In 1997, Barbara Manning, one of my favorite indie-rock singer-songwriters, finally came to Pittsburgh for a solo show at the Bloomfield Bridge Tavern. I had been a fan of her introspective songs (which actually pre-dated the term “indie rock”), as a solo artist, and in bands like 28th Day and the S.F. Seals. We became acquainted after I sent her a letter in San Francisco in the early 1990s. We talked by phone and sent each other copies of our albums. I even interviewed her for a fanzine. But we never talked in person. I saw the Seals at the CMJ Music Marathon in New York, but never got close enough to say hello. By then, we had fallen out of touch anyway, so who knows if she’d remember me.
Then, on a Thursday night in July 1997, she walked into the BBT. Pushing all my shyness and fanboy feelings aside, I ran up to her and introduced myself. “Oh my God, how are you? It’s so good to finally meet you,” she yelled as she gave me a hug.
Yep. She remembered me.
We all have our Bloomfield Bridge Tavern stories. That’s mine. And that’s only half of it.
The BBT closed its doors this past weekend.
The Polish neighborhood bar in Pittsburgh’s Little Italy hosted all manner of live music during the 1990s. Before Mr. Roboto Project came into being in 1998, this was the place where you might catch touring indie rockers as they were headed for bigger things. (One of my bands opened for Cat Power, who could barely be heard over the din of the crowd thanks to the feeble P.A.).
Sure, the Electric Banana was still around, and the 31st Street Pub was just starting to become entrenched in the live-music business. But the BBT was more intimate, perfect for groups that played best in a small room. Not only that, it — gasp — let the bands take all the door money.
On Saturday night, it was only 9:07 p.m. and a throng of people were spilling out onto the sidewalk. Seeing that, and hearing loud voices through the screened-in deck, made me worry that there was
no room inside.
But this is the BBT. The line was due to the necessary ID-check, for which the BBT has been famous. (They’d turn away your mum if she didn’t have her I.D.) With that necessity out of the way, I was half-right about my worry: There was hardly any room to move inside. In an effort to saddle up to an open space at the bar on the left side of the room, I was got trapped when the palooka a few steps ahead of me decided to stop and talk to some friends at a table, blocking the way in the process. So who does the couple, coming in the opposite direction with an elderly patron, decide to yell at?
Hint: the guy behind Joe Palooka.
But this isn’t the time to quibble. And as the evening wore on, those tables were moved outside to make more internal space.
The mantle lining the main space of the BBT was still packed with beer steins of all sizes, going all the way around the periphery. In one corner, above the bar, stood the picture of the late Stanley “Stush” Frankowski, who opened the place in 1985, holding a picture of Pope John Paul II. Frankowski passed away in 2005, and since then, his son, Steve, has been the personality behind the bar: a welcoming presence who was just as likely to offer personal advice as pour you a drink. He even gave me a set of power tools after I bought a house. But without Stan, none of us would be here.
The beer cooler, behind the bar, was another story. Once upon a time, a full-length case stocked with imports sat right inside the front door. Patrons could grab a beer themselves, and a bell would sound, making sure that Steve knew to charge them. In more recent times, the beer was housed behind the band and tonight, the cooler looked closer to Old Mother Hubbard’s cupboard. Several favorites were only available on draft. Instead of getting my usual gin and shanleys — a gin and soda, rechristened long ago in my honor by Mike Lingo of long-gone noisemakers SWOB — was served in a plastic cup, rather than a glass.
It was fitting the Ploughman’s Lunch, one of the first bands from the post-punk scene to find a home at the BBT, was the last band to grace the stage, on both Friday and Saturday. The band evolved out of Carsickness, tempering its tense, stop-start style and political slant with Celtic roots. Karl Mullen, the band’s singer/guitarist, returned to town from his current home in Williamstown, Mass.. Saxophonist Don Roehlich, who hadn’t been able to return earlier this year for the Carsickness reunion, made it for the weekend. Vocalist Jennifer Goree, bassist Hugh Watkins and violinist Megan Williams joined longtime Mullen associates Steve Sciulli and Dennis Childers.
For most of the evening, the throng of well-wishers made getting a good look at the band a challenge. The mirrors on the ceiling, however, offered a good alternative view. Live sound at the BBT has always varied, depending on where you stand. The rhythm section and some vocals could be heard from the back of the room. Walk through the doorway toward the back of the room closer to the stage and the volume often surged, guitars and rhythm section roaring away. Tonight was no exception. While I thought Mullen was singing something like “piss on him,” it turned out to be, on closer inspection, “peace, love and blarney.” Quite a difference.
Frankowski usually made bands stop at 1 a.m. to be considerate of the neighbors. By last call on Saturday, Ploughman’s Lunch was still going strong. And the band had already played “Never Walk Alone,” in which Childers, Sciulli and Roehlich walked outside into the parking lot and back in through
the side door, playing the whole time. Phat Man Dee jumped onstage earlier to do her unique version of “The Star Spangled Banner,” and local activist Vincent Eirene also took a turn on the mike. It was only then that I remembered that the BBT had hosted an annual Martin Luther King Day concert, in which both of those Pittsburgh fixtures had been involved. Hopefully it’ll find a new, equally supportive home.
Steve was talking to patrons outside when I decided to head home. Sheila Evans, bartender extraordinaire, was still busy behind the bar. Interrupting either of them for a long, drawn-out goodbye didn’t seem necessary. (My family had been in for a last Polish Platter in recent days.)
As I walked back home across the Bloomfield Bridge, my mind went back to that night in 1997 with Barbara Manning, another night when I avoided an excessive goodbye. Her set had been everything I had hoped for — sweet, melancholy at times and funny. Afterward, I asked if I could take one last picture of her. Barbara not only obliged but insisted that I get in it with her. I thought the night couldn’t get any better. Then my favorite songwriter kissed me goodnight. A voice in my head said, “Leave now before you say something dumb.” I told her she was sweet, and I floated home across the bridge.
Thanks, Steve. Thanks, Sheila. Thanks to everyone who created memories at the BBT. They will live on.