By Scott Tady

Donnie Iris achieves something rare on his new live album.

He makes listeners feel as if they are actually at a concert.

Listening to "Live! At Nick's Fat City." you can practically taste the $3 Rolling Rocks, smell the stale cigarette smoke and see the larger-than-life guitar hanging above the stage at Pittsburgh's premiere nightclub.

The compact disc, sold exclusively by mail, features Iris and his longtime band, the Cruisers, in two raucous Nick's Fat City shows.

Those shows took place on some warm September nights, like the kind Iris sings about on the disc's opening cut, "Agnes."

Iris fans will recognize "Agnes" and most of the other 12 songs on "Live! At Nick's Fat City." Naturally, "The Rapper" and "Ah! Leah!" turn up as encores.

But a bigger delight might be the "forgotten" Iris tunes, including "This Time It Must Be Love," "Tough World," "Injured in the Game of Love" and the ahead-of-its-time "Do You Compute?"

Because Pittsburgh radio stations focus on Iris' handful of hits, many people may have forgotten what a prolific songwriting team he and keyboardist Mark Avsec make. They make it seem easy spinning catchy, tuneful tales about the various flavors of love.

Iris and Avsec spent painstaking hours when first laying down those tracks in the studio.

"The songs, however, took on another life when the band started playing them in concert," Avsec writes in the CD's liner notes. "Donnie turned out, of course, to be a phenominal live performer, and he always rocks the house."

Indeed, Iris whips the Nick's crowd into a frenzy on "Love is Like a Rock," "I Can't Hear You", and Cab Calloway-meets-Peter Frampton-by-way-of-Melissa Etheridge version of "Minnie the Moocher."

Iris' voice sounds strong and sure on "Live! At Nick's" with just a few misfires that remind listeners this is a truly live album.

The Beaver Vally rocker's voice runs all over the musical scale on "That's the Way Love Oughta Be." He still wails on the high notes.

Songs on "Live! At Nicks" feature razor-sharp guitar from Marty Lee Hoenes and forceful drumming from Tommy Rich. The band sounds tight, energetic, and eager to prove they still rock.

Halfway through the disc, Iris and the Cruisers bring the tempo to a screeching halt with last year's vastly underrated "Poletown" from the same-named CD. When that song's accordion solo comes in, you can imagine much of the Nick's crowd taking a bathroom break.

Cheers to those who waited. Turns out, "Poletown" offers some of the toughest guitar and most emotional singing to ever grace an Iris album.

"Poletown" tells the tale of proud immigrants who build a small town later devasted when the major employer left. The lyrics refer to General Motors workers in Michigan, but Iris included a photo of West Aliquippa in the "Poletown" album.

Local folks will recognize the scene painted by Iris' voice on "Tenth Street," another one of the new disc's highlights. "Tenth Street," which appeared on WDVE-FM's 1992 compilation disc, recalls a group of pals growing up in a blue-collar town. With annoyance in his voice, Iris laments how someone paved over their childhood playground to make a parking lot.

Iris could be singing about Beaver Falls, New Brighton, Ellwood City, Freedom or a host of other local towns where he roamed as a youth.

Iris always seemed a bit bemused by the notion of a regular ol' Beaver Valley guy being a rock star. He pokes fun of himself on "Live! At Nick's" with reference to Pants 'n At, a Pittsburghese parody on WDVE's morning show. Iris portrays a sales clerk on that popular comedy skit.

Those who buy "Live! At Nick's" will perceive how Iris and the nightclub's crowd feed off each other's energy. This "must-have" CD for Iris fans perfectly captures the essence of his joyous shows.

If for no other reason, buy this one for your children, grandchildren, nieces or nephews. When repetitious rap and emotionless electronica music take over, "Live! At Nick's" will prove how much fun a rock 'n' roll show used to be.