Oh, how confused would the North Side’s original German immigrants be if they were alive to see the third annual Deutschtown Music Festival in their neighborhood open not with accordion and folk songs, but with surdo and batucada—the former, a type of Brazilian bass drum; the latter, the percussion component of samba, a Brazilian music and dance genre with West African roots.
Batucada is the siren song of Timbeleza, a percussion group composed of 15 members, who play the surdo (large bass drum), the caixa (snare drum), the tamborim (small frame drum), plus shakers and bells. When the band took the Park Stage in shady Allegheny Commons East, the street artists were still unfolding their tables, and the food vendor’s chicken-on-a-stick were just beginning to sizzle. Soon a mixture of Deutschtown locals, tattooed hipsters, and even one Cardinals fan were gathering: most struck dumb by the syncopated bob and twack of the percussion. But, “us kids know,” Arcade Fire once sang, and at no time was this more applicable than when the tykes in the audience went over to help one of the drummers beat his surdo with a percussion mallet. Calvin Pearson, of McKees Rocks, also “knew,” as Siamak Malek let the man take over his repique, a high-pitched drum played with plastic sticks. Pearson later told me he knew conga, which explains the applause-inducing solo he was able to improvise upon the drum.
Come 11:47 a.m. and with the band sweaty in their matching blue-and-white T-shirts, a crowd had formed: the prepared with lawn blankets, the hungry with bratwurst from one of the food stands, all ready for more music. Next up was Shelf Life String Band, a five-piece bluegrass group, who may have been a little less frantic/loud than Timbeleza but were no less intense due to the focused interplay of banjo, guitar, mandolin, violin, and vocal harmonies, all of it driven by the pluck of an upright bass. The Deutschtown Music Festival, which boasted over 125 acts and 24 stages throughout this North Side neighborhood and beyond, was underway.
“Lucked into that one,” said one patron to his friend. “Like, real music. Like old people music.” The patron was referring to The Hi-Frequencies. The band’s early ‘60s sound—mostly instrumentals, mostly covers, a good bit surf rock à la Pulp Fiction—had attracted these two High Fidelity-types off of East Ohio Street and into Arnold’s Tea, a homey venue with teal walls, wooden floor, and unlit brick fireplace, the last of which served as the band’s backdrop. The quintet played not only to these two but also to fans and regulars, most of whom, I was impressed to see, chose not to talk during the performance as often happens during free events. Seems appropriate, though, that a tea-drinking crowd would also be respectful. Neither crowd nor band was old, but all appreciated the oldies.
Food truck time. Went to Foreland Street, where the trucks lined both sides of the cordoned road and led to the outdoor Main Stage on Middle and Foreland. Got two tacos from La Palapa-Mexican Gourmet Kitchen, one with pinto beans, the other with mushrooms. Never had mushrooms on a taco but would do it once more, especially if paired again with their rice, a truly authentic grain and not one of those instant-rice deals that restaurants less-than try to pawn off on you. The tacos went well with a pink lemonade bought from another vendor.
After lunch, I ran into two friends who had tried to see Grand Piano, a rock ‘n’ roll band, at James Street Gastropub, but, finding the place filled with a large hot and sweaty crowd, left. We meandered to the beer garden on Foreland. Although appreciative to have weather not akin to the Amazon, we found it too hot and unshaded and decided to part ways: me to the library, them to another venue.
Escape to Allegheny Library to type notes, find ATM and water fountain.
Back in Arnold’s Tea, sipping iced coffee (not a tea drinker). Arrived early to grab a seat for country-swing artist Slim Forsythe. Slim also arrived early and was easy to spot in his black mariachi shirt with emblazoned red flowers, high-waisted white pants, southern-style hat, and pointed-toe shoes.
After a lengthy sound check and with the crowd swelling to fire-code-breaking proportions, Slim, armed with a guitar and a grin, launched into his first jangly number. Backing him was an upright bassist, a guitarist, a slide guitarist, a keyboardist, two female vocalists, a male vocalist, a washboard player, and noted drummer Brad Smith. Sartorially speaking, none could touch Slim, though a few band members did sport sharp cowboy hats.
“This is a June Carter composition,” he said before playing the second song, “Ring of Fire.” The audience clapped and whistled their approval as well as sang along to the chorus. And so it went for the rest of the set: Slim introducing the songs before he and his band boom-chucka-boomed through them.
Song number three saw the audience halved. Most likely those who left were frustrated with the crowd and the poor acoustics caused by the crowd’s chatter. A shame the promoters didn’t give Slim a bigger venue; a blessing the true fans could now hear the instruments as well as Slim’s pitch-perfect twang. Slim, ever the gracious frontman, still complimented Arnold’s Tea before his last song. “A great music venue,” he said. “And a great iced coffee, too.” (Guess he’s not a tea drinker, either.)
More tacos! Then a cocktail at Wigle Whiskey’s Barrelhouse and Whiskey Garden, transportation there provided by the festival’s free shuttle. By far, the whiskey garden was the most open of the venues I patroned. The most comfortable, too, thanks to the wooden lawn chairs and benches scattered throughout the gravel lot by the cinderblock barrelhouse. I reclined with a Nuestra Paloma. Grapefruit soda gave it a tropical flavor, white rye a strong afterbite. The Chad Sipes Stereo, a laid-back indie rock quartet, provided the tunes. Their penultimate song, “Scrap,” began soft and ended loud as its lyrics detailed a person who went from trading soda cans for cents to stealing pipes from his employer for scrap-money. A clever number, and one that reminded me why I enjoy supporting local music I might otherwise never hear.
“Liquor before beer, you’re in the clear” goes the saying and so it was off to Penn Brewery. The establishment housed three stages: one indoors, another in the courtyard, a third on the patio. Somehow I arrived during a quiet time when no bands were playing. Oh, well. A draft of award-winning Penn Pilsner plus some A/C always makes for an effective pit stop. The place was full, though not overcrowded, and tantalizing burgers and fries enjoyed by happy diners means I’ll be sure to return again.
Dusk, back at the Main Stage. Would Mojoflo, one of two Ohio bands and one of only a handful of acts from outside Pittsburgh, win over the Steel City? The answer was unclear during the R&B group’s first number, a funky instrumental that had guitarist George Barrie waving during rests, imploring the crowd to come closer. But once singer Amber Knicole took the stage for the next song, it was clear Pittsburghers loved the Columbus group. She taught the audience some dance moves while the horns and rhythm section interspersed snippets of “Under Pressure” and “You Can Make It If You Try” into their original composition. Young and old, white and black, the tattooed and the straight-edged—all were dancing.
Except me. Although imbued with soul, I was running low on sole and decided to shuffle my aching feet down Foreland and back to the shuttle, which would take me to the T. The festival ran until 2 a.m., but I had clocked nearly 11 hours, minus the two spent in the library. The beer garden was closed for the night, its lot swept clean save a few stray cups. The public trash cans overflowed, but otherwise the street looked pristine considering a projected attendance of approximately 15,000. I even saw one gentleman stop to pick up his gum wrapper.
If the festival continues to grow, hosts East Allegheny Community Council may need to explore additional, larger venues. Seeing as the festival is already spilling out of Deutschtown and into neighboring Spring Garden and Troy Hill, it would seem natural to look towards other North Side locations, like different areas of the Allegheny Commons Park perhaps. As long as the most popular artists continue to perform in Deutschtown, and as long as the festival maintains its name, it will accomplish its mission of bringing attention to this oft-forgotten part of the city, one deservedly on the rebound.
Photos: Christopher Maggio
Christopher Maggio is a Pittsburgh writer, who enjoys live music. This was his first Deutschtown Music Festival but not his last.