Saturday, August 23, 2008

Graffiti Challenge

graffiti 1988
Graffiti Show Board from 1987
Photo by Cynthia Lammert from Pittsburgh Signs - Oakland

Opened and operated by Tony DiNardo in 1982 in an old warehouse on Baum Boulevard in Oakland, the Graffiti Showcase Cafe was where the action was for the Pittsburgh music scene from the mid-80's until it shut its doors in 2000.

He lost his lease to a Porsche dealership. It folded, too. 4615 Baum Boulevard must have bad karma for class acts.

Graffiti booked an eclectic mix of music, combining barely known local bands with alt rock, folk music and a steady parade of national acts addicted to the road. Where else could you hear R.E.M. one night and The Grass Roots the next?

Graffiti was the kind of place where Jimmy Beaumont could share a stage with the Affordable Floors. It was Pittsburgh in all its glorious musical diversity.

The first thing many Pittsburgh concertgoers remember about Graffiti was the club’s intimacy. It had a small bar area and cafe, but its 600-seat showcase room offered music lovers a view never further than 35 feet away from its raised stage.

The brick warehouse walls and its dark, cavernous industrial surroundings added the perfect ambiance to the whole setting.

“One reason I moved to Pittsburgh was that every time I went to a local show at Graffiti, it was sold out,” says Mike Speranzo of Mr. Small's.

In fact, Graffiti won various awards for its live concert settings, being rated in the top ten Showcase rooms in the USA by Performance Magazine and #1 for live sound in a concert setting by E.Q. Magazine.

Graffiti hosted over 1500 acts in its day, with biggies like Bonnie Raitt, Nirvana, Rusted Root, Hootie and the Blowfish, Tower of Power, Jerry Seinfeld, Little Feat, and a list of other performers as long as the arm of the law taking the stage.

When a little-known Nirvana played Graffiti in 1991, they set the dressing room on fire after feuding with the promoter over their fee. Talk about a hot act!

The name lived on through the Graffiti Rock Challenge. It started at Graffiti in 1984, but the cafe was too small to hold the crowds. It moved on to the Syria Mosque before it became a parking lot, and then to sites all over Western PA.

It was a wildly unpredictable event, with participation from national artists like Talking Heads members Chris Franz and Tina Weymouth, Tommy James, and Jules Shear.

And while a great show didn't insure an act of fame and fortune, it did guarantee them a stage. And that's a valuable commodity to a young band. It did launch some groups to at least local glory, like The Clarks, Brownie Mary, the Buzz Poets, and Rusted Root, according to DiNardo.

The godfather of the Graffiti Rock Challenge was of course DiNardo, with a big hand from Charlie Humphrey. He had pretty much gotten out of the business after he turned the keys over to his club in 2000. But once a year, he emerged from his self imposed exile to run the Rock Challenge.

But like the club, the Rock Challenge died a natural death, too, the victim of too many imitators and too many venue switches. It called it quits in 2006, with Kill The Drama as the last Rock Challenge champion.

Creed doing "Torn" at the Graffiti in 1998


Bryan said...

Great post. I played many shows at Graffiti with a band called ESP. Never made it to the heights of the Challenge, but thanks for the walk down a wonderful memory lane!

Melissa said...

Excellent post. I live in AZ now, but I saw the Red Hot Chili Peppers at Graffiti in 1985, with about 15 other people, Level 42, the Mighty Lemon Drops, the Three O'Clock and so many more.

I googled "graffiti pittsburgh music" and found this post, as I'm trying to remember the name of a new wave group I saw there in 1986, possibly from Scotland. Hmm, can't remember. Anyone?

Ron Ieraci said...

That's a tough one, Melissa. I vaguely recall that Husker Du and the Buzzcocks played there about that era, but I doubt that they qualify as new wave.

kauna said...

Brings back memories just played the vid from when creed played there. Can anybody remember who opened up for black lab there. They did a Micheal Jackson cover of Billy Jean.

Ron Ieraci said...

Kauna - don't know if this helps, but the bands they toured with during the Geffen era were Days of the New, Cracker, and Our Lady Peace. Do any of them ring a bell?

Mike said...

I remember the 1990 rock challenge when The Toast Band rocked the house, however the band Illuminatus won doing a cover song by the Who! You where not supposedly allowed to do cover song! Hats off to The Toast Band they where truly the champs of that night! By the way The Toast Band is still performing under a new name called The Bill Ali Band check out their web site out at still rocking the Burgh

Anonymous said...

Wow, you've got your facts totally confused. The In Pittsburgh Music Awards featured Chris Franz, Tina Weymouth and Tommy James. The Next Big Thing Graffiti Rock Challenge started in the late '80s and stayed at Graffiti until it closed. But it was never held at the Syria Mosque. That was the music awards. The rock challenge did launch Rusted Root, Brownie Mary and other bands. This is information readily available in the archives of local newspapers or from Charlie Humphrey, of In Pittsburgh, or Jack Tumpson or Dana Resciniti, who ran Next Big Thing. Charlie had nothing to do with the Rock Challenge, though. This is all stunningly inaccurate.

Ron Ieraci said...

Anon - I'll revisit the post to check out its accuracy. I did get all the stuff off various web articles, but they aren't always the most reliable sources. Meanwhile, I'd appreciate it if you would shoot me an e-mail with some links or just some corrections I could check out to get the facts straight. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Anyone know or have pics of when Kid Rock played there in '98 or '99 maybe...? please contact me