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A music festival survives by downsizing: What to expect at the Northside Music Festival

 A woman sings with a band onstage.
Northside Music Festival
Working Breed is among the acts at the Northside Music Festival this week.

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.

It’s another big week for free music in Pittsburgh, not least at Downtown’s annual Black Music Festival. It’s also notable that one of the city’s biggest free showcases for local acts has undergone a reset: The long-running Deutschtown Music Festival has been reborn as the Northside Music Festival.

The Deutschtown Fest was launched in 2013, and by 2019 had grown quite large, hosting nearly 400 bands at more than 40 venues over three days. Though canceled (along with almost everything else) in 2020, it survived the pandemic, only to suffer inclement weather the following two years. Worn down by the logistics, its volunteer organizers basically packed it in, said Ben Soltesz, who was one of them.

But some community-based organizations liked the crowds the festival drew — for instance, an estimated 30,000 in 2018, organizers said. This past fall, groups like the North Side Chamber of Commerce and Allegheny Center Alliance Church asked Soltesz to continue.

“They just felt this would be a shame if this didn’t happen,” he said.

Working now without fellow Deutschtown Fest co-founder Cody Walters, Soltesz renamed the event and, to make it feasible, scaled it way back.

Whereas the Deutschtown Music Festival was gradually spreading into the rest of the North Side, the North Side Music Festival has pulled back into Deutschtown. Though it still runs three days, the festival now features an eclectic mix of about 70 bands and solo acts on nine indoor and outdoor stages — from the open-air main stage, on Foreland Street, to the Government Center and YMR Club — all within reasonable walking distance of each other.

Among the better-known acts are NASH.V.ILL, Working Breed, The GoToBeds, Livefromthecity, Morgan Erina, Bastard Bearded Irishmen, and Grand Piano.

It starts Friday night and wraps Sunday with a gospel-music brunch, sponsored by the aforementioned Allegheny Center Alliance Church, featuring sets by groups including Steel City Revival and Zanetta Butler.

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Saturday’s non-musical programming includes an artist market, organized by Redfishbowl, and kids’ activities, both in Allegheny Commons East Park.

Along with the downsizing, another key difference is that this year’s music acts were curated, rather than chosen in a submission process that previously drew 2,000 bands or more. The six-member selection committee included Soltesz, who said, “There are a lot of great bands in Pittsburgh. There are not 400.” (Band No. 375 might well object, but still.)

Soltesz said he’s able to organize the festival largely because he works from home. (He’s in software.) And he’s pretty sure that, regardless of how well the reworked festival goes, he wants to avoid the “arms race” of adding more bands annually.

The basic vibe remains, he said: “It’s still a big street party.”

For more information, see here.

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: