Nik Westman knew that his days in Pittsburgh were limited. By 2011, he had released two CDs with his band Nik & the Central Plains, and finished a tour in support of the solid Walk on Beaches. With a key member of the band leaving the fold to become a new parent, the writing was on the wall. “I just knew that at that point in my life I was ready to try something else,” he says. “Things were happening at that time and the signs were all [saying], ‘Okay, it’s time to try something you haven’t done before. Go to New York or something.’”
At the time, the Central Plains fit perfectly on bills with the Harlan Twins and Boca Chica, groups that combined the depth of singer-songwriters and a roots rock feel with the delivery and presentation found in indie rock. It would make sense to see that Westman had New York ambitions. However, the “or something” in his recollection reveals that he wasn’t necessarily charting a course toward greater musical fame. New York just seemed like a logical step since he had a sister there, and a place to stay while he got his feet on the ground. Before long, though, he was frequenting open stages in Brooklyn, meeting fellow songwriters who would become part of the new Central Plains lineup. It took them a few years to complete the vinyl-only Commuter but the extra time was well spent.
NIK WESTMAN & FRIENDS
With Gary Musisko, Morgan Erina, Chet Vincent, Lindsay Dragan, Andre Costello. 9 p.m. Friday, August 3, Full Pint Wild Side Pub, 5310 Butler Street, Lawrenceville. $5. 412-408-3083
Westman says that playing music in New York, even part time, requires a greater commitment than what he experienced back home. “When I was in Pittsburgh, I was in my early 20s. I was working four days a week, living in Polish Hill. I was able to put more time into the jams,” he says. “In New York, it’s a grind, man. I work full-time doing carpentry, about 45 hours a week. Going to practice or recording sessions on weekdays after work — you can’t do it every day. You [also] have to rent rehearsal space. No one has houses. It’s so different from Pittsburgh.”
By frequenting small Brooklyn haunts like Pete’s Candy Store, Westman met several musicians who offered to back-up his guitar and voice. Drummer Ryan O’Toole factored heavily into the music, with recording equipment and an ear for extra instrumentation that adds to the allure of the songs. O’Toole also appears in the lyrics of “NYC Man,” which depicts personal the losses and struggles of playing music in the Big City. Like many tracks on Commuter, that song had an understated, indie rock groove to it. But Central Plains also manages to rock out on the distorted “Ah Yeah” and show some country twang on “Don’t You Know By Now” and “Blues John,” the latter a remake of a track from his earlier CDs.
The songs on Commuter were recorded over a three-year period. Westman, who got married during that time, didn’t see the need to rush anything. “There was just so much stuff going on that I had to take my time with it and not half-ass the record,” he says. “I picked the songs that work together but still a little bit of an eclectic feel, some indie rock stuff, little bit of the bluesy, country stuff.” While a start-up indie label expressed interest in the band, the members ultimately decided to release the record on their own.
Westman isn’t ready for a full-blown tour, but he decided to book a Pittsburgh show during a visit with his family. He’ll perform solo, though his father might join him for a song or two on guitar. This won’t be his first return to a local stage since he moved. In fact, several return shows have generated an interesting element that he hadn’t seen before. “I don’t know them, but there’s always some strange dancers, some person or couple that would get their boogie on at the show,” he says with a laugh. Hopefully they’ll be there too.