Last weekend, I made a last minute decision to travel to Pittsburgh and finally check out the Andy Warhol Museum (amazing — it was definitely the first time I've ever read every detail and tried to see every piece on display at a museum). I grabbed the new CD by Cincinnati's excellent Indie Pop powerhouse The Minor Leagues to listen to on the drive and it occurred to me that the band would actually be playing in Pittsburgh the same night I was there, by sheer happy coincidence.
I love to see bands from the Cincinnati area performing out of town. When Heartless Bastards played Lollapalooza in Chicago a few years back (and were still a Cincinnati band), I got such a thrill watching unsuspecting listeners respond to hearing Erika Wennerstrom's big, luxurious voice for the first time. It was priceless — lots of double takes and even a few slack-jawed stares as people tried to figure out how that voice could come booming out of someone so petite in stature.
The Minor Leagues were in Pittsburgh to play Howler's Coyote Cafe, a somewhat indistinct but comfy bar in the city's East End on one of what appeared to be many similar entertainment strips in the city. The Minor Leagues were sandwiched between two local bands; the first sounded like Kings of Leon playing Funk from where I was sitting, in the neighboring room that contained the bar.
I watched anonymously as the five members of the Cincinnati band fluttered around the club getting prepared to play (talking to the headliners about time restraints, trying to get everyone to the stage, etc.). While not the finest sound system on the planet, the band proceeded to play a tight 40-minute set that exploded like a piñata that shot the group's trademark sing-a-longs, Rock & Roll energy and hyper-catchy melodies into the crowd. There weren't a ton of people in the room — rotating between maybe 25 and 40 throughout the set — and some of the folks were so hammered by around 11 p.m., they were falling-down drunk. One yinzer (a new word I learned!) just dropped, crashing into a table and shattering a few pint glasses, leading to a bit of distraction as a couple of employees attempted to clear the floor of glass while The Minor Leagues played on.
Well, it is Pittsburgh … meaning it's like Cincinnati or anywhere. There's always THAT guy.
But more than a few patrons sat and listened attentively and I caught a few cracking grins as they watched and listened, charmed by the group's upbeat sound and playful performance. The members of the band did a little bantering, which was equally playful. Singer Hilly Kenkel did the bulk of between-song chatting, with co-singer Ben Walpole chiming in often to thank the crowd and remind everyone there was merch and a mailing list. Kenkel's first effort to connect with the audience had me happy I wasn't sporting my full Bengals super-fan get-up, but her playful teasing about the supposed football rivalry between our two cities was quickly diffused when she made sure to admit the Steelers were the better team. That's when I almost started throwing pint glasses. (Kidding.)
The band had just played in Brooklyn the night before and it made me chuckle because I had just read an article about how Pittsburgh was becoming one of the bigger "hipster" towns in America, making it appear as if the Leagues were doing a weekend tour of ONLY trendy, hip cities on their weekend jaunt. Kenkel told a really funny story about listening to radio reports from Whitney Houston's funeral when leaving New York and how they all lost it when a woman wondered why people hated on Whit because she had a drug problem. "We ALL have drug problems!" she said. That one landed better than the faux sports rivalry one.
After the show, I wanted to say hello to Walpole, figuring I'd freak the hell out of him, simply because it didn't make cognitive sense. I could understand how seeing me in Pittsburgh at some random bar unexpectedly might cause a brain malfunction, but Walpole only did one double-take and didn't seem too terribly phased.
The songs from the new album, another "storyline" effort, this time themed around growing up in North College Hill (thus the album's title, North College Hill), sounded great in the band's set, living up to the standard of crowd pleasers like "French Canadia," the band's no-brainer show closer, with its "Hey Jude" worthy sing-a-long climax. The band had played a strong set but it seemed like a long way to go just to play 40-minutes for 40 people. Still, The Minor Leagues, while not "road dogs," have played out of town enough to know the drill and understand every show isn't going to end with the crowd carrying them on their shoulders in celebration. But they certainly made at least a few new fans that Saturday night in Pittsburgh and I bet some of them return next time they return to Hipster City, U.S.A.
At Over-the-Rhine's MOTR Pub tonight, The Minor Leagues will be rewarded with a fervently attentive and enthusiastic audience of fans as they present their hometown release party for North College Hill. (The free, 10 p.m. show also features Brooklyn pals Air Waves.) Then they'll be on the road again in a couple of weeks, heading to Chicago, then Dayton. What's in store for those shows is again uncertain, but there's a good chance the gig with Milwaukee band Maritime (featuring members of The Promise Ring and The Dismemberment Plan) at the popular Chicago club The Empty Bottle will have a few more people than the Pittsburgh show.
And The Minor Leagues will likely put on another great performance for a crowd of strangers they may or may not ever see again, do their best to impress, get enough money for gas and snacks and then get back in the van and go.
The group put out a new, unreleased track today called "Secret Codes," with a characteristically fun "bonus feature." Listen to the unreleased song here, then visit the band's website for a special "Secret Codes" puzzle game.