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.
Beer and wine is for sale before the performance, and the wine comes in a little “Library Music Hall” sippy cup that you can take home with you. Most people sit for the performance but it really just depends on the performer. For longer shows it might be better to stand, given the state of the aging wooden seats throughout the theater, some of which still have a wire frame underneath where a gentleman may store his top hat.
In the heart of Oakland, the Carnegie Music Hall is part of the larger Carnegie Institute and Library complex that also houses the art and natural history museums. The venue hosts concerts irregularly, but they’re not to be missed: indie rock legends Neutral Milk Hotel, The Pixies, and Wilco have all played the nearly 2000-seat venue in the past few years.
Carnegie Library Music Hall of Homestead, 510 E 10th Ave in Munhall
11/8 Justin Hayward of the Moody Blues. $35
Carnegie Music Hall, 4400 Forbes Ave in Oakland
Located on the North Side, nestled snugly between PNC Park and Heinz Field, Stage AE gets its own category because it is both a 2400 person club-style venue and a 5000 person outdoor amphitheater.
Before Stage AE opened in late 2010, Pittsburgh lacked a mid-range venue that could accommodate bands that were either too big play at Altar Bar or Mr. Smalls yet not big enough for a stadium show; played music unsuitable for a seated theater venue; or, were touring in the winter, when seasonal venues like First Niagara Pavilion and the now-defunct Trib Total Media Amphitheatre at Station Square were closed. In 2014 alone MIA, St. Vincent, Jack White, and the Arctic Monkeys have all played Stage AE. A few years ago Pittsburgh would have been passed over, and we would have been left to road trip to Cleveland.
Or perhaps Columbus. Not only is it modeled after Columbus’s LC Pavilion, Stage AE is operated by the same production company, Promowest. (The majority of Stage AE shows are co-promoted with Opus One.) Promowest bills themselves as “the largest full-service, independently owned and operated entertainment company in the Midwest,” but all that matters for fans is that they have the pull and the purse strings to bring in acts like Queens of the Stone Age, Modest Mouse, and MGMT to Pittsburgh.
During outdoor concerts bars and merch tables are positioned along the building’s exterior and a nice big lawn awaits those who want to spread out rather than cram up front next to the stage. As for the indoor shows, expect all the modern amenities: shiny new bars, big flat-screen TVs, and most importantly, a state of the art sound system. There’s also a VIP area upstairs with a separate lounge and seated front and side balconies, and a newer club space for more intimate gigs of a couple hundred. And while it can get extremely crowded in the pit, both indoors and outdoors, it’s not especially worse than a sold-out show at any of the city’s other venues. Fortunately, Stage AE has excellent sightlines, especially indoors, so there’s no need for to feel like you must choose between feeling claustrophobic and not being able see the show.
Ticket prices are generally pretty reasonable, although the average show is closer to $30 than $20. Another benefit is that the T lets off a block away from the venue. For those of us who don’t live near a T station (read: anyone outside the South Hills), the General Robinson Street garage costs just $4, or less than half of the on-site parking lot. You can also get away with parking for free at the casino most nights, but you didn’t read that here.
Stage AE, 400 North Shore Drive on the North Side
11/4: Jeezy. $29.50
11/7: Gov’t Mule. $26
First Niagara Pavilion. 665 Route 18. Burgettstown.
If you’re seeing a show at the Consol Energy Center, its bound to be a world-class musician, likely one that can trade off a single-word name: Springsteen, McCartney, Cher. I wrote in part one of this guide that, when in comes to live music, there is usually a tradeoff between ticket price, venue intimacy, and artist quality. Here, you get to see a world-class performer – a living legend! – but from 50 yards away, and for a large percentage of your paycheck. But that’s why they make binoculars, and Groupon. My girlfriend and I bought a pair of faraway seats to see Arcade Fire in March for around $50, and it was probably the most fun I’ve had at a concert all year. We spent the entire night dancing and singing and making friends, and we left for home ecstatic and invigorated. It’s what I hope to feel after any show, regardless of venue.
Consol Energy Center,1001 Fifth Ave Uptown
Petersen Events Center. 3719 Terrace St. Oakland.
11/29/14: James Taylor and his All-Star Band. $80.
10/23/15: The Who. $TBA
Don’t miss Part One: Pittsburgh’s Smaller Music Venues.