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Pittsburgh's music scene adds color to college life

| Sunday, Sept. 9, 2007

One of the many subtle pleasures of spending your college years in Pittsburgh is the local music scene. Sure, it's not Boston or Austin, but it's quite good for a mid-size city, away from the hubs of the music industry.

It's also a tough nut to crack without some help.

If you go to Pitt or Carnegie Mellon University and your student ID doubles as a bus pass, you'd be an idiot not to use it. Sure, the bus might keep you waiting 40 minutes in a hailstorm, or you might sleep through your stop and end up in McKeesport, but it's cheap and beats fighting for parking.

Find the South Side. If you can eat it or drink it, you can find it on the South Side.

I've been to rock clubs all over the U.S. and the U.K., and Club Cafe still is my favorite intimate, sit-down venue. It's the perfect showcase for well-established national indie rock and singer-songwriters, and local bands long graduated from the garage. Not all shows are all-ages.

The South Side also has the Rex Theatre -- a converted old movie theater -- and Diesel , a dance club. Both host national acts of every genre.

For new and used CDs, there's The Exchange and Dave's Music Mine , both open late.

Then there's Pittsburgh Guitars . It's never too early, or late, to start a band.

Find Squirrel Hill. It's a quiet, tree-lined neighborhood in the East End full of restaurants, coffee shops and attractive coffee shop girls. It's also where many of your professors probably live, so don't act like a moron there.

There's another version of The Exchange , where you can sell your CDs, DVDs and video games for spending money or more CDs, DVDs and video games. There's also Avalon , where you can sell clothes for money to later spend on CDs, DVDs and video games.

Squirrel Hill also has Jerry's Records , one of the greatest all-vinyl record stores on the planet. There's always a chance you'll run into DJ Shadow, Sonic Youth or some international DJ, sifting through the endless stacks for samples. In the same building, there's another branch of Dave's Music Mine and Heads Together , a great video store -- a veritable Temple of Obsolete Media.

If you dig jazz, hit Gullifty's . Sean Jones, one of the best trumpet players in the world, plays here often, for free -- although you might have to buy food.

Find Bloomfield. Pittsburgh's Little Italy and all-purpose hipster haven is home to Paul's CDs . They've got a ridiculous selection of psychedelic freak-folk, Japanese noise-pop, global garage ghetto funk and just about everything in between.

Bloomfield also has Brillobox , a newish bar, restaurant and performance space. Come for "Drink and Draw" or "Pandemic," a monthly dance night spinning the tunes the cool kids are dancing to in Bangalore, Rio, London, Zagreb and beyond.

Find your college radio station. WRCT 88.3-FM is Carnegie Mellon's amazing, free-form station, which typically has shows covering everything from underground hip-hop to alternative country. WPTS 92.1-FM is Pitt's station, which has a much smaller coverage area but puts cool stuff like the Arctic Monkeys, Balkan Beat Box and J Dilla in heavy rotation.

Get a show of your own. It's a great way to meet people with similar interests -- just listen in.

Find a favorite local band -- or 10. Check out Girl Talk, Grand Buffet, Wiz Khalifa, Black Moth Super Rainbow, Modey Lemon, Centipede E'est, Dirty Faces, Midnite Snake, Black Tie Revue, Christina Aguilera (!).

Find your niche. If you're into hip-hop, soul, funk or funky jazz, get thee to East Liberty. First stop, the Shadow Lounge -- a welcoming and diverse spot for digging into all kinds of new sounds. 720 Records is where discerning DJs and hip-hop connoisseurs come to stock up.

For punk rock, there's Mr. Roboto Project , a membership-supported, do-it-yourself venue in Wilkinsburg that brings bands in from as far away as Japan and Italy. For metalheads, try the Lawrenceville Moose .

Gooski's , a bar in Polish Hill, has an all-time-great jukebox, cheap beer and pierogies, and some of the most incredible nights of sweaty, smoke shrouded, packed-to-the-gills rock-'n'-roll insanity known to man. If you're 21.

Art galleries fulfill a vital role in Pittsburgh's musical ecosystem, often booking the most ambitious, experimental and exciting acts. Garfield Artworks hosts every kind of indie rock, electronic music and avant-jazz imaginable. The Andy Warhol Museum on the North Side also books amazing stuff, with upcoming shows by Grizzly Bear, Matthew Shipp and Yo La Tengo.

(Also, art gallery openings usually have free wine and finger-food. I'm just sayin'.)

Mr. Small's Theatre in Millvale is the best spot for mid-size national acts, package tours and giant showcases of local bands. It's in a beautiful old converted church, and has a recording studio upstairs. Good luck finding a bus that gets there, though. Maybe the band will give you a ride back to campus.

For notice of upcoming shows, there are plenty of free local papers -- we recommend Thursday's Ticket and Friday's Trib PM, of course -- and lots of online options. Sign up at www.thisishappening.com for weekly customized e-mail updates of arts and music events.

Good luck, and remember: If you're living on your parents' dime, don't spend all your money at Paul's or Jerry's. And don't forget to get that degree.

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