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Pittsburgh's Squonk Opera Lends A 'Hand' At Deutschtown Festival

squonk hand to hand
David S. Rubin
Squonk Opera
Squonk Opera, seen here in 2019, will perform "Hand To Hand" at Hands Over Deutshtown.

The Deutschtown Music Festival is Pittsburgh’s biggest free, music-only showcase – possibly the biggest in the country, according to organizers (who cite music-resource website Reverbnation). But in 2020, the festival was canceled because of the pandemic. Then, this year’s event too fell victim to uncertainty over the coronavirus.

Instead, on Saturday, welcome the Hands Over Deutschtown, a one-day event that’s somewhere between a placeholder and a substitute for the three-day music festival.

"This is a little stepping stone on the way back to normalcy," said founder Cody Walters.

Hands Over Deutschtown features a dozen music acts on two stages, plus kids’ activities, an artists’ market, food trucks, free vaccinations and more. It’s all set on a fraction of the festival’s usual North Side footprint, which always includes several blocks of closed streets.

But Walters says the feel of Hands Over Deutschtown will complement the event’s scale.

“We really wanted to make it as much about community as it is about music,” he said.

Walters said at first, Deutschtown Music Festival organizers were inclined to simply take 2021 off. Then, in April, they got a call from Squonk Opera, the Pittsburgh-based, world-touring art-rock band and performance troupe known for its outdoor musical spectacles. Squonk offered to reprise “Hand To Hand,” its 2019 show featuring a pair of giant inflatable hands.

In 2019, “Hand To Hand” had been set to debut at the Three Rivers Regatta; when the regatta was canceled, Walters recruited Squonk for Deutschtown, but the troupe had already accepted the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership’s offer to stage the 30-minute show at PPG Plaza.

Now those hands are bound for Deutschtown after all, and even inspired the name of the brand-new festival, which Squonk will headline with two afternoon performances at the Skyline Stage, near Sue Murray Pool. Both performances will be followed by backstage tours (an opportunity for kids to see how those giant hands work).

"Hand to Hand" was the seed from which the rest of the new festival grew. (Squonk's performance costs are even covered by a National Endowment for the Humanities grant.) As pandemic restrictions on gatherings eased, sponsors climbed on board and attractions were added, Walters said.

Joining Squonk on the Skyline stage are West African drum-and-song group Abafasi; drill team drum corps London Johnson’s Magnificent Street Entertainment; and Brazilian percussion ensemble Timbeleza.

Meanwhile, from 11 a.m to 10 p.m., the nearby Park Stage will host a variety of rock, jazz, and hip-hop acts, including livefromthecity, Brittney Chantele, and Devin Moses & The Saved.

Kids' activities include a bouncey-house and face-painting. The artists’ market is organized by local collective Redfishbowl. Co-sponsors Highmark and Allegheny Health Network will provide health information, and vaccines will be available from Northside Christian Health Center (the one-shot Johnson & Johnson) and AHN (Pfizer, with on-site scheduling for the second shot).

Co-sponsor First National Bank will offer financial-literacy courses and first-time homebuyer workshops.

Walters noted that unlike the music festival, Hands Over Deutschtown will not include on-site alcohol sales.

A complete schedule is here.

Walters said he expects the full-scale Deutschtown Music Festival to return in 2022.

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: bodriscoll@wesa.fm