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Hitsburgh: Star Searches

Tuesday, February 13, 2001

By Scott Mervis, and Ed Masley

In 1983 a big new room determined to get the world watching opened down the hill from the Banana, offering a clean showcase for national acts and local bands alike.

Though Graffiti never had the go-there-just-to-go-there vibe, an entire new scene would develop around it, with MTV hopefuls like Kids After Dark, the Affordable Floors and Hector in Paris, who packed the floor with a brand of New Wave dance music that was as far from the Decade as you could get and still be in Oakland.

"Not being from Pittsburgh, I never could really relate to the whole shot and a beer thing, though I've come to appreciate it more," says Harris, who formed the group from the remains of the Cardboards. "Part of the New Wave thing was to be glamorous and dress up and look sharp, as Joe Jackson used to say. When Graffiti opened it was like this new place, kind of glamorous."

On the other side of glamorous, the Spuds, renowned for performing in boxers, enjoyed a local hit with "Patti Burns My Eyes," while Hector in Paris made it all the way to MTV before packing it in.

In 1984, the then-Post-Gazette critic was moved to gush, "I have seen Pittsburgh's rock 'n' roll future and its name is Kids After Dark."

But when the future came, it was the Floors who got the record deal. Having established themselves as a Peter Gabriel-type art-rock act with the local success of "Drumming on the Walls," the Floors were able to bring in Gabriel keyboardist Larry Fast to produce a record for MCA. It never saw the light of day, the victim of a corporate shakeup. Another area band on MCA, Connellsville's Zippers, at least got a record out before the ax fell.

The Graffiti scene got more competitive in 1984 with the introduction of a Rock Challenge that each year thrust one band to the top of the heap. The Rock Challenge made winners of 11th Hour, Brownie Mary, Buzz Poets, Out of the Blue, the Yves Jean Band, the Vibro Kings and Shonuff, among others.

Bill Deasy won with his band Shiloh. Years later, he signed to Atlantic with an outgrowth of Shiloh, the Gathering Field, releasing the brilliant but -- sadly -- prophetically titled "Lost in America" album, the title track of which had been a major local hit.

And in the losers circle? Seventh House, who last year released their Atlantic-distributed debut, and two of Pittsburgh's biggest bands: the Clarks and Rusted Root.

The Clarks emerged from Indiana University of Pennsylvania in the early '80s with guitars and quickly won favor at WDVE, resulting in such major local hits as "Cigarette" and "Penny on the Floor." The band, which has grown big enough to headline a venue as large as the A.J. Palumbo Center, was briefly signed to MCA-distributed Way Cool Records and last year released its latest album on Razor & Tie.

With a sound they called "tribal acoustic," Rusted Root appeared in 1990 as a lean quartet, fronted by Michael Glabicki, and gradually exploded into a percussive force as their numbers grew.

"The stuff that Michael was writing was like stuff I'd never heard before," says singer/percussionist Liz Berlin. "We really had the sense that we were creating something that hadn't happened yet."

The band's rapturous club performances seemed to re-ignite a new hippie culture of twirl dancing and patchouli oil for the Gulf War era.

"The war was going on, there was awareness of different types of spirituality," Berlin says. "We were on our journey and so were other people, and our shows were like the place to meet up."

Mercury signed them based on the local success of "Cruel Sun," and with "When I Woke," featuring the popular single "Send Me on My Way," Root became the first Pittsburgh-based group with a platinum album (now close to double platinum). They followed with the gold "Remember" and waged major tours with Page and Plant, the Allman Brothers, H.O.R.D.E. and the Dave Matthews Band. The band is reunited and currently working on its fifth album.

Existing like an island off the coast of the music scene has been a spirited little reggae community that has ebbed and flowed over the past 20 years with bands like the Clouds, the Core, the Flow Band and Chill Factor International. In 1982, the scene was transformed by a dreadlocked battalion direct from Jamaica called the S.W.A.M.M.P. Band. A Pittsburgh-based manager brought them here, and they set up shop at a club called the Pyramid in East Liberty.

"We kind of came in the middle of the night," says Delroy "Zapology" Clarke, a keyboardist/singer who still keeps S.W.A.M.M.P. alive, "and you wonder what's going to happen, but things started taking off. People here were starving for reggae, the true reggae. There were a couple bands, but they weren't playing in the true style."

The hip-hop scene, while still looking for its home turf, has produced the Hill District's Melvin Bradford (better known as Mel Man), who records with Dr. Dre's Aftermath label and did production work for Eminem's "The Marshall Mathers LP."

Scott Mervis is the Post-Gazette Weekend Magazine editor. Ed Masley is the PG pop music critic.

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