Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The plan behind Pittsburgh's new Sudden Little Thrills music festival

Brandon Flowers of The Killers seen at KAABOO Texas at AT&T Stadium.
Amy Harris
Brandon Flowers of The Killers seen at KAABOO Texas at AT&T Stadium on Friday, May 10, 2019, in Arlington, Texas.

This is WESA Arts, a weekly newsletter by Bill O'Driscoll providing in-depth reporting about the Pittsburgh area art scene. Sign up here to get it every Wednesday afternoon.

From spring through fall each year, Pittsburgh has plenty of live music options, many of them free. Not least are the long-running Millvale Music Festival, set for May, and July’s Northside Music Festival.

So what’s special about Sudden Little Thrills, the brand new festival that announced its inaugural lineup last week?

Sudden Little Thrills is a bit unusual here: It’s a unique-to-Pittsburgh event staged by big out-of-town producers booking major touring acts. (Another example was last May’s WonderWorks, at Hartwood Acres; organizers promised to return this May, but as of Monday there’d been no lineup announcements or recent social media updates, and producer the Elevation Group did not return a phone message seeking comment.)

For two days this September, Sudden Little Thrills will take over the Aurora autonomous car testing track in Hazelwood. The headliners are chart-topping R&B singer-songwriter SZA and world-touring rock band The Killers. Other notable acts include Melanie Martinez, St. Vincent and famed rapper and Pittsburgh native Wiz Khalifa.

Organizers hope to sell 30,000 tickets. If that sounds like a lot — especially with two-day passes starting at $255 a pop — recall the show’s producer is C3 Presents, the global team behind everything from the iconic showcase Lollapalooza and its overseas incarnations to such events as Texas’ Austin City Limits Festival, New Orleans’ Voodoo Music + Arts Experience and Bentonville, Ark.’s FORMAT Festival.

WESA Inbox Edition Newsletter

Love stories about arts and culture? Sign up for our newsletter and we'll send you Pittsburgh's top news, every weekday morning.

C3 is owned by Live Nation Entertainment, the controversial multibillion-dollar conglomerate formed when Live Nation merged with Ticketmaster in 2010. C3’s Brad Parker said the company first came to Pittsburgh two-and-a-half years ago because somebody tipped them the city had “a great music scene” with unrealized potential. They visited, checked out some restaurants and a Penguins game, and were impressed.

“We want to fish where the fish are and Pittsburgh’s really got it going on,” Parker said in a recent phone interview.

Finding an area large and open enough to serve as a venue proved a challenge, he said. C3 consulted organizers of Thrival, the long-running music and innovation festival that postponed its 2020 iteration because of the pandemic and has yet to return.

The promoters settled on the fenced-in Aurora track, one small part of Hazelwood Green, a 178-acre former riverfront industrial site mostly owned by Almono LP, a limited partnership consisting of three local foundations: the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation, Richard King Mellon Foundation and The Heinz Endowments. The Green is meant to be built out as an industrial park — with partners including Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh — as well as a community resource for chronically underserved Hazelwood.

Hazelwood Green has hosted big events before; Thrival itself took place there in 2015. But its diminutive name notwithstanding, Sudden Little Thrills promises to be larger still.

Parker said there’ll be three stages, with the space open 10:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily Sat., Sept. 7, and Sun., Sept. 8. Colleges will be in session, and promoters are counting on folks ages 21 to 30 to turn out — including an expected 25% of the total crowd from out of state, mostly from within a few hours’ drive, but perhaps from as far away as D.C., Philly and even Indianapolis, Barker said.

One issue still to be ironed out is parking. Parker said none can be accommodated on site. That’s actually typical for this kind of festival, he said. He expects the solution will involve some combination of ride-sharing, pedicabs, park-and-walk strategies and perhaps even augmented PRT bus runs. (He didn’t mention bicycling, but the site is eminently reachable that way.)

The fest’s local flavor will include sets by Pittsburgh-based acts as Girl Talk, Fedd the God, and Feeble Little Horse.

“We want to create something Pittsburgh can be proud of,” said Parker.

Community leaders in Hazelwood are taking C3 at its word.

Sonya Tilghman, executive director of the nonprofit Hazelwood Initiative, spoke well of C3’s efforts, which included attending community meetings long before the festival was announced.

Tim Smith, founder and CEO of the Hazelwood-based educational nonprofit Center of Life, also said he was impressed that C3 reached out early to the community, and by its promise that a portion of ticket sales will benefit organizations operating there. (While details of those benefits are yet to be finalized, Smith said one is that Hazelwood residents will be able to attend Sudden Little Thrills for free.) The students in the Krunk and the Center of Life Band will also perform.

“It’s just really going to be good for the community,” said Smith. “I think [C3] gave big respect to the community and I’m thankful for that.”

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: