As a former employee of the beloved James Street Gastropub and Speakeasy, which shut down in November of 2017, I was among so many others whose heart broke with the news, and who wondered what would happen to the music scene in Pittsburgh. Working there changed my life and introduced me to a number too large to count of people that I now call some great friends. The music scene that called James Street home is a tight-knit community of musicians across all genres that supported each other with every project they brought to those stages. Some of the country’s greatest jazz artists, impeccable young funk and rock bands, and up-and-coming local hip hop artists and groups all took to that stage for one reason: to bring this city a world away from work and stress, where they could relish in the rhythmic vibes of plenty of Pittsburgh’s best talent. So many people, knowing I used to work there, asked me what was going to happen next. What was the fate of this great community? Where would they go? Well fear not James Street fans, because former owner Kevin Saftner has joined a new team of guys to bring you James Street 2.0, better known as The Stage at Karma.
Karma, for short, is located in the South Side, in the same space where Devils and Dolls used to reside. After some repeat occurrences of problems, Devils and Dolls shut its doors, and the owner immediately began building a stage inside. Kevin explained how, though he had been asked to check out many prospective venues since the closing of James Street, Karma was the only one with a stage already built inside, which was basically what sold him. Joining forces with owner Mike Papariela and resident DJ, TJ Harris, also known as DJ Get Nasty, Karma is set to have their soft opening on February 9th, operating 7 days a week with a limited weekly lineup of events. March 2nd will be their grand opening, celebrated with performances by local intergalactic funk band Starship Mantis and the neo-soul-filled sounds of Merrow.
The weekly lineup of events is as follows:
Monday: themed karaoke and service industry night; Tuesday: Open Stage; Wednesday: funk and soul, accompanied by Steeltown Horns and Cross/Current; Thursday: College night/EDM DJ; Friday and Saturday: Full band shows, DJ close-out; and Sunday: a Jazz Jam hosted by local Jazz drummer George Heid III.
When you enter Karma, you walk into a long narrow room with a huge chrome bar top separating you from bottles upon bottles of liquor stacked on risers and backlit by the reflection of lights on the silver textured wall behind where 3 television screens, 3 sun-shaped mirrors, and the KARMA sign hang. Two sets of twelve taps break up the stretching bar, while above your head, chandeliers light the way to a small stage – previously a lounge area in Devils and Dolls – where the Sunday through Wednesday events are to be held. The venue is turning the old nightclub décor into a space where all walks of life can come and join the community that used to be in place in the South Side years ago. “This used to be something you saw on Carson Street 10, 15, 20 years ago. It hasn’t been here; it became all bars, nightclubs and restaurants. There are some great ones of each of those things, but there’s nothing like this that’s a live, cultural, artistic music hub that has a bar in it. We are a live music venue that has a bar inside, not a bar that has live music," Kevin explained.
To the right of the small stage; a view of the massive, multi-tiered main stage jumps out. The staggeringly large-by-comparison platform will put main acts in the spotlight from 8PM to 11PM on Fridays and Saturdays, and then transform into a dance floor for patrons to adopt from 11PM to 2AM, where a DJ will close out the night, post-band performance. The room has two lounge areas, one right above the other, at the back end. The bottom level located behind the sound booth has lounge sofas and high top tables to stand at, while the upstairs area has large booth like couches that face the grandiose window looking over Carson Street. Brando Martin, the house sound engineer, tested the system a bit while I was taking pictures, and it’s safe to say that nobody will be hard of hearing in the venue, but they might be when they leave. The system blares, yet isn’t overbearing on the bar side.
With a new endeavor comes new chances to avoid past mistakes, and Kevin said he is more than prepared to do that. When asked what lessons he learned from running James Street, he whipped out a list on his phone and laughed through just a few of the items, exclaiming, “I’ve got a list of about 25 things I’ve screwed up, and I write about them all the time. I’m ready to start a blog one of these days! I remember the things I mess up and then I just don’t do them again.” With those in mind, Kevin said he’s ready to carry on with Karma the way it should be run, noting, “The biggest thing from James Street was that it was just too big, and so much [happening]… We’re going to try to go for way more quality here than quantity.” And without a doubt, as an insider’s peek to the things they have planned proved almost too exciting not to share. However, my lips are sealed here, you’ll just have to make your way down to Karma and see for yourself!
While every other venue in the South Side has its niche, Karma is hopeful to be the local hub for music and art in the community, and the most culturally diverse place on Carson Street. To follow along with all of the amazing events planned, check out the Facebook page by searching The Stage at Karma and following the Instagram page @karmastage412.
Photos by Nicolette Kalafatis, poster by Jim Barr and George Heid III