In its second year, the Pittonkatonk May Day Brass BBQ is more than a music festival | Music | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

In its second year, the Pittonkatonk May Day Brass BBQ is more than a music festival

"Music, it's not something we buy — it's not something we go to see. It's something we do."

For one day, Pittonkatonk will transform Schenley Park into a whirling convergence of horns, trombones, drums and barbecue. The all-ages brass music festival returns for its second year, this time with even more local and touring bands, kid-friendly activities and handmade Serbian sausages.

Last year's Pittonkatonk saw nearly 700 people, including about 100 performers. This year's festival will welcome national acts including: What Cheer? Brigade, from Providence, R.I.; New York's Pitchblak Brass Band; Chicago's Black Bear Combo; and the Detroit Party Marching Band. Local acts Beauty Slap, May Day Marching Band, Slide Worldwide and Col. Eagleburger's Goodtime Highstepping Band will also perform, along with Pittsburgh-area high school marching bands.

Like most grand plans, it all began one night at the Brillobox.

Scratch that. This story begins at Lollapalooza, in 1993, when a teenage Pete Spynda was handed a brochure about "indie rock" by longtime Pittsburgh music promoter Manny Theiner. The flyer was Spynda's introduction to college radio, Don Caballero and self-discovery in the LP aisle. "It was mind-melting," says Spynda. "It changed my life."

click to enlarge Unpolished: What Cheer? Brigade - PHOTO COURTESY OF TODD SEELIE
Photo courtesy of Todd Seelie
Unpolished: What Cheer? Brigade

Fast-forward a couple of decades and Spynda is now one of the city's most prominent event producers and DJs. He's responsible for Pandemic, Weather Permitting and programming the Bayardstown Social Club.

"Pete had a reputation for making stuff happen," says Rich Randall, an associate professor at Carnegie Mellon University who looks at music, technology and culture in the 21st century. Randall was wrapping up a project for CMU's Center for Arts in Society and had an idea for something new — a May Day event focusing on music and labor. He and Spynda chatted upstairs at Brillobox, and Spynda thought about the sweaty, raucous What Cheer? Brigade shows his friend Jason Dunbar had been putting on in his Highland Park garage: donation-based attendance; explosive, genre-defying sounds; lots of eating and drinking and dancing.

"Those Dunbar parties were really the precursor to Pittonkatonk," says Spynda.

The first Pittonkatonk, in May 2014, was "the most fun Schenley Park's had in a long time," says Dunbar, who now volunteers with the festival. "It's the most inviting community. It's almost impossible to have a bad time when watching these bands."

But this is more than a musical festival. As Spynda says, "We're not just trying to throw a party in the park."

The focus of Pittonkatonk is on community. It's about bringing together people who might otherwise never convene, and blurring the line between performer and spectator. There's no admission fee, there are no food trucks, and there's no stage or sound system. 

It's unstructured, chaotic, respectful, safe and family-friendly. Festival co-directors Spynda and Randall sigh in unison over last year's festival being "magical" and a little "hippie-dippie." They reference 1960s "happenings" and Eastern European social clubs. They talk about disrupting the political economy of "musician" and "audience."

But the magic doesn't come without effort — this year's Pittonkatonk is the fruit of many folks' labor. Planning has been underway since October, and the co-directors' gratitude is flowing for everyone who's helped, including the mayor's office and Citiparks. Then there are the individuals who are: making food; housing musicians overnight; lending parking permits for bands' vans; and donating to the festival's IndieGoGo campaign, which runs through May 6.

"We're trying to restore the social and community aspect to music-making," explains Randall. "The idea that music doesn't happen unless a bunch of people come together and allow it to happen. ... Music, it's not something we buy — it's not something we go to see. It's something we do."

click to enlarge Beauty Slap
Photo by Bill O'Driscoll
Beauty Slap

When it comes to Pittonkatonk, there's a lot to be excited about — from plum brandy and impromptu crowd-surfing to activities hosted by the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh Center for Creative Reuse. What Spynda and Randall are most excited about, though, is the educational program that's new to this year's lineup.

"We want to show kids there's life outside of the high school marching band," says Spynda, who hopes he can melt today's teens' minds with music the same way his was.

Headliner What Cheer? Brigade will be in to town early for a three-day workshop with the Hill District's University Prep Junior and Senior High Marching Bands. The program will provide students with insights into the business of touring and working as a full-time musician, while exploring the role of music in activism and change. The partnership will culminate in a collaborative performance at Saturday's festival.

Spynda and Randall have applied for a grant through the Sprout Fund's Hive Fund for Connected Learning, and hope to turn this pilot program into an even bigger outreach effort next year.

"It's very different from what students are normally taught about what it means to be a musician after you graduate high school," says Randall. "We're not trying to change how the kids play. We're just trying to say you can do different things with music, and you can do these things that have a positive impact in your immediate community."

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