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Rockers find welcome reception, new gigs in today's culture

| Saturday, Aug. 22, 2015, 5:27 p.m.
Rock musician Shari Richards belts out classic rock tunes as the lead singer of her band which performs at Blush Sports Bar in Downtown Pittsburgh on Tuesday July 28, 2015.
Sidney Davis | Trib Total Media
Rock musician Shari Richards belts out classic rock tunes as the lead singer of her band which performs at Blush Sports Bar in Downtown Pittsburgh on Tuesday July 28, 2015.
Rock musician Shari Richards performs at Blush Sports Bar in Downtown Pittsburgh on Tuesday July 28, 2015.
Sidney Davis | Trib Total Media
Rock musician Shari Richards performs at Blush Sports Bar in Downtown Pittsburgh on Tuesday July 28, 2015.
Local musician Tom Breiding performs at his regular  gig at the Leaf & Bean in the Strip District on Saturday July 18, 2015.
Sidney Davis | Trib Total Media
Local musician Tom Breiding performs at his regular gig at the Leaf & Bean in the Strip District on Saturday July 18, 2015.

In a corner of the third-floor sports bar, Shari Richards and her band roar through a series of blues-rock standards.

It's a riveting performance by accomplished musicians, but some patrons aren't listening to, or even aware of, the band. Their focus is directed to the opposite corner of the room where a young, glamorous woman gyrates, spins and poses, shedding garments until there's little left to the imagination.

It's just another Tuesday-night jam session at the sports bar at Blush, the Downtown gentleman's club known for lithe dancers, not live music.

“It used to be burlesque houses were venues where musicians could play,” says Richards, who admits playing in a strip club wasn't in the plans when she started her career. “So, it's changed a bit since then, but I consider myself a working musician. I enjoy getting out of my comfort zone and doing any type of gig there is.”

Not that Richards has a choice. As income from recorded music becomes increasingly negligible, workaday rockers who have never come close to being superstars, but love what they do, often have to make a choice: Take nontraditional gigs where the music serves as little more than aural wallpaper — or seek another form of employment.

“When we're here, it's like any other place you're playing,” says Joe Munroe, the keyboard player in Richards' Tuesday-night band. “Some people are just here hanging out; some are listening to the music.”

Fifty years ago, rock music was a relatively new cultural phenomenon. Like jazz music in the 1920s or comic books in the 1950s, rock 'n' roll was often thought to have a deleterious effect on impressionable youth, resulting in efforts to ban or censor the music.

In 1965, the Rolling Stones' “(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction” was banned by numerous radio stations because of sexually suggestive lyrics. That same year, “Eve of Destruction” by Barry McGuire was removed from stores and radio-station play-lists because it suggested the end of the world was near. Also in 1965, the innocent infatuation expressed in The Shangri-La's “Leader of the Pack” was not allowed on ABC television shows because it allegedly made motorcycle gangs look attractive.

What would those ethical arbiters think now? Songs by the Rolling Stones, the Doors, Led Zeppelin and other of bands once considered threats to the moral fabric of society can be regularly heard in grocery stores, casinos, chain restaurants and other public venues.

“I never ever thought it would come to this,” says Pat DiCesare, the longtime Pittsburgh concert promoter. “You would never think it would happen. When I started (in the late 1950s), stations like KDKA wouldn't even play black music. If Fats Domino came out with ‘Ain't That a Shame,' they wouldn't play it. They'd wait until Pat Boone covered it. ... They'd play the white versions of songs.”

What happened? Rock music, simply, has aged to the point where it is no longer the newest and most dangerous art form.

“I think it's true that rock 'n' roll has become simply an accepted part of mainstream culture,” says David Shumway, a professor of English, and literary and cultural studies at Carnegie Mellon University and author of “Rock Star: The Making of Musical Icons From Elvis to Springsteen” (John Hopkins University Press). “Therefore, it's not at all surprising that people would find it comforting, or not troubling, to hear it played in the background the way they would have (found it troubling) in the 1960s.”

For Shumway, the tipping point occurred when Bruce Springsteen's “The Rising” was “welcomed as an appropriate memorial for 9/11,” he says.

But two years earlier, another seismic change occurred. When the peer-to-peer file sharing service Napster allowed anyone with Internet access to download music for free, it “cheapened the art of recording and creating music,” says Mike Speranzo, a musician and co-owner of Mr. Small's Theater in Millvale.

Major labels initially dismissed Napster as inconsequential until there was a severe downturn in revenue from sales of recorded music. Eventually, lawsuits by Metallica, Dr. Dre and the Recording Industry Association of America contributed to Napster's demise, but the damage had been done: A generation was born that viewed free music not only as its birthright, but also found it easily accessible via laptops, iPods, cellphones and tablets.

“Now that you have the saturation of information, you don't need to utilize lyrics or the mythology of a rock band to try to find your place in culture,” Speranzo says, noting that the music and lyrics of Roger Waters and Pink Floyd was seminal in his development as an artist and a person. “It's easier for you. You amass your friends in social media, you watch the trends that go through social media, and you react to them just as you would the stories of rock stars. I think the mentality of people is the same: they still want to be inspired or moved by something. They just shifted their attention away from art and focused more on the information age, the social-media age, and those connections.”

The idea of music as background is not new. According to Shumway, royal courts of 18th-century Europe hired musicians solely to be heard, and not seen.

“The idea of going and watching people playing music would have seemed quite foreign,” Shumway says. “In the Western tradition, the concert emerges out of the combination of music being used for background music for rich people, and the church. Music's original roles, in both cases, were to accompany something else. It then develops into this art form that people go to specifically to hear.”

Today's musicians, who have grown up attending concerts and performing on stages where the music is the focus, sometimes have to adjust when they are not the main attraction.

Tom Breiding has had a regular Saturday-afternoon gig at the Leaf and Bean, a cigar store and coffee shop in the Strip District, for the past 10 years. The Washington County resident says it's one of the “coolest places in Pittsburgh” and notes the diversity of the audience and the laidback atmosphere. He calls it his “best gig,” but sometimes has to adjust on the fly.

During a recent appearance, he chided a few patrons who were talking loudly.

“I have a microphone and I need to be the loudest person in here,” he politely told them. The group of men respectfully lowered the volume of their conversation, but it was clear they weren't there to hear Breiding.

“I didn't have to do that, and I probably shouldn't have done it,” Breiding says. “You try to put a kibosh on it early before it gets out of hand.”

The Leaf & Bean gig, while steady and eclectic, is not what Breiding envisioned when he started playing music.

“It's not really a listening crowd, but it is,” Breiding says. “For every person who is sitting and socializing, there's somebody next to them listening to every song and really appreciating it. That's the thing that makes it unique.”

Despite becoming a national touring act and attracting fans from across the country, Lovebettie, the Greensburg-based band, occasionally performs at casinos. Lead singer Alexandra Naples says fans come to hear the group in such settings, but for many of the patrons, it's just a pleasant distraction.

What is more striking is the overall makeup of Lovebettie's audience. Naples, 28, notes the band tends to attract older fans. And the fans who are in her age group often aren't focused on the music.

“It's very rare to find people my own age who have the attention span,” Naples says. “It's difficult for them, if they're not being force-fed, to like it on their own. They have a hard time concentrating on what it is they're listening to, appreciating it. I'm not saying all people (in her age group), at all, but there are certainly plenty of them. I have found with the older crowd ... they're actually paying attention. ‘Oh, I really like this,' and they can tell you why.”

Speranzo refers to this demographic as the iPod generation, and wonders if the line of succession — from Vaudeville to rock 'n' roll and Led Zeppelin has now led to — gasp! — the Kardashians.

“They're the new pop-rock stars,” Speranzo says of the reality TV personalities. “It's about where pop culture chooses to put its fascination, and where young boys and young girls who are rebelling choose to put their attention.”

There are signs that rock music has become, if not passe, no longer revolutionary. Spotify, the online music-streaming service, recently created a musical map of the world that indicates hip-hop is the most popular genre in the world.

But rock 'n' roll adherents are steadfast in their belief that it will remain potent.

“It's part of our past, and we know where the music came from and know its significance,” Breiding says. “I don't think you can ever erase that.”

Rege Behe is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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