Live Skull and her other group, the Thalia Zedek Band, which is a lot less noisy and more melodic, driven by piano and viola instead of noisy guitar.
Dec. 10, Bastard Bearded Irishmen, Gene the Werewolf, Big Blitz: Thunderbird Cafe & Music Hall, Lawrenceville
It’s nice to occasionally come across a band that sounds pretty much exactly like their name says they will. Pittsburgh’s Bastard Bearded Irishmen are the latest in a long line of Pogues-descended, Irish-inflected punk rock with albums like “Drinkin’ to the Dead” and “Rebastard” showcasing loud guitars, amplified fiddle and a total dedication to having a good time. Their Christmas show is called “A Very Bastard XXXMas” (of course) with hirsute hard rockers Gene the Werewolf and Big Blitz.
Dec. 10-12, 17-19, Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh: various locations
The choir of 100-plus voices will perform “The Promise of Light,” an upbeat exploration of the darkest time of year, drawing upon a vast range of music and poetry about winter, the solstice and the holiday season. Pieces will range from composers such as Ēriks Ešenvalds and Melissa Dunphy to songs from Fleet Foxes, Carole King and Dolly Parton. There will be a series of seven concerts at area churches, ranging from Ebenezer Baptist Church in the Hill District to St. Kilian Parish in Cranberry. The choir will also present its first-ever sensory-friendly concert on Dec. 11.
Dec. 12, Mazie: Roxian Theatre, McKees Rocks
Making pop that isn’t yet popular is a quixotic quest. But now that Billie Eilish, Lorde and Janelle Monáe have opened the way for feminine pop weirdos of every stripe, Mazie has a lane, should she choose to take it. The track “no friends” captured the lonely anomie of pandemic lockdown life like few others, though she can make an upbeat retro roller skating jam like “make believe” too.
Dec. 13, Genesis: PPG Paints Arena, Uptown
So is this the weird Peter Gabriel-fronted English progressive rock behemoth of the early ‘70s? Or the Phil Collins-led air-drum-solo-inspiring ‘80s mega hitmakers? It appears to be the latter, as Phil is on board for a reunion after a 13-year hiatus — he had (apparently) retired from music for a few years starting in 2015, before embarking upon the Not Yet Dead solo tour in 2016.