First Night is always part recap, part scouting session: stuff you missed all year plus early versions of what's to come. Some of the performers are predictably booked -- we seem likely to get Amish Monkeys and Pure Gold until that last, eternal ball drops on us -- but the First Night cross-section I saw during the first couple hours of the Cultural Trust's 14th annual New Year's extravaganza did have some new wrinkles.
I liked WYEP's music showcase in that brick-walled, sixth-floor event space at 121 Seventh St. -- Good Night, States (whom it was my first chance to hear) played its first set of melodic pop-rock to a small but appreciative audience. Over at CAPA, people were taking swing-dance lessons in the black-box theater, and the new Creative Reuse Pittsburgh group awaited visitors to turn salvaged microfilm reels, flooring samples and garden hoses into decorations. Up Penn Avenue, a slightly surreal scene, as a couple dozen heavily jacketed and scarved folks took outdoor line-dancing lessons from a guy who stood on a low stage facing a blank wall. His dancing shadow was rather ominously cast on that wall, I thought; it looked like a square dance as filmed by David Lynch.
In a nearby storefront, I got a preview of a provocative in-progress work by local documentarian Chris Ivey (East of Liberty), this one (titled Starved) about the challenges faced here by black artists of the past and present.
Out on Ninth Street, on the stage set up between Penn and Liberty, the world's coldest reggae band (a.k.a. Wizdom) ran in place perking through Bob Marley's "Three Little Birds." On Liberty, ArtUp had jammed its borrowed storefront with live jazz, a video booth and photos and illustrations honoring Pittsburgh's labor heritage.
As with any festival, much of First Night's appeal is its transience, as a concatenation of unrepeatable little moments in unlikely places -- a parade, in fact, and one much like the night's own chilly procession up Penn, giant puppets, marching bands, fire trucks.
But a highlight was something you can still see for a little bit: In the storefront gallery at 709 Penn, visiting artist Amy Trompetter has installed a deeply moving tribute to Anna Politkovskaya, the Russian journalist who defied death threats to report on the war in Chechnya and was murdered in 2006. Suspended from the gallery's ceiling are papier-mache horse heads, screaming a la "Guernica," while banners and murals fill the space with rampant soldiers, cowering victims ... and skyborne angels, rendered in a style suggesting Russian Orthodox iconography.
Attendance at First Night seemed a little thin to me, though maybe it was just because most of the 125 events took place indoors. In any case, the Cultural Trust claims 35,000 patrons showed. I hope that as many as possible saw Trompetter's work.