Pittsburgh's Ear for Music

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Centipede E'est and Japanther rock it like it's art

I've found a new favorite place to see live music in Pittsburgh - the Carnegie Museum of Art's Sculpture Garden. On an evening when the stars are bright even through the trees, when artists, musicians and hipsters alike all come out to play, where better to combine cutting-edge sounds with visuals that speak distinctly of the contemporary culture.

While I'm ashamed to admit I missed the talk with Barry McGee , the art that he displayed really did speak for itself. Anyone who has ever experience "fine art" will know that this is not the most common of experiences. Barry, originally a graffiti artist and skater known as Twist, is a fine artist who has found and erased the line between "white cube" gallery art and "off-the-wall" commentary about art practices. Instead of taking grafitti, the actual art you'll find in city transit stations, train cabs or large warehouse walls, and creating it in the gallery, he instead turns the people involved into the art. With a human totem-poles of taggers to greet you as you enter his wing, you get the sense that he is not simply glorifying the punk and folk art sensibilities, but taking the purpose for tagging into the gallery: in his "anarchic multimedia installations", you will find discarded and recycled objects, archaically motorized wood-carvings, photographs of the homeless and property owners, and other oft' forgotten elements of urban culture. As the CMoA's website aptly says: "The temporality of his visual language and the immediacy of its communication convey a history that is continually written, erased, and written again."

Curator Douglas Fogle does a truly amazing job of pairing the outsider art mentality with one of the most reputable art galleries in the United States during Life on Mars, this year's Carnegie International exhibit. Until early 2009, the CMoA will remain a colorful and chaotic look into the bright and thriving underbelly of our culture, which has always been where art becomes birthed, demolished, and come again.

Funny enough, no piece summarizes the impending doom held onto strongly by the zeitgeist in quite a succinct a way as the billboard-like painting of radiohead-like words facing the sculpture garden. A definition of nihilism by Raoul Vaneigem painted by Christopher Wool, the statement resonates in these dark hours where we are plagued by fear, war, disease, and 2012's impending prophecies.

Oh, yes, ahem, this is a blog meant to be about music... Excuse me. But perhaps I will now introduce a concept which will also forever be embedded in this blog: Music exists because of life, because of every other element in our culture. While one man could forever play guitar in his room, the fact that music exists as it does comes from its roots in communication, celebration, exposition, or consolation. Without a continuous dialog, music would be talking to itself, and as poets know, poems about poetry are rarely engaging and often numbingly enraging. Even that man playing guitar in his room desires to perform, to share his musical story, and will not be complete until the circle is. Therefore, I will not simply write lingual songs about CD's I've listened to, but I will also strive to write about whatever it is that provokes music, and will focus especially on the moments in the crux, last night's concert being an ideal example.

Extreme Animals [Paper Rad] started the evening with danceable, catchy beats, and the unusually quirky energy. There were some moments that looked like low-budget theater or BFA performance art, and a few dance moves that looked like robots trapped in a broken human body. I was sorely disappointed with their inability to sync their backing-track rhythm with their live percussive elements. It just hurts my soul. But perhaps it was part of the aesthetic, as the Paper Rad American Art collective is known for its brightly contrasting colors and odd 80's-inspired 8-bit art. I wish their light show looked more like their website, as that may have kept my attention better. They did succeed in warming the crowd up for the next act...

Japanther, of NYC (because any band that comes from the big apple should put these letters at the end of their name, for the same reason a person with an advanced degree in their field can put PhD or MD at the end of their name: it (typically) proves that they have the guts and gusto to get to the top of their field). What was most stunning about this pop-punk phenomenon was that they *completely* tore down the illusive 4th wall that separates so many musicians from their audience. People were dancing on stage, and not just the occasional crowd-surfer that gets to be part of the act for a minute:everyone that was part of the audience was on stage dancing. While, at many shows, people are shooting photos for the whole set, there will be less "I was in the first row for this band" photos on myspace than there will be memories that read "we were banging on the band's drums", "here we are singing into the band's old-telephone microphones" and "dude, they were so rockin I had to give the drummer a massage during his set". In my case, I will even get to say "I rode a dinosaur."

Yes, I rode a dinosaur. Did Doyle, vagabond out of NYC, and creator of this awe-inspiring contraption, know that it would be just yards away from the natural science museum which holds one of the best dinosaur exhibits in the country? He did mention that it was touring next to the Seneca Reservation, where he was concerned that, since music was a language, and his dinosaur was an extreme machine dancing to the beat, it may not be received well. Not the case in Pittsburgh. This insane machine the best view of what was happening in the crowd, and it was also simply designed as to where I could open and shut the mouth, rear it's head right (and left when there weren't several people crowding the stage), lift it up and down with lights flashing on command. Whether or not it spoke of the beauty in the natural world, what a heck of a lot of fun it gave at least half a dozen brave souls (it was particularly scary to mount). They did receive one of the most unique concert-going experiences they will have in their lives.

What a hard act to follow. Who, without visuals like Sigur Ros or a stage act like Motley Crue, could bring more to that crowd? Centipede E'est, Pittsburghers who truly understand the pleasure of loud music. While Japanther's set was mostly a fun mosh-up of screaming punk sounds and extreme participatory stage antics, Centipede E'est rode the waves of music between thick, melodic rock and sparse, ethereal soundscapes. They sung, sometimes in the anthemic punk way, but it was secondary to these musical scenes they were creating, different with each song.

While listening to their set, there was a discussion about what happened to the Jam-Band scene, which still kicks around in the form that I listened to growing up, but is now more the butt of jokes than a scene anyone who's not drugged out wants to be a part of. Since I last attended a show by Moe. or the Disco Biscuits, the best musicians of this scene have split off into two distinct directions. The first direction, with keynote PA bands like As Human from Philadelphia (PHILA is becoming almost as notorious a postscript as NYC) and Omega Love from Pittsburgh (a scene perhaps to indy-DIY-fantastico to ever have this high-brow a reputation), relies on the same catchy hooks that music always has. The key to the successful bands here is simply talent: if you're a good musician, as are the two bands above, then the jammy parts work. If you're not, you are considered stoned-out losers these days (and while that was cool for musicians ten years ago, the times do change.)

The second direction, which Centipede E'est embodies nicely, is simply an extension of the far-out jams. It relies less on the hook, less on verse-chorus structuring, and more on the mood of the music. They take these space-jams and run with it, filling almost an entire set with punchy and groovy phrases that repeat until the scent on the wind takes them elsewhere. Depending on the band, the songs may be composed or entirely jams, but it appears CE falls nicely in the middle. They had the heavy-hitting rhythmic sections (which could have been better presented if the drums some additional amplification), strong melodic sections, and ambient noise moments: the best-of-the-best when it comes to jams. They also had one of the single coolest chimes to appear on stage: a simple 3-foot long-tube chime whose emboldened sound could be heard above 5 instrument cabinets.

I look forward to seeing Centipede E'est again with infamous Pittsburgh Rockers Don Caballero at Mr. Smalls on September 6th. In the meantime, check out this video:

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