Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Amphitheater at Station Square UNCEREMONIOUSLY DUMPED

I'm just as guilty as anyone for not wishing the venerable asphalt parking lot cum festival tent a fond farewell. For all the decades of concert activity (and debauchery,)  you'd think people would want to do a little more reminiscing, and maybe even celebrate it's time and place in the grand scheme of Pittsburgh's pop cultural landscape. Here it is, months later, but not without heart.


The longstanding outdoor venue escapes recollection, despite its tenure and the notable talents it hosted, for two main reasons; 1) confusing naming rights, and 2) the low rent vibe. The latter actually appeals to locals, who favor the homespun DIY aesthetic, especially when merging with live music with alcohol. The former, however, is something no one in this town can stand. So while the necessary naming rights continued to bring minor improvements to the venue's structure itself, the market never quite wrapped its head around where it was they were enjoying all these great times. So, whether the show was booked at the Melody Amphitheater, the I.C. Light Amphitheater, Chevrolet  Amphitheater, or (ugh) Trib Total Media Amphitheater, concert goers inquiring as to the location of the event merely spoke in terms of it occurring at "Station Square," the re-purposed historic center of commerce it nestled up against. By the time the Tribune Review got involved, it was utterly confusing, sounding a little too much like The Post-Gazette Pavilion, and probably sending people on wild goose chases of an unfortunately grand scale. Throughout this essay I will continue to refer to the place as "The Amphitheater At Station Square" even though no one ever really called it that, because the place never really had a name for itself. It had a vague description for itself. There aren't too many businesses that can operate that way, and the fact that this one did, as long as it did, is a testament.

Once you figured out where you were going, and if you had never been there before (and maybe were a little too used to the full scale productions promoted by the national media landscape, trotted out to the major concert venues, exclusively) you could be excused for being somewhat disappointed in the venue itself. Essentially a 1/2 mile long stretch of blacktop with a temporary stage and scaffolding, the Amphitheater at Station Square had a strictly bare-bones utilitarian vibe. It was fine, thanks solely to it's location, with panoramic views of downtown Pittsburgh's skyline, Mt. Washington and it's inclines, and even the Ft. Pitt Bridge (which looks really cool against a sunset.) It sat against train tracks, and depending on how rooted in the blues the act you were watching was, a passing train could create a memorable scene. Then the addition of a massive canopy, functioning as an ad-hock roof to shelter equipment and people who don't belong outside, diminished nearly all of  the venues magical qualities. To make it even more unpleasant they eventually added rows of folding chairs where general admission used to be, basically killing whatever good vibe the place had left. These additions would otherwise seem to makes sense except that the place was still basically a shitty parking lot in dis-use, and each attempt to elevate it only drove the point further home. Then there were the bathroom trailers. The facilities at The Amphitheater at Station Square bathrooms notoriously sub-par, the kind of glorified port-o-john that had flushing toilets and not nearly enough capacity to keep a drunk metal fan from pissing in the sink. Other amenities would eventually include a variety of food and drink vendors (beer!) a side stage, and some picnic tables. As I said, in the glamorous world of entertainment, all very low-rent. Yet, good. There was something to the idea that it didn't matter if you broke something, or regurgitated a gallon of cheap beer right out in the open. It was as if the parking lot scene was NOT replaced by the inside venue scene, as happens with most venues. A certain fluidity or continuity was afforded in this way, and it showed in the crowd atmosphere at any given show. Every time you went there there was something to comment on, or bellyache about, but you always had a great time, always talked to some new people, always came away with fond memories.


1988- We headed down to the embryonic 500 seat general admission Station Square Festival Tent to see 80's metal guitar god Yngwie Malmsteen. It had rained earlier and the show was postponed due to water collecting on a stage full of electrical equipment. As the enthusiastic crowd continued to line up, I ran into one of the three girls I had kissed up to that point, as well as Greg from the old neighborhood and school, and finally some weirdo from the North Side. After more than an hour, Yngwie emerged from the entrance of the tent and waved to his adoring, cheering fans, then climbed aboard his bus and drove away. WTF?! The girls went back to Bloomfield, and us guys conspired to get some beer and convince them to join us, except we were all underage. All, except for the weirdo, who hopped in our car and took us on a winding ride through the slopes of downtown Pittsburgh. As he ran into his house, for reasons we couldn't know, Greg leaned over and advised us that he knew the area and that the guy was driving us in circles. Then the guy hopped back into the car and we headed to Oakland, to pick up a case at the Uni-Bev. While the guy was inside Greg started freaking out, so we decided it was wiser to ditch the strange fellow, and we sped off into the night, laughing hysterically over our misadventure. Great memory!

1996- We headed down to the I.C. Light Amphitheater to witness The Pirates Ball, one of the great underrated, under-documented hippy concerts of the era. The Band cancelled out, as Levon was on a downturn, but we all quickly got over it because the great Vince Welnick and The Missing Man Formation were there for a rare live appearance. We all got ripped and danced our asses off. People were laughing and singing, Steve Cooperstien won the Jerry Garcia look-a-like contest, and for a brief moment in time Pittsburgh did quite literally seem like the West Coast of the East Coast. Great memory!

2000- I escorted my girlfriend, a striking beauty with a serious case of Farm Girl Rage, to the annual Rib and Wing cook-off, and saw some classic rock act that I don't remember.  The small town pageant winner/ race queen was ever so susceptible to flattery and loved making her companion jealous by basking in the attention of total strangers, but this trip took it to another level. As we continued to imbibe and the nature of her helplessness grew more apparent, she was spotted by one of the more experienced "marketing reps" working the crowd, and so we were both invited aboard the Cutty Sark traveling promotional vehicle. That was one of the first places I ever spilled a drink merely by trying to put it to my lips, while the muscled Lothario in charge of the operation cuddled with the aforementioned slut and attempted to persuade my girl to join them on their merry way. Naturally, she was ready to make the leap to fame and fortune via the back of a tour bus, expecting me to wait for her return. For days after the guy called and tried to persuade her, and she kept seeking my approval when all I could say to her was to do what she had to do. A short time later when we broke up, her friends would use that as an intelligent rational for my being too "controlling," but the truth is, by that time, the bitch had entered into a respectable career and now even has a family. Great memory!

2008- By this point I had been to the venue dozens of times, with different crowds, witnessing all the permutations, all the great music I love to see live. I had seen Grinch end their hard won success by standing on stage advocating killing the pigs and then never materialize again anywhere, ever. I had entered the music trivia challenge and been stumped by the shitty 'DVE playlist I had forced from my consciousness decades earlier. I had stood outside the Green Day show passing out flyers for my own fledgling concert promotion attempts, and did not cheat on the Cutty Sark wannabe even though it was probably the right thing to do. This would be my last visit to the place, when we would finally get to witness the great Levon Helm live in concert (on the drums, with Laryngitis) opening for The Black Crows. This is when my aging hearing decided that earplugs were essential concert gear, and that a venue leaning up against the side of a cliff didn't need to be so loud. The Crows are typically great, and the crowd was fun, as usual. Luckily enough, I didn't drop ALL of the joints I had rolled when reaching into my pocket for the ticket at the admission booth, and what was initially a disappointment gradually morphed into the satisfaction of knowing I probably made some unsuspecting, scuzzy-looking burnout's entire week. There would be a few other acts to appear at this venue that I might've enjoyed seeing, but by now I've seen hundreds of concerts, and my evolving musical tastes (combined with the fact that I've been rocking out rather than advancing my career) were keeping me firmly situated at the $15 or under club level.


As happens, the Amphitheater could not survive the onslaught of the big corporations who like to pray on situations like the one we currently face, which is a low turn out for live performance in light of a bygone era of giant concert venues placed ridiculously far outside of city limits. What the big money can do is get the laws re-written, get the tax breaks to allow them to correct the situation that the little guy has been chipping away at for years. So the out of town hawks swooped in and built a sparkling new, mid-size facility in the vain of the Amphitheater at Station Square, on the opposite side of town where the big development push is occurring. They locked in all the struggling mid-size touring acts and strangled the like-sized local promoters. It even has a shitty naming rights name, right from the start, but it has already made more of an impact in three years than the Amphitheater could in as many decades. Stage AE is definitely the venue for it's time, but so was the Amphitheater at Station Square. The differences are on the surface (newness, high levels of functionality and versatility) and underneath (corporate infiltration of what was once sub-culture) with AE taking all the honors. It's an actual building facing a wave of entertainment options and audiences not accustomed to festival crowds and atmosphere, therefore it feels more like watching something through a monitor in your living room. That doesn't necessarily have to translate to less of a good time, but it makes me wonder how far can it go? Will the new venue operate for decades and what will it look and feel like by that time? Will audiences for live music still exist? What happens when the music biz completely tanks and the Ohio promoters pull out? We'll have to wait and see. Stage AE is a classy upgrade, for sure, although it probably indicates more about the currently sad state of Rock 'N' Roll than any mismanagement on the part of the Amphitheater. With little choice, Pittsburghers will now be going to the North Side to Rock out, shelling out for absurd ticket surcharge fees, paying more for parking, and paying craft beer prices for the terrible selection of Canadian beers. Probably getting arrested for public drunkeness at a higher rate, too.  In the end it's just as well, and I'll be among them soon enough, admiring all the glitz and conducting myself like a guest at somebodies house, all while being thankful that there is at least SOME place still around to enjoy the time honored tradition of seeing a favorite musical act perform. In fact, I've already starting creating fond memories of the new place, yet it will never be mine.

Maybe fifteen years from now, when Stage AE is finally converted to cheap office space, some thirty something dude will wax philosophic and try to convince readers that the pop-cultural world is changing maybe not for the better. That's the next generation's duty, and it will be framed within the context of fuzzy memories, generated by a spirit of carelessness and discovery. That's  the same spirit by which I fondly recall the Amphitheater at Station Square (or whatever you call it) and with luck I will continue to pull from that as I grow into an old man. It was a great, trashy run, and it lives on in people's hearts whether they realize it or not.