Staff picks: finding the city’s best music venues

By TPN Staff

Pittsburgh attracts a variety of bands and musicians — from acts touring on a global scale to the nearby talent of its thriving independent music scene.

We know you’ve heard about Queen Bey and the Biebs making stops in the Steel City this summer, but living in a mid-sized city means even your favorite lesser-known artists are likely to drop in. You’ll have to find the coolest house shows yourself, but no doubt you will end up venturing to one of the locations listed below to catch a favorite mainstream or local act.

Here’s some staff picks for Pittsburgh’s best music venues:

Sarah Schneider / Staff Writer

The Altar Bar, 1620 Penn Ave. — The Strip District

The Altar Bar is a small yet laudable concert venue located in the heart of Pittsburgh’s Strip District.

Pittsburgh has a habit of renovating old churches — into concert locales and breweries, mostly. The Altar Bar used to be the beautiful St. Elizabeth Church and was converted into one of the coolest music spots in town and named accordingly. With its stained-glass windows and organ loft, any concert can quickly turn into something of a spiritual experience.

The Altar Bar itself is modestly sized, yet the venue attracts big names from Snoop Dogg, Hoodie Allen and Mac Miller to Sum 41, the Misfits and Imagine Dragons. At the same time, the venue stays loyal to Pittsburgh’s own prominent music scene and hosts a number of local up-and-coming bands. The Altar Bar’s mission to “resurrect live music in the city” has helped accomplish that in just five years.

Photo Courtesy of Mr Smalls Theatre
Photo Courtesy of Mr. Smalls Theatre

Lexi Kennell / Staff Writer

Mr. Smalls Theatre & Funhouse, 400 Lincoln Ave. — Millvale

Like the Altar Bar, Mr. Smalls is a former 18th-century Catholic church. It’s located in Millvale, and can hold up to 650 people — lending to a very intimate vibe. There’s standing room only, but accommodations can be made for patrons with disabilities.

Mr. Smalls is equipped with a full-service Funhouse Bar and Restaurant that sells draft, craft and imported beers, as well as wine and liquor.

What was once called Mr. Smalls Skatepark is now The Funhouse, an added spot for local artists to perform. The owners often book a national artist at the theater and a local artist akin in genre at The Funhouse to help local musicians gain traction. Patrons of the bigger concerts at Mr. Smalls Theatre can go to The Funhouse at any point — a simple way to boost the local music scene.

Photo Courtesy of The Rex Theater
Photo Courtesy of Rex Theater

Ian Flanagan / Culture Editor

Rex Theater, 1602 E. Carson St. — South Side

I was lucky enough to see Rubblebucket, a spirited indie-dance outfit from Brooklyn, perform at Rex last year.

The band’s ecstatic performance was one thing, especially with the ability to be so close to the musicians. But as the show ended, the band began a free-form drum-circle-esque postlude, filing off the stage and into the crowd to move with the dancing audience.

Part of the lively strip of East Carson Street, Rex Theater’s understated and welcoming ambiance makes it a fine place to catch performances from local and popular independent artists. The theater will be hosting acts such as Aesop Rock and the Melvins this summer.

It’s old-fashioned entrance and main floor — bisected for those under and over 21 — sloping toward the humble stage suggest the place may be stuffy or out of date. But from the full service bar — offering a number of craft beers — to the freedom performers have to interact with the audience, a show at Rex Theater can become remarkably fun.

Photo Courtesy of Amazing Books and Records
Photo Courtesy of Amazing Books and Records

Alexa Bakalarski / News Editor

Amazing Books & Records, 2030 Murray Ave. — Squirrel Hill

When you think “music venue,” you probably picture somewhere bigger, louder and more crowded than a bookstore — but that’s what makes Amazing Books a great change of pace.

Hosting the occasional live jazz jam or wizard rock concert, Amazing Books & Records gives you the chance to do something you don’t normally do at a concert: buy a book.

Amazing Books & Records can’t accommodate anywhere near as many people as Stage AE can, so the smaller setting creates a quaint atmosphere. You also don’t have to worry about jostling through hordes of people or long lines at the merch table. It’s a cozier, more personal venue, where you’re sure to get an up-close view of your favorite underground or indie artist.