The biggest Pittsburgh music stories of 2017

Scott Mervis – Pittsburgh Post-Gazette – December 19, 2017

A press release issued in October — we’ll get to that later — sparked debate about the health and viability of the Pittsburgh music scene.

It arrived around the same time a few landmark clubs here were closing, prompting a conversation about how some parts of the city aren’t pulling their weight in terms of live music (looking at you, Downtown and Oakland). Taking the long view, that stuff has a way of ebbing and flowing, and we’re pretty confident it will work itself out.

For the most part, there was reason to be proud, as young artists continued to break out of the Pittsburgh scene, and the ones who stayed — young and old — kept us entertained.

Here’s a look back at the top stories:

1. Code Orange gets red hot: Code Orange hit the ground kicking in 2017, starting with a January release show for “Forever,” a third album of brutal, bludgeoning hardcore, with traces of softer atmospherics and a borderline indie track sung by Reba Meyers. The band, which formed at Pittsburgh CAPA in 2008, spent the year crisscrossing the country on tours with Gojira and Hatebreed, among others, and playing big showcases like WWE NXT and Ozzfest Meets Knotfest. The former Code Orange Kids ended the year by becoming the first Pittsburgh rock band with a Grammy nomination (best metal performance for the title track), and “Forever” was declared the best album of the year by metal mag Revolver and the best metal album of the year by Rolling Stone, among other accolades.

2. Daya grabs that Grammy: Eighteen years and 105 days. That’s how old the singer from Mt. Lebanon (Grace Tandon) was when she won the Grammy with The Chainsmokers for best dance recording (“Don’t Let Me Down”), making her the seventh youngest artist to take home a Grammy. (Incidentally, Christina Aguilera, who grew up in Pittsburgh, is the ninth youngest, having won best new artist at 19.) In October, Daya released “New,” her first single for Interscope Records. She popped into town for two shows at Stage AE, including the 96.1 Kiss Halloween Party, and performed on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.”

3. Jimmy Wopo and Hardo break out: Hill District rapper Jimmy Wopo spent part of the year behind bars — for a probation violation after he left the state to play a gig and meet with Atlantic Records in New York. Most of the year, he was writing bars. He released the “Muney Lane Muzik” mixtape in February, the “Jordan Kobe” project in April and “Back Against the Wall” in October. He is closing in on 18 million plays on Soundcloud and 17 million views on YouTube, with a new project due in early 2018. Another huge success was “Trapnese,” his trap-style mixtape with Wilkinsburg rapper Hardo, which has amassed more than 2 million views on Spotify. The single, “Today’s A Good Day,” featuring Wiz Khalifa, has 3.5 million. In September, Hardo (real name Joseph Barnett) signed a deal with Sony and then hit the road on tour with Michigan rapper Tee Grizzley.

4. “See You Again”… and again: On July 10, Wiz Khalifa’s 2015 hit with Charlie Puth, “See You Again,” became the most viewed video in YouTube history, surpassing “Gangnam Style” by Psy. That lasted just one month, as “Despacito” raced past it on Aug. 4. “See You Again” maintains the No. 2 slot and is still one of only three videos with more than 3 billion views (currently at 3.2 billion). During the year, Wiz dropped three mixtapes, including the recent “Laugh Now, Fly Later,” and while coming home for the Thrival Festival in Swissvale in late September, he gave the kids at Propel Hazelwood Elementary a thrill with a visit to the school.

5. Jackie sings for Trump: While most artists were running the other way, Jackie Evancho, the teen soprano from Pine, signed up to sing the national anthem on the White House lawn in Washington, D.C. for the inauguration of Donald Trump. She would weather a social media backlash, especially in light of her transgender sibling, Juliet, facing a rollback in rights from the new administration. Her core following hung with her. In March, the 17-year-old Evancho topped the Billboard Classical Albums chart for the seventh time with “Two Hearts,” a new, two-CD album blending pop and classical songs.

6. Anti-Flag sings against Trump: The only Pittsburgh band touring wider than Code Orange right now is good old Anti-Flag, which continued to travel the world as high-energy political punk ambassadors. Highlights included the European summer festivals, the Aftershock Festival and Knotfest Mexico City, not to mention the impromptu acoustic set on the streets of Berlin outside the Ramones museum when an overflow crowd turned up for a listening party. On the homefront, the Pittsburgh quartet was one of the marquee bands on the Vans Warped Tour. During that run, Anti-Flag reacted to the Charlottesville white supremacists rally by rushing out “Racists,” the first shot from its new album, “American Fall,” which is approaching 2 million Spotify plays.

7. Two eras ending: The club scene took a hit with back-to-back closings of James Street Gastropub and Speakeasy on the North Side and the Bloomfield Bridge Tavern. James Street, one of the city’s last dedicated jazz clubs, along with presenting rock, R&B and funk, closed due to the owners’ frustrations with PLCB citations over noise complaints. The Bloomfield Bridge Tavern, a Polish pub that started presenting punk with its pierogies back in the late ‘80s, closed in October because of high insurance premiums, signing off with a reunion of Ploughman’s Lunch.

8. The Commonheart beats: The 10-piece soul-rock outfit, which released its debut album, “Grown,” in November 2017, has become one of the city’s premier bands, regularly selling out venues here and landing in rotation on WDVE. The band took it continental with bookings at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, Summerfest in Milwaukee and Mont Tremblant in Montreal, along with joining JJ Grey & Mofro on an East Coast tour. On his own, frontman Clinton Clegg crushed every stage, from the Rambles to the holiday shows to the national anthem at Heinz Field before that woeful Steelers-Patriots game.

9. Calling Austin: The City of Pittsburgh, the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership and WYEP-FM caused a stir in October with a press release announcing a Music Ecosystem Project to help spark a music scene that scored lower in ratings than other city attractions in a VisitPittsburgh survey. In line with the project, WYEP is using part of a $30,000 grant from the Heinz Endowments to commission Austin-based consultant Don Pitts to advise on issues here of musical infrastructure, such as permits, taxes and sound ordinances. He visited the city in November and December to meet with industry players and government officials and will hold a town meeting before issuing a report in the spring.

10. Protesting with the Boss: The Boss became the toast of Broadway in October with his one-man “Springsteen on Broadway,” but other than that, he was pretty quiet this year. Except for “That’s What Makes Us Great.” His Pittsburgh connection, Joe Grushecky, wrote the anti-Trump protest song — after considering Mr. Trump’s mocking of a disabled reporter the last straw — and Springsteen took a few verses on it. It got national attention when it was released in April.

Other top stories:

• After more than 40 years of servicing local vinyl junkies, Pittsburgh icon Jerry Weber rode off into the sunset, or rather toward Swissvale. His legacy was making Jerry’s Records one of the top record stores in the country — no, the world — while maintaining his good nature and sense of humor. He made sure the Squirrel Hill store stayed put, under the new ownership of Chris Grauzer. Having had successful knee surgery, Mr. Weber is re-emerging now as Vinyl Man to sell off some of the 400,000 albums in his warehouse.

• Billy Price, one of Pittsburgh’s true vocal treasures, won best soul blues album at the Blues Music Awards in Memphis, Tenn., for “This Time for Real,” his collaborative album with late Chicago legend Otis Clay. He followed that with his fifth live album, “Alive and Strange,” recorded at Club Cafe.

• The Gotobeds, the Pittsburgh indie rockers signed to Sub Pop, released a 10-song singles and rarities compilation that included a cover of the late Karl Hendricks’ “Flowers Avenue” along with a cover of Red Cross’ entire six-song 1979 EP.

• Get Hip Recordings launched its Folk Series with solo albums from Slim Forsythe and Zack Keim (Nox Boys) and recently opened a record store at its North Side headquarters.

• Pittsburgh label Supermonkey opened a record store in Allentown, while also releasing music by Aquarocket, Stone Wicked Souls, Hot Metal Bridges and Dirty Charms.

• Like The Commonheart, Wreck Loose spent the summer in regular rotation on WDVE with the song “Long Time Listener, First Time Caller,” from the band’s debut album, “OK, Wreck Loose.”

• Homeless Gospel Choir, the folk-punk project of Derek Zanetti, got national press and was featured on NPR for “Normal,” new album with a clip for the title track that hilariously recreated Alanis Morissette’s “Ironic” video.

• Punk legends Carsickness reunited for the first time since splitting in the early ’90s for the excellent Non-Punk exhibit at Space Gallery, and also released a vinyl/CD compilation on Get Hip with liner notes by Michael Chabon. Shortly after that, Carsickness offshoot Ploughman’s Lunch got back together for the closing of the Bloomfield Bridge Tavern.

• Jimmer Podrasky, of The Rave-Ups (one of Pittsburgh’s finest exports), returned for shows at the Oaks Theater and South Park Amphitheatre, having released another fine solo album, “God Like the Sun.”

• The Donora song “Fall,” from the new album “Sun to Me,” provided the soundtrack for a “Grey’s Anatomy” scene in which doctors removed a gun from a woman’s privates.

• Pop-punk band Eternal Boy, formerly SpacePimps, released its debut “Awkward Phase,” timed with four dates on the Warped Tour.

• Alexandra Naples and C.T. Fields, of Lovebettie, showed their flair for country as the duo Willow Hill.

• Rusted Root parted ways with bassist Patrick Norman, who had been with the band since the early ’90s.

• Longtime Houserockers bassist Art Nardini left the band due to health issues.

• Rapper Nizzy, with a feature from Jimmy Wopo, surpassed 240,000 views on YouTube for “Fire.” Among the other rappers on the rise are Stunna2Fly, Reese Youngn and Smaccz.

• 1Hood Media rapper Jasiri X continued to travel the country to promote social justice, performing in spots like the Women’s March on Washington. Here, at Carnegie Music Hall, he took the stage with one of his heroes, Harry Belafonte, in October.

• Soul-rock band The Buckle Downs, which released “Hard Truths,” was the WYEP local artist of the year.

• Live Nation opened its first Pittsburgh office, on the North Side, under the control of Tom Loudermilk.

• Punchline and Shade both celebrated 20th anniversaries.

• The Millvale Music Festival, taking a page from the R.A.N.T. Rock All Night Tour in Lawrenceville and the Deutschtown Music Festival, made its debut in May with 120 bands in 16 venues.

• Pittsburgh Rock ‘N Roll Legends inducted Tommy James and the Shondells, The Jaggerz, Chuck Brinkman (KQV) and Jerry Reed (Jeree Recording).

• Promoter Rich Engler got behind the drums once again to form the band MEM3.

• Rapper/activist Paradise Gray compiled “No Half Steppin’ — An Oral and Pictorial History of New York City Club the Latin Quarter and the Birth of Hip-Hop’s Golden Era,” based on his times at the famed venue.

• The Pittsburgh Blues Festival returned under the name Pittsburgh Blues and Roots Festival at the Syria Shrine Center in Harmar with Kenny Neal and Tinsley Ellis.

• Allderdice grad Jonny Goood (real name Jon Drummond) played the Super Bowl halftime as the bassist in Lady Gaga’s band.

People we lost:

Jimmy Beaumont (75): One of the city’s most beloved musical icons, Mr. Beaumont had one of the first big hits out of Pittsburgh in 1959 with the classic ballad “Since I Don’t Have You.” It launched a seven-decade career for the Knoxville native. The Skyliners have decided to carry on in tribute to the golden-voiced singer.

Geri Allen (60): The Detroit native, who became director of the University of Pittsburgh’s jazz department in 2013, was one of the most prolific and respected pianists of her era.

Karl Hendricks (46): The McKeesport native was a nationally respected songwriter/indie rocker and owner of Sound Cat Records. His label, Comedy Minus One, honored him with a 22-song tribute album of local and national artists.

Johnny Daye (69): Blue-eyed soul singer John Patrick DiBucci from Homewood-Brushton was discovered by Otis Redding and recorded the single “What’ll I Do for Satisfaction” for Stax Records in 1967.

Ronald “Bingo” Mundy (76): He was one of the angelic tenor voices that sang on “Blue Moon,” the 1961 chart-topping hit by the Marcels, which formed in 1959 while they were students at Allegheny High School on the North Side.

Ron Beitle (63): The O’Hara musician was the drummer for Wild Cherry and the Nied’s Hotel Band.

Dewey Gurall (57): The musician, writer and former employee at Jerry’s Records was an authority on progressive rock.

Notable releases (not already mentioned):

Action Camp, Molly Alphabet, Beagle Brothers, Jeff Betten, Bill Toms and Hard Rain, Bindley Hardware Co., Aaron-Meyers Brooks, Cisco Kid, Chiller, Damaged Pies, Decaffeinated Grapefruit, Fist Fight in the Parking Lot, The Full Counts, Gas Tiger, Honeyriders, Killer of Sheep, Heather Kropf, LoFi Delphi, Lyndsey Smith & Soul Distribution, The Me Toos, Murder for Girls, OutsideInside, Paddy the Wanderer, The Park Plan, The Petals, Emily Pinkerton, Marc Reisman, Same, Kayla Schureman, Stephen Sciulli, Seedy Players, Side Eye, SPISH, The Stapletons, Steelesque, Strange Monsters, Stutter Steps, Talkers, Teammate, Townsppl, Zeve.

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