Article by Melanie Stangl
Photos by Randy Jarosz
The corner of Main and Foreland Streets in the historic North Side neighborhood of Deutschtown is home to the James Street Gastropub and Speakeasy, a dedicated supporter of Pittsburgh’s growing music scene since its establishment in 2011. Its predecessor, James Street Tavern, was an important venue for both fans and players of jazz in the 90’s and 2000’s. This legacy has not only been continued, with legendary jazz drummer Roger Humphries hosting weekly jam sessions on Thursday nights, but expanded upon. Acts of many genres, including blues, acoustic, rock, hip-hop, electronic, and pop rock, have graced either the Speakeasy stage in the basement or the Ballroom stage upstairs. With events and performances booked for over 300 nights per year, James Street draws on both tradition and innovation to remain a key player in the North Side, as well as the city overall.
Unfortunately, due to repeated noise complaints, James Street as an institution is in danger. It must undergo expensive renovations to comply with Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board regulations: updating electrical work, installing industrial air conditioning units, and sound-proofing the Ballroom. Music must not be able to be heard from beyond the property lines—in this case, past the sidewalk. Otherwise the establishment risks legal action: accruing hefty fines, having its liquor license suspended, all the way up to having its doors shut for good. Its owners, employees, patrons, and artists aren’t giving up just yet, though: many fundraising events are in the works or are set to take place, marked by the slogan/hashtag #SaveJamesStreet. This spot, which has contributed so much to its neighborhood and to the Pittsburgh community at large, needs our help in order to continue doing so long into the future.
Kevin Saftner is the general manager of James Street, and has been in charge of their concert booking since March of 2015. But he’s had his hand in the family-run business for years before he took this post, and his involvement in the music business goes back further than that. “I have always loved the music industry,” he says. “I started a DJ company when I was 14 years old, and was booking Battle of the Bands and other small shows before I could drive.” He earned a degree in business management from Indiana University of Pennsylvania, and has been hard at work since contributing his passion and skill to Pittsburgh’s music community. “Over the years I have made numerous friends in the industry, and I was excited to take over booking at James Street,” he continues. “Most of my friends are musicians, concert promoters, sound techs, or involved in the local music scene in one way or another.”
This level of connection and dedication comes through in the place’s diverse, packed calendar. James Street is one of the founding members of the ever-growing Deutschtown Music Festival, which celebrated its fourth year running this past July 8th and 9th. Along with a heavy concert schedule, the venue offers numerous recurring events and promotions, such as: “Hands-Free Nights” each Wednesday, where leaving your phone at the door for the whole meal earns you 20% off your bill; Drag Brunches every first and third Sunday, where drag queens and kings perform while you sip on $5 Bloody Marys and Mimosas and enjoy a unique brunch menu; monthly Live Music Yoga sessions, which are exactly what they sound like; retro video game tournaments, and much more. Other special events, such as burlesque shows, private parties, and this very website’s Best of 2015 Music Awards, have also found the Gastropub a welcoming and convenient space. It’s clear that, musically and otherwise, James Street is a unique hub of unapologetic self-expression—which makes its struggles with excess noise all the more ironic.
“The noise complaints started around October 2015,” according to Saftner. “We put sound proofing in the windows to help the situation. Our biggest problem, though, is that we needed to open a few windows in the summer because of the heat. The building is well over a hundred years old, so there is no air conditioning in the Ballroom.” One official citation was issued in October, and between then and now, “there were numerous other discussions with officers about the noise issue.” Several venues around the city are situated in equally (if not more) crowded neighborhoods and put on similar numbers of shows, and yet they’re not facing these same stakes. The exact reason for this remains unclear, though one might venture to guess that a particularly dissatisfied neighbor (or neighbors) are lodging repeated complaints with the authorities, resulting in this heightened attention.
An important turning point took place in the middle of Deutschtown Music Festival this year. The free event, spread out over two days and several venues during which 180 acts performed, was as huge an organizational undertaking as it was a success. Joey Troupe—frontman of local band Paddy the Wanderer, who played the festival’s Park Stage on Saturday afternoon—described it as such in a Facebook post: “I’m proud of Pittsburgh for coming together to support the music community in such an epic way. Everyone I interacted with respected the music and the North Side, and I didn’t see garbage or empty cans/bottles or fists flying anywhere.” (It’s worth noting that the neighborhood was also left spotless the next day, a stark contrast to the considerable mess left by Kenny Chesney fans at Heinz Field just the week before.) Troupe continued, “It was so, so cool to see huge crowds of people choose local music and local food/drinks as their plan for a Saturday in July. Hopefully they will tell their friends so that more people understand just how much good music is here, right in Pittsburgh, being made by people you know.”
James Street, of course, shares this community-centric view. They hosted acts in the Speakeasy, the Ballroom, and the main dining area throughout the event. Saftner and his team thought they had taken the necessary precautions to ensure a smooth, hassle-free night, as significant noise was going to be inevitable. He says, “Before the Deutschtown Music Festival, we contacted our local representative, Darlene Harris. She reached out to the Zone 1 police chief and informed us that we had all of the proper permits for [Deutschtown], and that there would be no issues for us.” Unfortunately, state authorities turned out to be less understanding. Around 8:30 PM on Saturday, July 9th (the second and largest day of the event), Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board officers entered James Street and informed management that if the music was not turned off immediately, arrests would be made. Saftner and his stage managers had no choice but to comply. Garment District’s set was cut short, while the band slotted for 9 PM in the Ballroom, Misaligned Mind, had to cancel their performance entirely. Grand Piano, the scheduled 10 PM act, pushed their set time back one hour and (with the help of festival organizers) managed to find a last-minute alternative space at the YMR Club on Susimon Street.
Saftner calls the relatively early shutdown on a Saturday night “disappointing,” adding that “it seemed to be slightly selective enforcement, which made things harder to swallow.” Attendee/Bindley Hardware Company bassist Ryan Kantner was in the Ballroom when guests were “very apologetically” ordered to leave. He reports zero police presence upstairs, nor did he encounter any on his way out. He notes, “Both the band and the audience took the news pretty well, the crowd all pretty much filed outside, but the absurdity of a noise complaint being lodged in the middle of a music festival was being widely discussed afterwards.”
Absurd as it was, James Street is now faced with a large bill for these compulsory renovations. They are turning to the community that they’ve served for so long for help, and Saftner describes the support shown so far as “incredible.” The first official fundraiser, held on July 23rd, was (fittingly) a Silent Disco, in which attendees wore headphones and chose one of several live performances of DJ-spun music to dance to. Upcoming events are scheduled throughout next month, including an All-Star Jazz Jam on August 10th, the Sunday Funday Festival, featuring twelve local bands, starting at noon on August 12th, and a buyable gallery of renowned local photographer David DiCello’s works (from which part of the proceeds will go towards the renovations) on August 18th. If you have a little extra money this month, or simply want another way to help out, please also consider donating to the Indiegogo campaign (as of July 29th, 2016, it has raised over $6,500 so far.) And spread the word on social media to your Yinzer-music-loving/culturally-concerned friends with the hashtag #SaveJamesStreet.
Ultimately, Saftner concludes, “We just want to be good neighbors and law-abiding citizens.” It would be a genuine, substantial loss to have such an iconic and engaged venue shut down—not just for its employees and the acts who play there, but for Pittsburgh and its music scene at large. Investing now will help ensure that the music won’t be dying here anytime soon.