Pittsburgh's Ear for Music

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Best in the 'Burgh showcase

Between Liberties was invited to be a part of a series called "Best in the Burgh", whose fourth event occurred last night. Typically, I am skeptical about singer-songwriters getting together to promote the singer-songwriter genre, for the same reason my college poetry professor abhorred poems about poetry: self-referential rarely means insightful or inspiring. People who want to pay a few bucks to see music want to *enjoy* it, and unless you're REALLY F*ING TALENTED, they don't want to see your up-and-coming days (c'mon, you know all S/SW's want a full band backing their songs) . Plus, I'm talking talented like Tracy Chapman, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen... you see? These kind of talents are few and far between, and take a lot of honing to become the stars whose names we all recognize (or, in LC's case, a mishap during surgery which accidentally changes the timbre of your voice). They don't show up at every singer-songwriter jam, they just don't.

This is why open stages are a great thing for singer-songwriters: they give a chance for an audience of (primarily) musicians to see them, critique their work, network, perhaps band up and play together (this is how Between Liberties formed, after all). But, when we're talking "showcases", singer-songwriters just don't draw a crowd beyond friends and family. And, if you're not a performer, let me tell you that it flat out sucks to pay to perform. It sucks to have your friends pay the venue for "giving you a stage", when you have to pay your tab, for your SO's ticket, in addition to your guitar and years of therapy. That's why many of us stay on the songwriting end: the energy and charisma it takes to perform often and well enough to draw beyond this built-in crowd is draining, not always rewarding, sometimes humiliating, and almost always life-consuming. Performers are a rough and tough breed, because we have to be to pursue our dream.

With that said, I typically choose not to be a part of a show which bills itself as a singer-songwriter showcase unless I think it will be awesome (I had this accurate hunch with the BitB show), or if I have something to do with the project. Like the Calliope Songwriter Circle CD release parties, the last of which put Sam Flesher, Peter Donovan and David King on stage at Your Inner Vagabond. While I'm on this subject, what a fantastic show: 2 of the 3 performers brought along accompanying bands; the crowd was of moderate size, but VERY APPRECIATIVE of the witty, engaging songs that these performers wrote. They audience came to listen, something which, for the reasons above, can be hard to come by for the singer-songwriters.

And as a mid-side note, one which will negate most of what I've said already, I've always been impressed with the caliber of the songwriters in Pittsburgh. Many of the older guys in the Calliope SWC have their heritage in the steel industry (like the wonderful Bruce Hoffman, who has kindly asked me to appear on his upcoming CD), and write songs about the working life and hard times in a way just as convincing as Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie. These folks are not concerned about "hitting the big time" like a lot of the young folks, but about sharing their stories with other people who will listen and share their own stories. Now, like myself, there are a handful of women and young folks in the crowd, and many of their songs are likewise very honest and touching. Sue Gartland's sweet brand of folk music/stories of growing older and reflections on having children make me excited, nervous, and glad about eventually doing the same; Cathy Stewart's gritty country ballads are just flat out rockin'.

The Songwriter Circle's open-mic host and fearless leader, John Hayes, not only writes some of the most amazing songs I've heard come out of a Pittsburgher (like my favorite, with the chorus line "You can fuel the fight or you can fuss all night, but people have the right to be wrong", about socio-political differences and how it's divisionary nature is humorous, albeit painful at times), but he also provides insight to artists who are pursuing their dreams, helping them to recognize strengths and weaknesses that are not easily perceived from the inside. He has been a great mentor for me, and I know am not the only one who can say the same. John's CD release party for Midnight Cabaret shows just how good he is at picking up on talent: with four of the finest singers in the city appearing on the album, he had each of their personalities and strengths on display simply by giving them the songs which suited them best (Gail Novak got the sassy, funny songs; Autumn Ayers sang the songs of youthful honesty; Daphne Alderson sang songs that reflected depth and knowledge of a seasoned professional; and Christine Laitta got the theatrical character-pieces). If you know any of these singers, or you are a musician who has talked with him yourself, you know how spot-on John Hayes is.


With that (excessively) full disclosure out of the way, let me say that last night's BitB showcase was *phenomenal*. Joel Lindsey, a man of excessive talent himself, managed to pick a wonderfully diverse and exceptionally talented group of performers for the showcase. Joel's band was a lively accompaniment to them, and his addition of a Djembe player (not just a guy with a djembe, but one who makes music with the instrument), was perfect, really. As a duet, Joel and Jim were almost too talented for this small city, and when news of their 3rd piece came about, I thought to myself "he's got to be at least as good as these guys to have them stay afloat". Last night, I was not disappointed in the least, and I have a hunch that Boulevard of the Allies will travel a distance much farther than Downtown-to-Greenfield.

In addition to Between Liberties, the project I live and dream, there were (in order of appearance):

Sense in December - What a talented group of teenagers. Yes, these guys are bound for glory. As I assume they just graduated from high-school, their future is bound to be uncertain. However, I have no doubt that these guys, individually or in whatever form they pursue, could continue writing excellent pop-rock tunes for a long time to come. Their lead guitarist seemed to have an ear well beyond-pop-rock, throwing in a bits which were perhaps flamenco-inspired, perhaps inspired by rock and roll from well before they were born... These guys are who I am listening to while writing this blog, and while I can't say I've ever been a big fan of the emo-inspired genre, it is appropriate for that age group at this moment in time, and their singer was singing good lyrics which fit for the genre. It is a great amalgam of talents, and they meshed well, which is really the most I can ask for from any musicians, age aside.

Exit 57 - Molly Rae and her band came straight from music school, it is no surprise, they were a solid group of musicians writing songs about sensitive and important things most songwriters won't address. During their set, though, I was having problems with the sound: it's hard to take excessive boom out of a vocal performance when the voice is already a high-pitched one. It seems weird to take out all the low-ends on a voice like Molly's, but it would have made the most sense. My props to the sound man for doing a damn good job with all these performers, though. And I'll just tell you now that it sometimes really sucks to be a sound-tech while watching a show, just for these nit-picky reasons that most people will never think to notice... Still, Molly's expressive performance distracted me plenty from my sound-girl ears. Think Tori Amos, I think.

Derek Dysart - I can't really say anything pro or con about these guys, just that we must think on the same plane. Two days ago, Wytold (BL's cellist) and I found ourselves in front of a store display advertising color-therapy sunglasses. After many jokes about gonads and seeing god, we decided it would be fun to wear all-black and these sunglasses while on stage. Derek Dysart performed before us, however, donning the same sunglasses (one pair even the same color as my own), and it fit their cock-star all-the-girls-want-me persona way better than ours. So, half ashamed and mostly amused, we left the sunglasses off (we forgot to wear all black anyways). I could see people enjoying DD's songs, but I just couldn't get over the synchronicity of the sunglasses.

Christopher Laughry - we were getting ready for our set at this point, but what I caught of Chris and his companion, they were tried and true musicians who loved what they were doing. It came through in their songs and their performance, which was really nice!

The Lost Sea - Touching music, really. I enjoyed these songs thoroughly, despite having packed away most of my cry-myself-to-sleep music for the winter. I was disappointed, perhaps, with the fact that the singer wasn't at all interested in tuning his guitar on stage, and announcing this to an audience which contained a lot of musicians ("so rock and roll" said Chris of Boulevard of the Allies... but was it that kind of music?). Really, it's just nice when musicians value their music enough to value their audience's ears. Also, I can totally appreciate an artist not wanting to chit-chat with riff-raff after a show, but when I say "hey man, really enjoyed the tunes" and the response is a "here's our demo. it's not mastered yet" as a free, un-packaged CD gets pushed in my hands, well, it kind of turns me off to the idea of, you know, going to the release party, or approaching him again for, say, booking a show together. Perhaps they just weren't in the mood to make good first impressions, though, and I'll try not to hold it against them.

Nik Westman and the Central Plains - What a pleasant surprise, an old pal from open mic's past joins with his full band (a more acoustic-version than usual, apparently), and had such a great sound. What do they sound like? Well, the Central Plains, of course, perhaps the view from the back porch. A real and honest sound, gritty at times, bluesy at others, but mostly a low-key rock (not soft-rock, mind you, there were no keys or excessive backup vocals), chill and good spirited. Nik and his band mates are talented, to be sure, and are also good and kind people too, something I never ever take for granted.

The Deceptions - While I was perhaps too warm and burnt-out of good music (my ears get tired after hour 3) to truly appreciate their set, and instead mostly appreciated fresh air, I will say that the songs I saw of the Deceptions were rockin. The accordion was a great addition to a rock-and-roll set (who would've thunkit?). Solid, good ol' soft rock sound.

So, hurrah Joel, for an excellent evening of entrancing music, and I wish you continued success in your musical career. I will use my enjoyment of the evening as an excuse to ignore the bands' misguidance of the financial particulars of the charity... Just, as constructive criticism, try not to announce these accidentally during the show.

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