Friday, June 29, 2012

Sam City

Sam Roberts is not from Buffalo.

He’s from Montreal, Quebec. He’s been churning out songs with his current Sam Roberts Band since 2000, setting Canadian sales records while rocking a steady number of onstage Levi’s tuxedos in the process. He’s ruled the Rock Album category of Juno Awards for most of the past decade, has his music blasted over Montreal Canadiens home games, and probably can’t walk into a Pizza Pizza without having faded denim torn from his diminutive frame by crazed Degrassi fans.

Yes, Sam Roberts is Canadian. But, if you come down to Canalside for his band’s “Buffalo Place Rocks the Harbor” performance tonight (with Grace Potter and the Nocturnals; lawn opens at 6 p.m.), you’ll see a guitarist and band whose style and substance may be the sonic embodiment of modern day Buffalo.

Roll through the tracks on 2001’s We Were Born In A Flame and you’ll hear a Cobblestone barroom. Cue up follow-ups Chemical City, Love at the End of the World or Collider and you’ll absorb the level of eclectic rock and roll variances found on a pub crawl down Allen Street. You’ll find mandatory Queen City rock riffs and optimistic melodies amid contemplative lyrics, all with a bit of rust on its edges. You’ll hear about hard roads, about how your friends will save you in the end; you’ll hear about a brother, graveyard shifts and love as deep as a coal mine. You’ll sing along with songs because you’re rhythmically lured in, even if you don’t like girls named Eileen or Maria (or necessarily agree with metaphorical stretches concerning the Taj Mahal). And, when you’re done with each album, you’ll play it again. And again. And again.

And another Canadian musician finds American fandom in Buffalo. In a city that’s showered QEW acts like Rush and the Tragically Hip with mania reserved for 70's-era Zeppelin or Springsteen, we’re attracted to the type of rough-hued northern musicianship not always appreciated by the rest of America. We’ve bought Matthew Good Band imports from Record Theatre, crossed the Peace Bridge for Sloan shows—and considered the memorization of Ron Hawkins lyrics required for over two decades. Simply put, we’ve always gravitated toward the honesty of blue-collar Canadian artistry.

But, with Roberts and today’s Buffalo, the cross-border connection seems different.

Sure, he was the pea-coated guitarist at 2008’s Winter Classic, charging through “Fixed to Ruin” on an outdoor riser between periods. And yes, the guy’s sold out Town Ballroom and other local venues over the past few years. But, he’s also a scruffy underdog who’s striving toward better times, albeit with an appreciation of the past. He’s an unassuming frontman who’s grinding forward not with huge singles, but with endless road work and a succession of solid albums. And, just like Buffalo, he’s adding new elements to his composition while not losing the essence of his act.

(Hell, on newer numbers like “The Last Crusade” and “Let It In,” Roberts joins bandmates Dave Nugent, Eric Fares, James Hall and Josh Trager to rip through their traditional guitar-and-percussion approach—and accommodate an intermingling of saxophone notes. This addition to their historical foundation could be considered the Sam Roberts Band’s Larkinville.)

With this connection understood, it’s appropriate that Roberts is opening up this summer’s “Rocks the Harbor” series. These are optimistic, adventurous times in Buffalo, with downtown renewal blooming amid a seemingly endless stream of outdoor music and 80-degree temperatures. Tonight, you’ll have a chance to see the best of the present, surrounded by glipses of the future. All the while, you’ll be serenaded by the guitar chords of the city’s possible soundtrack, with songs to make you gently sway, hoist a beer or head nod.

And once again, no: Sam Roberts is not from Buffalo. But tonight, you can assuredly count on him delivering a show that’s emblematic of the current rhythm of this city. 

(Author's note: This entry was finished while listening to "Up Sister" by the Sam Roberts Band.)

Monday, June 11, 2012


(Author's note #1: I wrote the below essay for my graduate school's nationally distributed newsletter. Since it's started to make its way around via cut-paste-and-forward, I decided to post it on the blog. If you've ever read my Idea of Buffalo piece from last fall, then I apologize for a few of the regugitated points below.)

I saw the streets all ripe with jewels
Balconies and the laundry lines
They tried to make me welcome there
But their streets did not feel like mine
So long, I’m goin’, goin’ home
-Dan Auerbach, “Goin’ Home”

One’s connection to home can be like one’s connection to family. At its best, home is a wonderful thing. It is the one place that feels like yours, the place you’re truly attached to. At its worst, home is a suffocating beast, full of frustration and timeless annoyances. I somehow overlooked the enduring duality of this relationship while living elsewhere. Now back on my hometown streets of Buffalo, New York as a returned resident, I’m surrounded by the daily complications of this association.

Buffalo has been both haven and harrowing for most of my life. It’s the city that hosted my birth, my Christmas mornings and high school basketball games. It gave me friends I’ve kept since preschool, girls I kissed in elementary school. It instilled the competitive grit I’ve used to tough through professional obstacles and rejection. And, it infected me with the underdog mentality that western New Yorkers are born with. Every Buffalo kid grows up with a chip on the shoulder, earned from condescending New York City scowls and southern state insults—the ones about snow and rust, urban blight and Super Bowl losses. I’m from a city that no one understands, compliments or respects. This has bred intense loyalty, one that’s ignited arguments with ignorant strangers and Florida waiters. It’s been an inconvenient loyalty, but it’s always been considered necessary. This is my hometown, to defend and support. In good times and bad.

Unfortunately, the whole defend-and-support thing isn’t always reciprocal. Home can agitate, frustrate and torment. It can be like a Springsteen song, but not in a good way. No matter how your beliefs, attitudes and aptitudes have progressed, home drags behind. No matter how many positive memories you’ve generated away from it, home can rekindle the painful moments you’ve forever tried to shake. No matter how many out-of-town successes you’ve experienced, home can preserve your failures for family dinners, Friday night socials and supermarket reunions. Buffalo is where my mother wants me to become a teacher, where my father thinks I should become a salesman. And, it will forever be where my high school English teacher said, if he had one piece of advice for me, it was to never pursue a career in English.

But, it will also remain the chief source of my artistic inspiration, just as it has for my entire writing life.

I lived in Boston for eleven years; I worked inside Manhattan’s Rockefeller Center for a summer. I once fell asleep in Spain and woke up in France. I’ve been to Ireland twice, Italy once, and to nearly every major American city for more than a weekend. I’ve never felt compelled to write about those places the way I do about Buffalo. It’s forever been an underutilized backdrop, full of faded glory amid glimmers of progress and waterfront panoramas; it’s loaded with complex characters striving for genuine salvation in the shadows of economic stall. Its story has surrounded my own story, and continues to affect me with its successes and failures. Some days, I smile at nineteenth-century buildings being refurbished by flanneled laborers; other days, I seethe down sidewalks as another Hunt Realty sign finds an empty storefront. Both experiences sear through me in different ways, both eliciting intense feelings usually reserved for personal hardships. But, that tightening cringe in my stomach—whether from excitement or resentment—proves I care. It’s undeniable evidence of an intense and, at times, exhausting personal connection. And, it’s a multi-faceted emotional connection that’s injected a voice, passion and literary purpose into every Buffalo-set item I’ve ever scribbled.

And maybe that’s why I moved back here last year. Maybe I grew tired of disrespecting this connection, of treating it with distance when it’s actually truly special. Maybe I got sick of not contributing to the place whose avenues, buildings and barflies have given me chapters of narrative inspiration. Or, maybe I’ve simply grown weary of writing essays, columns and novels about the only home I’d ever claim, all while keeping it four hundred miles away.

Whatever the reason, one thing is certain: I’m back, living and writing in the Queen City of the Lakes. Our winters are cold, but our summers are gorgeous. Our local economy’s inconsistent, but our neighborhoods are varied and vibrant. All our streets aren’t ripe with jewels, but many of them feel like mine. If you need me, I’ll be here.

This is my home.

(Author's note #2: This entry was posted while listening to "Atlantic City" by The Band.)