By Bethany Ruhe
Pittsburgh Current Associate Publisher
The Pittsburgh live rock scene during the mid-90s and early aughts was something special. The air wafting off the Mon contained music magic and it spread itself far and wide, producing a spate of musicians, producers and venues that shaped the sound of the city for the next 20 years.
If you weren’t here for it, or weren’t born yet, fear not! Great music never truly goes away, and some of the best rock bands of that era are either still making music, or thinking about making more.
Brownie Mary, for example, is playing a sold-out acoustic show at Club Cafe this week. Brownie Mary was one of the most popular bands in Pittsburgh during this time. Led by lead singer Kelsey Barber (now Friday), Brownie Mary’s driving pop style was one of the auditory hallmarks of Pittsburgh in the 1990s.
There was also what my musician friends called the ‘Pittsburgh guitar’, that indie/alt slap-off-the guitar sound that just made you want to move. One band that mastered that sound was Shonuff.
Gene Walker was, and still is, a gifted and energetic front man. Born and raised in North Braddock, Walker started playing guitar at 14, singing at 19, eventually joining ska-rock outfit, Chronic Groove.
After a few years, Walker linked up with three former Woodland Hills classmates in 1995 and created the soon-to-be-must-see band, Shonuff.
They came out swinging, with catchy riffs and Walker’s powerhouse vocals. When I lay my head down on my pillow at night I can still hear him telling the crowd, ‘Lemme hear you say… Shonuff’, and all of us answering, ‘Shonuff’ in unison, bouncing up and down to the beat like we were born to be there.
“It was such a great time to be playing music in Pittsburgh. Everyone supported everyone. If you didn’t have a show, you were at a show to support your friends,” Walker recalls.
This sentiment is echoed by Friday, “Honestly it was some of the best years of my life. The Pittsburgh music scene was so vibrant. Original. Organic. The chemistry between all of the bands, looking back, was super supportive and genuine.”
Most of the big venues of that day haven’t survived the years. Metropol, Rosebud, Club Laga, Graffitti, Altar Bar and, of course, Nick’s Fat City. Nick’s Fat City is the legendary, mythical music venue on Carson Street that would roll over in its grave to see what the space has become today.
Nick’s Fat City was the bar you went to when you wanted to see live rock music. It didn’t matter which day of the week it was, or who was playing, you were going to see some amazing artists. Legends like Donny Iris and The Clarks have filmed live albums there. All of the ’90s heavyweight local bands played there and many national touring acts graced the stage. And one time, I sang backup there for Acoustic Soup. Once.
Tim Gaber was there to see it all. He started out playing bass for Brownie Mary, put down his bass, started Hep Cat Productions and became the Buzz Poets’ manager. Then, one day, he accidentally became their bass player.
“Their original bass player had to step away. So I said, I’m happy to fill in while you find someone.” For one reason or another, each audition fell through, and so one day Gaber “shaved my head, got earrings, and showed up to my first official Buzz Poets gig at Nick’s Fat City.”
That kicked off 8 long years of playing more than 200 shows a year, trying to “make it.” They Toured all over and had meetings in New York, but it was all just ever-so-slightly out of reach. “We got really, really close. We almost become a one hit wonder. I would have taken that,” Gaber said wistfully. “You can go out and tour any time you want to on the strength of that one song.”
We are talking at a sidewalk table outside of Gaber’s Pittsburgh Winery, a winery and tasting room in the Strip District. If you ever get the chance to talk to a Pittsburgh rock legend about the crazy days of the ’90s, while also comparing Napa grapes to Sonoma grapes, I highly recommend doing so.
Gaber is a man who really loves music, really loves wine and is one of the lucky few who has found a way to combine two loves into a living. The original location is undergoing renovations, one of which is to accommodate a 250-person live music venue. While this was happening, Gaber missed live music so much that he started Vine Rewind, a two-day music festival in the heart of the Strip, now in its fourth year.
One of the great features of Vine Rewind is it pairs the best of yesterday with the best of today and tomorrow. New Invisible Joy playing with Beauty Slap, Good Brother Earl paired with Buffalo Rose.
Asked what venue she is most excited about , Brownie Mary’s Friday says, without hesitation, “The Pittsburgh Winery. I’m hoping it’s back up and running soon. Tim Gaber just gets it.’ (It also bears mentioning, not everyone’s favorite venue was Nick’s. For Friday’s money it was “Graffiti… hands down.”)
Brownie Mary’s show at Club Cafe this week is sold out, but this will not be your last chance to see them, so please don’t cry. They do try to get together a few times a year to play. Gabner mentioned some Buzz Poets material that never got recorded that he’s been thinking about. Even Walker mentioned that Shonuff enjoyed their ‘farewell’ gig at the Nick’s Fat City reunion concert so much that they’re mulling over doing something next year. And, don’t forget The Clarks, barely a week goes by that you can’t find them playing a live show.
The good news is, either way, you can’t go wrong. The rock magic is back in the Mon air, and there isn’t a night of the week you can’t go hear amazing live music by insanely talented artists of any genre. If you’re a music fan in Pittsburgh, it’s always a good time to be alive.