There’s no denying the sheer excitement of watching a popular rock band or pop star put on a choreographed concert at a huge venue. The music, the lights, the spectacle—it’s quite an experience. The problem is these shows can be expensive, the tickets sell out quickly, the seats you get are too far away, and so on. What if you just want to hang out with a couple friends and grab a drink or two and watch a rock band right in front of you? Check out this list for some clubs and bars around Pittsburgh that will let you do just that. The shows here are way more affordable, the venues are smaller but not crowded, and although the bands might not be hugely famous (yet), you could be seeing “the next big thing” and getting the chance to chat with them at the merchandise table afterwards. How about that?
Situated at Penn & Main between Bloomfield and Lawrenceville, the Brillobox is one of the hippest spots for food, drinks and rock music. The downstairs bar is usually crowded, for good reason, but the second floor stage is graced by many of the best up-and-coming indie rock bands that pass through Pittsburgh. A great sound system, just-dim-enough lighting, and cool, felt walls (seriously, feel them!) add some intimacy to this already smallish room. Bands typically set up their merch table at the comfy sofa on the side of the room and grab drinks at the upstairs bar, which make this a perfect spot to stand up close and interact with the band. They manage to book some of the best bands, to boot.
Insider tip: You’ll likely catch the headlining band having dinner downstairs a couple hours before showtime, before sound check. Also, ladies: use the two restrooms downstairs to avoid waiting in line upstairs.
Just off of Carson Street, and around the corner from local radio station 91.3 fm WYEP, Club Café is a cozy and lovely spot to see a band up close. The interior has several tables and couches facing the stage, but popular acts will make it standing room only. The starry sky-like background and small stage really accentuate the interaction between band and audience, and since the venue caters more towards folk and indie pop acts, it can really set the scene for a beautiful evening of music. The venue recently came under new management, so be on the lookout for progressive changes at this place, too.
Insider tip: With limited seating, be sure to buy a ticket ahead of time if you really want to see a band, and show up when the doors open if you want to guarantee a seat for the show.
Howler’s Coyote Café
4509 Liberty Avenue
Hours: Mon to Fri – 3 p.m. to 2 a.m.; Sat to Sun – 6 p.m. to 2 a.m.
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Just down the street from the Brillobox, on Liberty Avenue, is Howler’s Coyote Cafe. Separated into a bar side and a stage side (and with a recently renovated storefront), this is a popular spot to see local and national rock and punk bands. Even if you haven’t been inside, you’ve probably noticed that you can see into the stage area from outside, and even hear a sample of the band playing, which might help you decide whether you’d like to go in and watch in person. You can usually sit in the bar area and listen to the sounds coming from the other room without paying a cover, but if you’d like to walk inside and watch the bands up close, it will sometimes be a band member that takes your $5 bill. Check out the array of band t-shirts covering the walls and ceiling, too!
Insider tip: Check out the monthly calendar posted on the venue’s front window to see who’s playing in the near future.
On Butler Street in Lawrenceville, the Thunderbird Café has several floors from which to watch the bands playing. The main bar has a billiards table and a closed circuit TV pointed at the stage so you can see the action even when it’s too crowded upstairs. The stage level has a fair amount of standing room, and lets you get right up in front of the band. The upstairs level has some tables and chairs and another bar, and affords you a birds-eye view of the band in action. Take your pick here, you can’t go wrong, and the Thunderbird always has something interesting going on. From rock bands to folk musicians and blues singers, you’re bound to find a night of the week with something that strikes your fancy.
Insider tip: This is the only bar on this list that allows smoking inside, if you’re into that sort of thing. The food is tasty, too!
Best of the Rest: Garfield Artworks on Penn Ave in Garfield is a gallery-cum-performance space that has a great string of indie bands passing through. It’s not the prettiest place in town, but if you’re looking for band/audience interaction, it’s impossible to beat. The Smiling Moose on the South Side has a small upstairs room with a raised stage and can be a great place for a crowded, sweaty punk rock show. Some DIY venues around town, like 222 Ormsby and The Shop, are also great and take some more hunting to find, but they’re worth it if you want to join the scene.
Brendan Sullivan is a graduate student in mathematics and avid music fan/blogger. You can find more of his music writing at www.drawuslines.com