Pittonkatonk takes a distinctly noncorporate festival approach
On a recent visit to Pittsburgh, Graham Nash reflected on Woodstock’s 50th anniversary and how it marked the end of “people getting in a garage and forming a rock band with their friends, and the beginning of corporate interests in seeing kids that they can sell a cola and another pair of sneakers to.”
While many music festivals have become highly commercialized, Pittsburgh’s annual Pittonkatonk Festival takes the opposite approach, eschewing sponsorship and going grass roots in its staging of the yearly alternative brass band extravaganza.
The Pittonkatonk Mayday Brass BBQ & Potluck returns Saturday to the Vietnam Veteran’s Pavilion in Schenley Park. The daylong festival will once again feature the “What Cheer? Brigade,” an approximately 18-member brass band from Providence, R.I. that basically headlines the event.
“This particular musical scene has taken a lot of the spirit of punk rock and DIY (Do It Yourself) music and sort of merged it with musical genres that transcend guitar, bass, drums,” said Daniel Schleifer, 37, a tuba player and founding member of What Cheer? Brigade. “And the fact that this festival has cultivated an audience for that, has made Pittsburgh a perfect city for us to come into.”
Before it took on the distinctive name of Pittonkatonk, the festival began as a party in 2012 in a six-car garage in Highland Park put on by festival co-founder Pete Spynda who invited What Cheer? Brigade to play. Two years later it moved to Schenley Park and this year there will some 16 bands playing from 1 p.m. to 11 p.m. The festival has now entered its sixth years at Schenley.
The bands play with no amplification, there’s no formal stage, no mandatory ticket prices, no vending. Those in attendance create a pot luck table of food that is donated.
“That spirit of creating a big block party is still very much alive,” said Schleifer. “It totally feels community driven and eschews all the trappings of a typical music festival in terms of corporate banners and over-priced concessions and all that kind of stuff. But the reach in terms of the kind of bands that are present is really amazing.”
One of those bands is Pittsburgh’s own Big Blitz, a trio of teens, including saxophone playing brothers, Lucas Ciesielski, 18, and Mason Ciesielski, 16, and drummer Nick Grabigel, 18, who produce an amazing wall of sound. They say Pittonkatonk is really tailored to their type of music.
“I think the thing that lends itself most to our style is just the amount of crowd interaction that we get to experience,” said Lucas Ciesielski. “We can walk out and be right with the crowd and that suits our style. Interacting with people as individuals is a very unique thing.”
Pittonkatonk co-founder Pete Spynda says they want people to come as participants.
“We don’t want people to come as spectators, we don’t people to come as consumers,” said Spynda. “The motive behind Pittonkatonk is a community event, which means you don’t come to drink beer and smash your cans in the parking lot. You come to keep the place clean and provide for others who don’t have food. And you come to support the music and the causes behind it.”
Paul Guggenheimer is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Paul at 724-226-7706 or [email protected].