Best local music act: Humble Braggers
Photo by kc kratt
Best local music act
Don’t be surprised if these folks become the next Buffalo band to make waves on the national scene; they’ve got a great feel for hook-filled dream pop that looks back to the synth-driven ’80s while also embracing the more organic vibe of 21st century indie rock. The result is music that is both instantly accessible and artistically interesting. Live shows are friendly and fun affairs, while their 2017 album I Know Better, I’m No Better establishes that they also know how to capture their signature sound in the studio.
Maybe you haven’t yet heard of Little Cake (comprising singer/songwriter/muli-instrumentalist Ana Vafai and various backup performers) but you will. Little Cake is the name of the band and Vafai’s stage name (think Annie Clark and St. Vincent). It has a couple live albums out, which are woefully inadequate in conveying the live show experience. This is really a music act, with songs faintly reminiscent in musical complexity and myriad influences of Frank Zappa and the early Mothers of Invention, as well as in their infectious absurdity. Vafai’s unbridled stage presence might remind you of Bette Midler at her wildest. Ultimately though, comparisons are insufficient in describing Little Cake, a totally fresh and original act.
Best summer concert series
450 S. 4th St., Lewiston; 754-4375 or artpark.net
Yes, it’s a bit of a drive for most Western New Yorkers. Yes, the traffic, parking, and the crowds can be a bit of a hassle. But, for the sheer firepower of its lineup and low ticket prices for concerts that often command triple-digits in other markets, it is hard to top Artpark. While classic rock acts dominate the season, there’s enough variety for virtually every taste. And where else can you sit back and enjoy a double bill of Steve Miller and Peter Frampton performing against the spectacular backdrop of the Niagara Gorge for a mere $17? To paraphrase the English music critic Charles Shaar Murray, if you’re too cool for that, you may just be too cool.
Best bar for live music (city)
PAUSA art house
19 Wadsworth St., Buffalo; 697-9075 or pausaarthouse.com
In Buffalo’s vibrant arts community, there is no shortage of venues to see regional fine art or hear a variety of dynamic musical acts. There are, however, very few spaces that have it all. Within the cozy confines of PAUSA Art House on the edge of Allentown, patrons can experience phenomenal music and curated fine art exhibitions while enjoying an elegant glass of wine, delicious small plates, and hearty sandwiches. The intimate nature of the venue allows patrons and creatives to mix and mingle in a multi-sensory space that is so much more than a bar.
Best bar for live music (southtowns)
189 Public House
189 Main St., East Aurora; 652-8189 or oneeightynine.com
Located near the East Aurora “Y,” where Buffalo Road, Hamburg Street, and Main Street converge, 189 presents a full calendar of standing weekly shows, local bands, and touring acts. The majority of shows are free, including the weekly Acoustic Sundays gig, and the summer series Thursdays in the Alley. Concerts indoors (always reasonably priced) are usually standing room only. The stage, along one wall, dominates the barroom; the second-floor provides wide-open views of the ground floor and band-watching sightlines are stellar.
Best bar for live music (northtowns)
The Irishman Pub & Eatery
5601 Main St., Williamsville; 626-2670 or irishmanpub.com
The Irishman has long been revered as a neighborhood staple, providing authentic and delicious pub food and drinks served up by famously friendly staff. This fun and vibrant bar is also a destination for live music lovers. On its website, you’ll find a robust calendar of musical events ranging from open mic nights to solo and group acts. The Irishman also participates in “Music on Main,” where every Thursday night live musical acts are featured at as many as ten different venues along Main Street in the village of Williamsville.
Best concert (small venue)
Bill Frisell at Albright-Knox Art Gallery Art of Jazz
Frisell’s appearance was the first return engagement by an artist in this series, and, this time, he brought a friend, young bass player Thomas Morgan. It was an evening of profoundly deep music, concluding with a version of “What the World Needs Now” that was so sublime, you could hear the audience exhale after having held its collective breath during the number. For the record, the world does need love, and, for a moment, it felt like maybe we’d get it.
Best large concert
David Byrne at UB Center for the Arts
Last year, Byrne tweeted that his upcoming tour would be “the most ambitious show I’ve done since the shows that were filmed for Stop Making Sense.” That’s a pretty bold claim, but it turns out it’s true. Byrne travels with an eleven-piece group of highly skilled musicians, dancers, and singers—all grey-suited, bare-foot, and instrumentally untethered. From drums to keyboard, everyone performs in constant motion, their instruments around their necks, on a completely bare stage, surrounded by a heavy chain curtain. Every idiosyncratic movement is precisely choreographed, with lighting and effects that complement the musical mood. Byrne includes highlights from his forty-year career from Talking Heads (which he fronted) up to his new album, American Utopia, with tight, crystal-clear sound, all performed live.
Best outdoor concert
Earth Harp and Plasticiens Volant at Artpark
PHoto courtesy of Artpark
The stunning centerpiece of the instrumentation–the earth harp–is one of the many new and cutting-edge instruments in this dynamic show. Meanwhile, a group of costumed actor-operators from France interact with the audience using giant, exotic, illuminated, inflated puppets and ojects to present stories from history, mythology, and literature against the evening sky. An amazing spectacle.
Best new hangout
Lucky Day Whiskey Bar
320 Pearl St., Buffalo; 322-0547 or luckydaywhiskeybar.com
Lucky Day is both quintessentially Buffalo and simultaneously decidedly not Buffalo at all. We love this about it, as well as the sophisticated decor, massive whisky selection, great taps, subtly funky dinner menu, and all the beautifully balanced and smart service and aesthetic choices Tim and Morgan Stevens seem to effortlessly imbue into their businesses (Ballyhoo, Drambox). We’re glad to see the guys in suits who work downtown find this place as awesome as we do, and the live music program is pretty excellent, too, but we like it here when there aren’t as many people around and we can chat up the barkeeps. Either way, a tavern that’s as great when it’s packed as it is when it’s not-so-packed is pretty special.
Best production of contemporary show
The Night Alive, Irish Classical Theatre Company
New plays are tricky. Without benefit of years of established productions—sometimes even film interpretations—presenting a new work can be a miss as often as a hit. Succeeding in creating the latter comes down to making unprecedented choices that work, and that’s exactly what made The Night Alive soar. From the Artie Award-winning direction of Brian Cavanagh and through to the cast and designers (in the middle of the ICTC in-the-round, the sink had running water!), the play crackled nonstop. Tone is tricky in these dark Irish comedies, but this crew nailed it.
Most innovative theater production
Stellaluna at Theatre of Youth
From the minute patrons entered Theatre of Youth, they could feel the magic. The moon beckoned from a set that applied otherworldly lighting to a nonspecific earthly location. And then the bats and birds arrived. The impressive puppets were handled skillfully by quintet of performers who imbued the creatures with grace, personality, and harmonious voices. Director Kyle LoConti and puppet designer Adam Kruetinger took home Artie Awards for this show, but the whole creative team was deserving (and nominated). There hasn’t been a show quite like this on stage in Buffalo in recent memory, if ever.
Best production of a classic show
’night, Mother, Brazen-Faced Varlets
The opposite of what it takes to successfully present a contemporary show, presenting a classic requires creatives to take material that’s had definitive interpretations and make it fresh. For ’night, Mother, which had its premiere in 1982, it also takes chemistry between the leads, and an ability to find humor in absolute tragedy. The almost too intimate space in the back of Rust Belt Books only heightened Brazen-Faced Varlets’ haunting and beautiful production of this Pulitzer Prize-winning mainstay, surely one of the company’s best offerings to date.
Best large exhibition
Tony Conrad: A Retrospective at Albright-Knox Art Gallery, University at Buffalo Art Gallery, and Hallwalls Contemporary Art Center
Conrad is the hometown favorite here. The iconoclastic artist, musician, composer, theorist, media and computer pioneer, and UB professor—who died in 2016—was a beloved local figure. This extensive backward look at the artist’s career organized by Cathleen Chaffee (AKAG) and Rachel Adams (UB), managed to encompass Conrad’s incredibly diverse interests in a wide array of disciplines and media—including work that had never been exhibited—and make sense of it all. Well, as much as that’s possible with Conrad.
Wanderlust at University at Buffalo Art Galleries
Photo courtesy of UB Art Galleries
Curator Rachel Adams continues her hot streak of exceptional—and exceptionally ambitious—exhibitions. Spread out between two galleries, Wanderlust was an impressive collection of video, photo-documentation, installations, text, and live performance, covering fifty years of work by artists who venture out of the studio and into the world to make art. The long list of artists included Vito Acconci, Janine Antoni, John Baldessari, Allan Kaprow, Ana Mendieta, Richard Long, several Buffalo-based artists, and many more.
Best small exhibition
belit sag at Squeaky Wheel
617 Main St., Buffalo; 884-7172 or squeaky.org
belit sag, a Turkish artist based in Amsterdam with an international pedigree, has had exhibitions at high-profile venues such as the Documenta Festival in Germany and TIFF, and had her first solo show at Squeaky Wheel last fall. Curator Ekrem Seder hosted the ambitious show, called Let Me Remember, which was a copresentation with the Flaherty Film Seminar and featured five video installations focused on a series of brutal, racially motivated murders of migrants committed by NSU, a neo-Nazi group in Germany. These revelatory video works, installed in Squeaky Wheel’s gallery and storefront window, created an immersive experience both tender and furious, with sag’s committed yet gentle whispered voice-over filling the room. The work is both indictment and reflection of the white supremacy insidiously embedded in our culture, from the related courtroom trials to media representations of the victims. A glowing review in ArtForum described the key questions of the show: What can be remembered, who can do this remembering, and which remembrances count?
Entwined at Indigo gallery
47 Allen St., Buffalo; 984-9572 or indigoartbuffalo.com
Individually, artists Jesse Walp and Bethany Krull create visually and intellectually compelling work. But when the real-life partners make art in tandem, each contributes something extra to the other’s work. Some of the art in Entwined was made by the artists individually, but three pieces were collaborations, where the Krull and Walp’s skills “entwined” to create a unique artistic hybrid. One of these, Becoming Brand New, deserves an award on its own. The sci-fi-creepy wall-mounted installation comprises more than a hundred clear cast-rubber spheres of various sizes, each with a black ceramic tadpole “developing” inside. And Krull’s cute/macabre pile of newborn (porcelain) mice are the sort of thing you don’t soon forget.
Best longstanding fundraiser
The Ride for Roswell
PHoto by Robert Carey, smcc Camera
Ride for Roswell is one of the area’s most well-respected, well-run, and well-received fundraisers. What began in 1996 as an idea suggested by a single volunteer has grown from three routes to eleven with a preride rally called the Celebration of Hope. Today it’s certainly one of Buffalo’s most noteworthy fundraisers, not just because it’s for a great cause, but also because it’s really just fantastic fun.
Best fundraiser (new)
11 Day Power Play
880-7080 or 11daypowerplay.com
In its inaugural year, the 11 Day Power Play has made a huge impact. Forty players have participated in 250 consecutive hours of hockey and raised more than $1.2 million for Roswell Park Cancer Institute.The event was conceived and created by local hockey lovers Mike and Amy Lesakowski. Amy battled an aggressive form of breast cancer, while Mike lost his mother Evelyn to the disease. The couple’s intense personal experiences with cancer paved the way for their creation of this record-breaking fundraising event, which ran from June 22 to July 3, 2017, shattered the world record for longest hockey game, and brought in donations from 3,272 individuals. In its second year, the organization is raising funds for cancer research and wellness programs at Roswell Park, Make-A-Wish WNY, and Camp Good Days. This year’s event took place July 5–July 15 at HarborCenter (after Spree went to press).
Best fundraiser with food and drink
A Cooks Tour
Spurred by the tragic suicide of Anthony Bourdain and the discussion of depression and mental health issues among restaurant pros that followed it, good friends Jill Gedra (owner of Lait Cru Brasserie) and Kate Elliott (general manager of Community Beer Works’ restaurant operations) pulled in some of their industry peers to offer Buffalo a unique fundraiser at Kleinhans in June. It’s always wonderful to see (and taste) the collaborative efforts of Buffalo’s restaurants, particularly for an important cause. The event sold out quickly and all profits were donated to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
Most unusual cultural event
Response Performance Festival, Torn Space Theater
Silo City (100 Childs St.; tornspacetheater.com or 812-5733)
There might be nothing more exciting happening in Buffalo performance than Torn Space’s work at Silo City. Among its significant and wildly imagined theater/performance pieces is the multi-dimensional Response Festival. Within its sophomore year, multiple components work together to create an intricately woven narrative of—according to creators—“a parallel society with its own system of symbols, rituals, and governance.” Torn Space visionary Dan Shanahan and associate director Melissa Meola have curated and developed the Festival as a series of performances, including unique events being held in August and November. Be sure to get tickets while you can.
Best outdoor programming for kids
44 Prime St.; 574-1537 or canalsidebuffalo.com
PHoto by Chastity O'Shei
We don’t have enough space to list all the programs for kids at Canalside, but they include story times, Explore and More Museum, dance and acrobatics, an outdoor movie series, beach sand play area, plenty of free lawn and table games including ping pong, billiards, foosball, bean bag toss, and much more. A new Explore and More Museum is slated to open at Canalside in 2019.
Best family fun (winter)
Lumagination at Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens
2655 S. Park Ave.; 827-1584 or buffalogardens.com
Imagine standing outside gazing at a vast glass building pulsing light as snow falls quietly around you. Well, you don’t have to imagine it, because each winter, the Lumagination show at the Botanical Gardens transforms the greenhouse and its environs with amazing light displays and creative designs while interactive features provide fun for all ages. Plus, it’s warm inside.
Best family fun (summer)
300 Parkside Ave.; 837-3900 or buffalozoo.org
PHoto by kc kratt
This zoo offers a truly fun and rewarding experience for all members of the family. It’s inhabitants run the gamut from cuddly to carnivorous, and the staff clearly take great pains to make their educational material entertaining as well as informative. Kids will enjoy camps, workshops, tours, badge programs, and much more. The zoo does it all, all year round.
Best winter event
Buffalo isn’t the Motor City but with our local Ford and GM plants still roaring, the automobile still figures large in both our local economy and our culture. The locally produced, enthusiast-driven car show Buffalo Motorama doesn’t feature the latest model cars. Instead, you’ll find a fascinating array of carefully restored vintage automobiles and one-of-a-kind custom cars that pay tribute to the invention that revolutionized the world. A great end-of-winter (it takes place in late March) outing for kids and adults alike, Buffalo Motorama is throwback to the era when every car didn’t look the same and working on your car was a national pastime. Bonus: you won’t be tempted to open your wallet by the allure of new vehicles for sale.
Best summer event
Bisons Star Wars Night
1 James D. Griffin Plaza, Buffalo; 846-2000 or milb.com/buffalo
Initiated in 2008, the Buffalo Bisons’ annual Star Wars Night is inundated with The Force, selling out 16,907 seats, and drawing enthusiastic, costumed crowds to Coca-Cola Field every June. For those who don’t own light sabers, formidable space weaponry is available for sale. The climax is an on-field battle between Jedi Knights and the Dark Side, followed by a fireworks display, shining mightily over downtown Buffalo.
Best indoor event
Nickel City Con
Remember when being a nerd wasn’t cool? Not anymore. Nerd culture is now big business, and in Buffalo, the most conspicuous evidence of this is Upstate New York’s largest pop culture and comic book convention. It’s the place to let your geek flag fly! This year the event brought plenty of muscle to Buffalo, in the form of Hulk Hogan, Lou Ferrigno, Jimmy Hart, and Ricky Steamboat. Plus, star power: Barbara Eden, Jason Mewes, Lori Petty, and Corbin Bernsen, among others. (Don’t recognize some of these names? Not everyone can talk nerdy.) Maybe, the biggest Nickel City coup was bringing Richard Dreyfuss to the North Park Theater for a special viewing of Jaws, followed by a Q&A. All the while, cosplayers lent the whole event a surreal quality.
Best festival (city)
Elmwood Avenue Festival of the Arts
Always held the last weekend of August, Elmwood Avenue Festival of the Arts has been celebrating regional artisans and artists of various genres since 1999. Vendors, three performance stages, a dance tent, and a kidsfest area are set up along the avenue between Saint James Place to the north and West Ferry Street to the south. The festival emphasizes community and invites local nonprofits to disseminate news, as well as traditional vendors. It ends with a raucous parade and a street dance party on Sunday evening.
Best festival (suburbs)
East Aurora Music Fest
This relative newcomer to the region’s overstuffed summer schedule celebrates homegrown music, showcasing eighty WNY-based bands from all over the stylistic map on a Saturday afternoon in early June. But walking or taking the shuttle to the twenty indoor and outdoor venues also gives visitors a chance to check out just how much EA has to offer in terms of restaurants, bars, and shops both on and off the beaten path. As if that weren’t enough, the budget-priced admission fee gets donated to a revolving group of local nonprofits.
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