Being that I am in the midst of attending four concerts in five days, rather than compose and type a blog post on a compelling and broad health and wellness issue, I've decided instead to provide a summary of my week of musical bliss. Summer is the time of year when the Buffalo area truly comes alive for music fans with several free or cheap weekly concert series, and for many years I have taken advantage of this abundant supply of diverse musical performances to quench my large thirst for cathartic and celebratory expressions of virtuosity, community and fun.
On Tuesday I traveled up north to Artpark, the venerable open-air, natural auditorium located in Lewiston, NY near the upper Niagara River, about midway between Niagara Falls and Lake Ontario, to see a twinbill of Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and Brian Setzer's Rockabilly Riot! While it had rained earlier in the day, the sun came out just in time for the opening act creating a gorgeous evening. BBVD is a throwback to the swinging jazz age of the 1920s and '30s both musically and sartorially. Each member of the band wore crisp, finely tailored suits, some with hip fedoras and sunglasses. The leader of the band sang all the songs and played electric guitar intermittently. The drummer and five-man horn section was outstanding- one trumpet player, who was a master of utilizing the vibrato-laden plunger effect technique synonymous of the sassy, zoot-suit era, especially stood out. The band was completed by a stand-up bassist and keyboardist. The singer introduced most of the songs, some of which he wrote, but a good many were covers of old-time hits. They put their own twist on a pair of Cab Calloway classics, "Minnie the Moocher" and "The Reefer Man." They also paid tribute to a trio of Louie's- Armstrong, Jordan and Prima- that were giants in the musical genre they so loved and continue to exhibit to modern audiences several decades after its heyday.
After a 30-minute break to rearrange the stage, Brian Setzer came out with his three-man backing band consisting of a stand-up bassist, drummer and keyboardist, who played rhythm guitar during a few songs. The funny thing about Brian Setzer, in my opinion anyway, is that he has matured into a great artist. When his band, The Stray Cats, first emerged on the national scene in the early 1980s- through music videos for "Rock This Town," "Stray Cat Strut" and "She's Sexy and 17"- new wave and hard rock was all the rage as MTV exploded in popularity and influence. A traditional rockabilly band in the reflection of 1950s stars like Eddie Cochran, Carl Perkins and Bill Haley and the Comets just seemed so obsolete and out-of-touch with the times, that though they were talented, they just came off as oddballs. Then a couple decades later, Brian Setzer reintroduced himself to a new generation of fans through his wildly popular, big band orchestra-backed Christmas season tours playing holiday classics with a rockabilly and swingin' jazz edge. By then it was almost as if what was old was new again and instead of being ironic or anachronistic, Brian Setzer had reinvented himself as a modern day big band leader and old-fashioned electric guitar maestro. I've seen his Christmas shows on TV, though not live in person, and that spurred me to see him perform this week. He did not disappoint as his tight four-piece band played a rollicking set of vintage rockabilly music that included "Rock This Town" and "Stray Cat Strut" as well as several newer original songs and a few covers, the boys ending the show with the recently departed father of rock 'n' roll, Chuck Barry's "No Particular Place to Go." All in all a great evening.
The next night I ventured to North Tonawanda's Gateway Park located right on the Erie Canal, to see Beatle Magic, a fine local Beatles' tribute band. As is their custom (I have seen them before), they started the concert wearing matching black suits and mop-top wigs. Their first set consisted entirely of early Beatles' songs from Meet the Beatles and Hard Days Night to Help and through 1965's Rubber Soul album. I was especially pleased that they played two of my favorites from Rubber Soul- "In My Life" and "Norwegian Wood." In between songs the two band members who replicate Paul McCartney and John Lennon often playfully banter between themselves and make joking references to the original Fab Four. After the first set, the band took a break and changed clothes so that for the duration of the second set, each member wore the corresponding outfits that John, Paul, George and Ringo wore on the iconic album cover for Abbey Road e.g. John in his glorious all-white suit and George in jeans and denim long-sleeved shirt. The band opened the set with John Lennon's post-Beatles' anthem "Imagine" and then played a run of songs from the later-period Beatles' canon, including "Something," "Come Together" and "Let It Be," closing with the typical show-ender "Hey Jude."
For someone who has been an avid, loyal listener of Buffalo classic rock station 97 Rock's "Breakfast with The Beatles"- a weekly two hour Sunday morning show celebrating the music and cultural influence of The Beatles and all solo work of the Fab Four- for years, it was a can't-miss performance. One of my great regrets in music is that I have never seen any of The Beatles perform live. Last year Sir Paul McCartney made his first ever trip to Buffalo to play at then-First Niagara Arena, the home of the Sabres. I wanted to go so bad that my sister and I had three computers running to try to snag a pair of tickets online, but the concert sold out in minutes thanks in large part to the automated "bots" that overwhelm websites and gobble up large swaths of tickets to then be resold at huge profits on secondary ticket sale sites. The reaction to this crushing result, in which so many fans were shut out from acquiring tickets at face value, brought such outrage that it even spurred New York State to pass legislation cracking down on the use of such bot technology to cheat the system.
Then last night blew me away. In a special concert presented by the Canadian Consulate to celebrate Canada's 150th anniversary, local Tragically Hip tribute band The Strictly Hip teamed up with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra to play at Canalside, the city's beautiful waterfront park along the Buffalo River near its mouth with Lake Erie. For those who may be reading this that don't know The Tragically Hip, I can and should write a blog post in the future on how influential they have been in my life, but a thumbnail sketch is that they are a five-piece band from Kingston, Ontario that was formed in the mid-1980s and went on to become huge icons in their native country, including induction in the Canadian Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame, though they never had much success in the U.S. like other Canadian bands such as Rush, The Guess Who, and Barenaked Ladies. But since Buffalo lies right on the Canadian border, they developed a large and loyal following in my hometown. I have seen them in concert 18 times, mostly in the Buffalo area, but also as far as Rochester, Erie, PA and Cleveland. Many of their live shows have been transcendent, led by singer, lyricist extraordinaire and frontman Gord Downie, whose wild gesticulations and spontaneous stream-of-consciousness rants during live shows are legendary.
I have seen The Strictly Hip probably as many times as The Tragically Hip going back to their weekly gigs at The Crocodile Bar on Chippewa Street in the 1990s, to their shows during pre-game parties in the plaza prior to playoff games in 2006 and 2007 when the Sabres made it to consecutive Eastern Conference Finals, to their four-week run at the downtown nightclub The Tralfamadore Café this past February when each show they played a different Hip album in its entirety (I attended the show when they did the live album Live Between Us). Just last Friday I saw them at Kenmore Days, a small carnival in the village of Kenmore's Mang Park. Only a few dozen people were there, mostly pent up in the roped-off beer area to the left of the stage. The difference between the two shows was seismic.
First, while the orchestra was on stage, seated and warming up, Canada's Consulate General, a handsome, middle-aged woman with long, silvery hair and wearing a knee-length dress came out to speak about the unique, strong bonds between the U.S. and Canada, "our greatest ally and friend," mark the occasion of Canada's 150th anniversary and even read a short proclamation from Prime Minister Justin Trudeux praising The Tragically Hip for being integral to Canadian culture over the past three decades. The orchestra then played the Canadian and American national anthems and a sing-along version of "Happy Birthday" for both countries.
The Strictly Hip then strode on stage, their instruments and microphones set up in front of the orchestra. They immediately tore into one of The Hip's biggest and most popular hits "Courage" and the show got off to a rousing start. One thing I noticed was that the band's volume seemed somewhat muted so as not to completely drown out the backing orchestra. I attended a BPO concert at Canalside two years ago paying tribute to Stevie Wonder and the local band did overwhelm the orchestra at that event. However, unlike many BPO Rocks concerts I have seen at Kleinhans Music Hall such as The Beatles, The Who, The Doors, Led Zeppelin and Prince, The Hip's music is not symphonic and not all that conducive to orchestral arrangements. The BPO added some flourishes to the band's loyal rendering of Hip classics, such as "Bobcaygeon," "Ahead By a Century," "Gift Shop" and my all time favorite Hip song, "Grace, Too," but the aural combination was not that impressive, despite lead singer Jeremy Hoyle's reference to the BPO as "the best band in Buffalo." One cool moment was when Hoyle pointed to the nearby Harbor Center, the twin ice rink and hotel complex about 100 yards from the stage, and noted that right now a group of 40 guys were in the middle of setting a world record by playing hockey non-stop for 11 days to raise money for cancer research. The 11-Day Power Play reached its goal of surpassing $1 million and on Monday morning, July 3rd, the world record will be broken. He then asked for and received a loud cheer so that the guys inside the rink could hear us supporting them.
After playing for about 50 minutes, they took a break. I used the time off to amble down the boardwalk, check out all the boats that had docked along the water's edge for the concert, and grab a beer. When The Strictly Hip returned, the orchestra was surprisingly gone from the stage. What followed was an hour of a full-on, balls-to-the-wall, raucous celebration of The Tragically Hip's glorious catalogue. Now unburdened from drowning out the orchestra, the volume was noticeably turned up and The Strictly Hip ripped thru a set list of more Hip classics. That second set even eclipsed some Tragically Hip shows I have seen because of the awesome audience participation- thousands of loyal Hip fans singing in unison to every song- at one point Hoyle was so impressed that he declared: "You're the best Buffalo!" In light of Gord Downie's diagnosis last year of terminal brain cancer, and The Hip's likely final tour of Canada (they played no U.S. dates to the huge disappointment of Buffalo-area fans) last summer, culminating in a highly emotional, nationally broadcast on CBC, last show in their hometown of Kingston, last night's concert at Canalside was a cathartic celebration of The Hip's music and the band's mighty following in Western New York- many of whom were unable to partake in last summer's likely sendoff to Gord Downie and his fellow musicians, to directly express their love and appreciation for this uniquely talented and distinctively Canadian band. The night was truly unforgettable and I wish The Strictly Hip play at Canalside in future years so that Hip fanatics are able to get their fix of this tremendous musical legacy after The Tragically Hip's tragic forced retirement due to Gord Downie's terminal illness.
Lastly, tonight I am going to the Rockstarz club in West Seneca to see Rat Salad, a Black Sabbath tribute band. It will be the culmination of a five-day jaunt of a very eclectic mix of live musical performances, but while it should be enjoyable, it cannot compare with the euphoric spectacle of last night's show at Canalside.