Judging by the crowds this weekend, you can bank on the Strip District Music Festival and possibly Bloom-Fest returning in January 2015.
Both festivals succeeded on the notion that Pittsburghers are desperate to fight cabin fever in January. The fact that there wasn’t a foot of snow or a polar vortex certainly helped.
It wasn’t a coincidence that the festivals occurred on the same weekend, as they had a messy, interlocking background.
The Strip District Fest was plotted in November when Drusky Entertainment VP Josh Bakaitus was looking to fill dates at Altar Bar. He ended up hatching a plan for nearly 80 bands in 10 venues with an online pay-what-you-want policy.
A few acts, including Roger Harvey, dropped off in December when Brian Drusky posted Facebook jokes that were perceived as making light of anti-racist protests. It was the seed for Bloom-Fest, which was quickly assembled by comedian Davon Magwood (who took offense to the posts), Howler’s booker Mary Jo Coll and others as a benefit for social action group We Change Pittsburgh.
Late last week, Magwood, despite having met with Drusky about planning a forum on race, called for a boycott of the Strip festival on his personal Facebook page and urged bands not to play. You may have seen some of the arguments that followed from people insisting that boycotting local musicians (who have enough of a struggle) is never the answer.
The only group to pull out of the Strip fest was VIA, who moved its electronic event with the statement: "We have decided to remove our show from the Strip District Music Festival. This is a decision we came to over the course of some time, which included discussions with both artists and peers. We feel the conversation around SDMF is not about the music - and VIA's #1 responsibility is to our artists, and making sure they are in an environment where they feel properly represented and the focus is on their performance."
Other than that, both festivals went off smoothly, and Drusky and Bakaitus even showed up at Howler’s to show their support.
“On on the whole I felt like this whole city turned out for a weekend of live music everywhere — for a cause on Friday and for the hell of it on Saturday,” Coll said Monday. “Mother Nature cooperated. And, despite some naysayers and people that just want to find fault, it was a pretty cool weekender for January.”
The highlight of Friday night’s Bloom-Fest (for me, at least) was the OneHood set at a packed Bloomfield Bridge Tavern led by fiery rapper Jasiri X, who showed without a doubt why he is in demand nationally for rallies and protest events (he's in D.C. for the MLK March and about to release a project with Chuck D of Public Enemy).
Bloom-Fest, which charged $10 for a wristband, ended up raising $5,000 for We Change Pittsburgh, which is involved with Monday’s MLK March.
With a heftier lineup (Dethlehem, Fist Fight in the Parking Lot, Spacepimps, The Cheats, Chip Dimonick, Bastard Bearded Irishmen) and a concurrent CMU bar crawl, Strip Fest had even bigger numbers on Saturday, resulting in long lines outside most venues. I went back and forth between Altar Bar, the Winery and a way overcrowded Beerhive, and can say that it was a mistake trying to move around too much. My favorite set was the relaxed afternoon matinee from soulful newcomers The Commonheart led by Clinton Clegg (of Jazzam and Backstabbing Good People).
The end numbers are impressive. They anticipated 2,000 people for Strip Music.
According to Bakaitus, “Based on wristbands that were distributed throughout the whole day, we had an estimated attendance of 8,000 to 9,000 people throughout the whole day. Still finalizing all of the artist donation numbers."
He promises more venues, more bands, maybe an outdoor space with a warming station.
"I was originally going to add nationals next year but after seeing how the vibe was and that the key thing was the local music, I think it needs to remain local."
The icing on the cake was a third local event, the Lohio farewell party at the Thunderbird Cafe in Lawrenceville Saturday, that had Mayor Peduto jumping on stage with the band.
“I am really proud of the Pittsburgh music community,” Coll said. “They took a few in the chin with all the controversial [stuff]. But still put on one hell of a show.”