By Margaret Welsh
Current Music Editor
Just six years in, the Deutschtown Music Festival is beginning to have the feel of a Pittsburgh institution. Its exponential growth, for one thing, makes it impossible to ignore. The festival debuted in 2013 with 47 bands on ten stages — this year’s lineup features 348 musical acts on more than 30 stages.
“I think it’s cemented itself as the Pittsburgh music festival,” says Max Somerville, who fronts the band Wreck Loose, and has performed in some capacity at Deutschtown for the last several years. “It really [feels like] a time when all the Pittsburgh bands come out to play.”
But while the sheer size and rate of growth of the free, volunteer-run festival would be striking in itself — about 20,000 people are expected to attend this year — it has also been noteworthy in its efforts to showcase an often overlooked neighborhood.
DEUTSCHTOWN MUSIC FESTIVAL. Fri., July 13 and Sat., July 14.
Multiple locations, Deutschtown, North Side. Free. www.deutschtownmusicfestival.com
While the North Side has experienced considerable development over the years, Cody Walters, who co-founded the festival with Ben Soltesz, notes that the area long suffered from a perception problem. “People thought there was a lot of crime here when the reality didn’t reflect that,” he says. “I think … the festival attracts people who might not normally come here. And then they get here and they realize ….this is a beautiful place with tons of amazing amenities.”
The festival makes use of many of those amenities, including bars (like JR’s Bar and Max’s Allegheny Tavern), cafes (including Arnold’s Tea and Kaffeehaus) and unconventional spaces of all stripes (Artist Image Resource, a screen-printing space; the Blacksmith Shop, a restored horseshoeing building; and both the Wigle Whiskey Barrelhouse and Threadbare Cider, just to name a few). This year’s outdoor stages include the Hughshows Stage, at Foreland Avenue (Hugh Twyman serves as band coordinator for the festival), the Highmark/Allegheny Health Network stage at Allegheny Commons Park, and the Skyline Stage, next to the Sue Murray pool. “It has an amazing hidden view of the city that most people never see,” Walters says, “It really is like Austin City Limits without the fake backdrop.”
And while musicians of all ages will appear across the festival, this year marks the addition of a youth stage at the corner of Suismon and James Streets. Walters describes it as a kind of baton-passing from Rock All Night, the Lawrenceville-based bar-crawl-style festival which won’t be happening this year, but originally served as inspiration for the Deutschtown festival. (Check out our guide to getting the most out of your festival experience below).
Three-hundred and forty-eight musical acts in two days is a lot to wrangle, but for Somerville, part of what makes the festival special is the care that goes into each individual lineup. “[Organizers] really put a lot of time into setting up each venue with its own vibe. …they really pick the bands out and [curate] good shows,” he says. “Everyone who puts this together, their heart’s really in the right place.”
Walters notes that this year’s lineups are the festival’s most diverse yet. “One of the things last year that we had heard from a number of people [was] that somehow we didn’t have any female-led performers on our Foreland Street stage,” he says. With these sorts of issues in mind, an inclusiveness committee was formed. “We had a number of different neighbor constituents as well as some music people who just were another set of eyes on our lineups and our outreach to different bands and organizations. And I think that … performer-wise we’ve done very well,” he says. “I’m really excited about [the variety of] this year’s lineup, and I think a lot of people will be bouncing back and forth from stage to stage to stage.”
Walters, who moved to Deutschtown 11 years ago, notes that the War Streets and Allegheny West have succeeded in branding themselves as distinct neighborhoods through house tours and other efforts. “The North Side is 18 different neighborhoods, it used to be its own city,” Walters says. “It really is set up that way and each neighborhood is completely different.” A decade ago, he says, mentioning that he lived in Deutschtown would lead to a ten-minute conversation about where, exactly, that was. The festival has, he says, helped brand Deutschtown as “a specific place in people’s minds.” More evidence of the area’s rising profile, Kaya, in the Strip District, recently featured a cocktail called the Deutschtown Noise Ordinance, a reference to reported noise complaints against the James Street Gastropub & Speakeasy during the 2016 festival. (As a side note, though James Street Gastropub & Speakeasy closed its doors in October of last year, Walters says that, in conjunction with Pittsburgh Winery, all three floors of the space will be used during this year’s festival. “We’re not going to have any open windows or open doors which were a problem in the past,” Walters says, noting that he doesn’t anticipate noise being an issue in general. “All of our outdoor activity ends promptly at 11 p.m. per city ordinance, and the indoor places have really not gotten any complaints during that extra hour or two while the music is still happening.”
The role of live music in Pittsburgh’s identity has been a frequent topic of conversation in the last couple of years. That has been spurred, in particular, by the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership’s Downtown Sound Initiative, which aims to bring more live music to Downtown’s bars, restaurants and public spaces. There’s plenty of disagreement about what it means to make Pittsburgh into a “music city,” and how that can be accomplished. But the Deutschtown Music Festival, essentially a grass-roots effort motivated primarily by a love of music and community, could serve as a guide.
When it comes to making Pittsburgh a music city, Walters says – from a festival standpoint at least – he’d love to see the Deutschtown festival a national draw. “You look at Austin, for example: People who lived there knew that there was a music scene, but it wasn’t until their festivals [gained visibility] that the outsiders said, ‘Oh they have live music there.’ And it’s not about those festivals, it’s about, every day of the year, when somebody goes to Austin they’re thinking, ‘I should go see live music.’ Because it’s there every day of the year.”
Pittsburgh is full of musicians, and live music happens all the time. And Walters believes the Deutschtown festival has managed to ride a wave of a scene that, he says, “has just exploded on all levels.” But, Walters adds, “when people come here they’re thinking Steelers, or they’re thinking Penguins. Their view of what Pittsburgh is doesn’t lend itself to that. And if we are able to build something that is a larger event in the mind of someone who is traveling here they can go, ‘oh yeah, there’s this festival there, I’ve heard all about it. I bet they have really great live music there. Let me see what’s happening.’”
Tackling 348 bands in two days may sound like a daunting task, but organizer Cory Walters has some advice on hour to get the most out of the weekend.
Make a plan: The event website, www.deutschtownmusicfestival.com features the full lineup, broken up by venue and time. The site also allows visitors to sign in and create their own schedule. Think about what you want to see beforehand, so you’re not deciding between 26 acts at 6 p.m on Saturday.
If you’re drinking, bring cash: Some places may take plastic, but cash is faster. Help keep lines short and make things a little easier for your hard-working local bartenders, Walters says. “Bring cash, order in groups, tip well.”
Be a good neighbor: “There is some burden put upon our neighbors,” Walters says. “So we ask people to treat [Deutschtown] as if it were their own neighborhood and to be a neighbor that Fred Rogers would be proud of.”
Just explore!: Walters says to approach the festival with an open mind. “If it’s someplace you’ve never been before, just check it out! If it’s music you don’t like, then move on to the next thing.”