Farewell to a Vital Pulse Beat, in the Heart of a Town, The Rex Theater.
If you look up the word ”venue” in a random google search, you’ll see references to; a place where something happens, or somewhere organized events take place. Plain and simple, right? So shouldn’t things like hotel conference rooms, the back patio of someone’s house and churches make the list? A rollicking great time can be had by all in many of these environments, but I feel the spaces where we cross the Rubicon from entertainment to art seem to elicit the deepest of emotional stirrings. Pittsburgh’s Rex Theatre was one such space and we are all heartbroken to hear of its recent demise.
The first incarnation of the Rex was as a vaudeville theatre in 1905. At some point, it had a brief and (by all accounts) unsuccessful stint as a cinema before becoming a haven for rock and rollers in 2001, and it built a steady, loyal following from there. Now, there is a tide to these things. Music spaces ebb and flow. Many venues have come and gone, even in this one semi mid-western gateway to the East Coast: Decade, Graffiti, Club Laga, Rosebud, Metropol (to name but a few epic ghosts of Pittsburgh rock rooms past). I caught the last glimmers of some of these great places when I moved here back in 2000. Some I missed, but still heard them talked about. Personally I remember the Baggot Inn in Dublin, where every Irish rock star you’ve ever heard of had played in their early days: Thin Lizzy, U2, The Boomtown Rats and many more had all strutted their stuff in that tiny room. Bob Dylan and David Bowie would pop into the Baggot for hush-hush intimate shows when passing through town. It was unceremoniously bought up by Jack Charlton, the famous English soccer manager, who led Ireland to the World Cup quarter finals in 1990. To legions of rock n rollers it was sacrilege and the place never came close to being the same. I remember an even smaller place in London, called the 12 Bar Club, where KT Tunstal, Martha Wainwright, Adel and Jeff Buckley all played before they were who they would become. It was a quirky little room. There was a small audience space, front of stage (that was more like an alleyway than anything else) and then a not much bigger upper balcony. If you reached out a hand during your performance, you could literally touch the balcony, or maybe even shake hands with a punter sitting up there. As I said it was quirky, but much loved. NYC had CBGBs and now, in the going concern column, it has the Rockwood Music Hall and there are literally multitudes of others in multitudes of other towns scattered around the globe.
How, why? What is it that makes a room become something important in itself, a beloved space where we all want to play? Is it the sound system? Sometimes. Is it the drink specials? Rarely. David Byrne in his seminal book, Making Music, posits that the available venues in a town, create the “scene” and to a large degree shape the music that emerges from that scene. I’d go one step further, and say that the emergence of particular venues, and thus, that area’s “scene,” is predicated on the “believers” behind those venues. That one person, or small team, that are so passionate about music (all venue owners are, admittedly), but more than that, they believe in widening their own horizons, and the horizons of those around them. They create a space for everything. They shoot for quality but also take chances. They are adaptable. Most of all though, they treat people very well. I’ve been in venues, with a strictly business attitude, and you can feel the difference. The owner will attempt to make a killing off that small or large room, and operate from the premise of what I like to call, the model of Thirty Good Drunks; where they will add up the till, at the end of the night, and if the crowd drank like crazy, that band got asked back. It doesn’t matter if the band were a steaming pile… The owner doesn’t care about the room’s reputation, or any potential legacy for the room or the scene. If the till looks good, the band are stars, and are booked again. This model is for bars… not a venue, not a real venue, in my mind; not a room that becomes a gravity well, and a true artistic heart of a town.
Build it and they will come. The venues that become legendary, are the ones that, of course, keep an eye on the till, every real business has to, including a rock n roll band, but they also keep an eye on the quality of what gets put on the stage. They curate, shuffle things around, and look at the talent before them, to see where that act could be in five or ten years, not just in that night’s take at the till. And what’s more, the “legendary venue” becomes a home away from home for the bands, as well as the audience. Artists are drawn to hanging out there. In this real venue, as a punter, you always know there will be something good to see and hear, something real that will happen on that stage. As a musician, you know you will be treated well. Word travels fast for such places. Bands go out of their way to play them, people travel to see great bands in them. A heart grows, in the middle of what might have been, perhaps, just a dusty street, and suddenly that street becomes important, becomes a beacon. People will come. The believers create legendary venues, which ala David Byrne, go on to create legendary music, and legendary scenes. Behind every great band is a venue that gave them a chance, a push. Behind every great band is a well curated space. The Rex was such a venue.
Ben Penigar, of Grey Area Promotions, invited some of the best musicians in Pittsburgh town, to play The Rex, as well as a revolving door of national, and international names. Heavies like Sepultra, and the more fun-filled Bastard Bearded Irishmen, to jam bands such as Railroad Earth, right across the board to local bluegrass heroes, The Jacob’s Ferry Stragglers, have all spun their unique magic in that room, as well as many, many more. The legendary Album series, where a local band was trusted, with a seminal international hit record to cover from start to finish, was a regularly sold-out, joyful melee. Ben and his staff were regulars in the green room, checking in on everyone, making sure everyone had what they needed for their show, looking for ideas, asking questions, slapping backs, and smiling widely. WDVE’s Randy Baumann’s Rambles, were another hometown get-together that seemed to raise the stakes with each iteration. The music was loved, the bands were loved. The venue was loved.
While trying to drag the Rex through to the other side of the pandemic, Ben spent a good bit of his time, trying to look after his beleaguered staff, selling memorabilia, and his own gear. One such item, his bass, signed by Bootsy Collins, was auctioned off, but in a beautiful display of comradeship, it turned out that a group of locals got together, bought the bass, and returned it to it’s rightful owner. That, my friends, is the heart that’s given, to the heart behind, a venue, that is the heart of a town.
In his Facebook post announcing the closure, Ben thanked everyone for their hard work, and for their faithful patronage. The post was met with howls of incredulity, in the midst of an incredible year, and many anxiously wondered, which room would go next, in the great artistic cull of 2020. It’s a tragedy, it’s a gut wrenching cataclysm, that will hang around the mists of Pittsburgh rock n roll lore for many, many years. But, while we may be saying a sad goodbye to the Rex, I have a gut feeling, we will not be seeing the end of Mr. Penigar. Watch out for another legendary venue, somewhere in this town.
**Many lives have been forever changed due to this closure and venue closures around the United States. As far as we can tell the GoFundMe for the employees of The Rex is still active, you can donate at this link: www.gofundme.com/f/rex-staff-covid-relief. If you have seen the hashtag #saveourstages, or just want to know how to help, you can find more information at www.saveourstages.com/.