East Carson Street, with its once record-holding stretch of bars and clubs and its seemingly constant influx of partiers and pub-crawlers, might rightfully be assumed a hub of music-related nightlife to Pittsburgh. After all, there aren't too many places in town where a music venue can count on walk-in traffic on the weekends, nonetheless on a Wednesday.
But that doesn't mean the South Side is immune to fluctuations in fashion and funds, as was proven over the past few weeks when, almost simultaneously, two Carson Street bars ceased long-running spates of live band music.
For six years, Wednesday nights have meant Lava Lounge to original-rock fans, when the cozy club hosted no-cover showcases of mostly local bands, both those established and those just getting started. Similarly, weekends at the Memphis Room -- the upstairs function room at Zythos -- held varying numbers of upstarts and experiments, from punk-rock long-timers to the soon-to-be big local names like residents Beam. Now, both are at least temporarily closed to live music, though for largely different reasons.
"For years, we were pretty consistent with the business on Wednesdays," says Scott Kramer, co-owner of the Lava Lounge. "Over the past year our revenue on Wednesdays has dropped by about half."
Live music costs Kramer more than other nights -- he pays for a soundman, a doorman, and, of course, the bands, which were given a flat fee from the bar where most original-band venues pay from a door cover. And many benefits of Lava Lounge's shows didn't help pay the rent: As a consistently interesting live show mid-week, and with no cover to boot, Wednesdays became something of a meeting place for the rock scene. "I thought it was a crucial place to introduce people to bands and bands to each other," says longtime local musician Mary Bielich, who played the Lava Lounge frequently in bands such as Penance. "A lot of other places can't mix-and-match [different kinds of bands]; Lava Lounge had a built-in crowd and could try new bands."
Lava Lounge's night was popular enough that band-booker Chip Grimes had the Wednesdays set through March. Fortunately, when the club made the decision to cancel effective immediately in mid-December, Grimes was able to relocate the current schedule to Carson Street's newest rock 'n' roll bar, the Smiling Moose. Grimes hopes the Moose's proximity to other spots like Dee's Café will help with that all-important walk-in factor.
Ted Tarka of the Mud City Manglers already knows the Smiling Moose well: That's where his band moved a show they'd set up when the original venue, the Memphis Room, similarly cancelled its live-band schedule in late November, also effective immediately. The loss of both venues stings for a musician like Tarka, who sees his band's options -- and those of their peers -- shrinking. Some bands, he says, "aren't so big in town that they can easily get a gig at the other places, a lot of which are booking months in advance now. A lot of people cut their teeth in [Lava Lounge and Memphis Room]. There are still places to play, but it makes the competition that much more fierce."
Although Zythos/Memphis Room's change to an all-deejay format on weekends occurred suddenly, owner George Haritos says it was a long time coming. "The deejay thing -- it fits more what Zythos was designed to be," says Haritos. "The people in the electronica community, they want a Cheers-type bar too -- a 'place where everybody knows your name.'"
Haritos hopes to turn Zythos/Memphis Room into that venue -- a place where the electronica scene can take root and have an uninterrupted schedule for itself. Meanwhile, while Kramer doesn't rule out a return to Lava Lounge for live music, the Smiling Moose has agreed to try out Grimes' Wednesday night schedule through mid-March. But that, like any other club, seems to depend entirely on the fans -- something there just might not be enough of.
Wednesday night shows at the Smiling Moose begin Jan. 7. Weekend deejay schedules at Zythos/Memphis Lounge begin Jan. 17.