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The Buffalo Original Music Blast turned into the biggest break of Leah Zicari's career.

Last year Zicari attended a panel of record company executives at the music festival, known as B.O.M.B. She was one in a small crowd that turned out to hear music industry insiders talk about how to get a recording contract.

Afterward, Zicari went up to panelist Harv Moore of Rhapsody Records and gave him a tape of her acoustic folk music. A few weeks later Moore called back -- and so began a professional relationship that recently saw Zicari sign a contract with Rhapsody, a label with national distribution based in Buffalo.

"B.O.M.B. was a turning point for me," said Zicari, who will perform at 8:30 tonight in the Tralf at the second annual B.O.M.B. festival. The event runs tonight and Saturday and features 65 bands, including 27 from out of town.

On each night, bands will play on two stages starting at 7 in the Tralf, 622 Main St. Music will start at 8 at Big Shotz, 45 W. Chippewa St., and the Atomic Cafe, 49 W. Chippewa. Tickets are $5 for one day and $8 for both, and allow access to all clubs.

"It can be very important because of the exposure. You never know who will see you perform or who you will get to talk to," Zicari said. "I've got a whole folder filled with rejection slips. But if you can reach one person who likes your music, it can change everything."

Exposure remains the biggest hurdle for local groups.

"There's a lot of good bands in this town but nobody gives a damn about them," said Noel Stefan Stoyanoff, known as NSS, who performs late Friday at Big Shotz. "Too many times we go out and play in front of nobody.

"This is a chance to bring people together to hear all of us play. It doesn't happen often around here."

Buffalo's musical reputation has been growing in recent years with the national success and record sales of such home-bred acts as the Goo Goo Dolls and Ani DiFranco. Other local acts also are gaining attention.

Animal Planet, a band fronted by Michael Lee Jackson, was a hit during a performance on the Emerging Artists stage at the recent Woodstock '99 concert. JunKulture recently signed for a Northeast tour with the regional act Wide Mouth Mason. 53 Days has been heard on the MTV series "Undressed."

Longtime favorites with local roots such as Natalie Merchant, Billy Sheehan, 10,000 Maniacs, Brian McKnight and Mercury Rev remain vital national musical forces. But the biggest stars from Buffalo remain the Goo Goo Dolls, who just this week played live on a VH1 Labor Day special, and DiFranco.

It wasn't that long ago that the Dolls and DiFranco were, like local bands today, playing small clubs for 50 bucks a night.

"God bless the Goos and Ani. They are a symbol of perseverance," Stoyanoff said. "But what they've done doesn't really mean much to me in terms of making money with music. Financially, I'm falling apart. But there's something about music and performing that keeps me going."

One of those things is the B.O.M.B. fest. "It boosts your spirits and it's fun," Stoyanoff said. "I get a chance to see a lot of great bands play and I get to play and sit in with some other groups. The B.O.M.B. brings us together."

This year's B.O.M.B. discussion panels include Jay Gerland, who runs the Web site. He will speak on MP3 technology at 4 p.m. Saturday at Big Shotz. Van Taylor, of Taylor Made Jazz, who also works as a record company representative, will then talk about touring and band exposure.

B.O.M.B. actually started three years ago and was called the Western New York Music Festival. That festival, while not a commercial success, set the stage for local bands and regional acts to gather downtown in September to showcase their talents.

Later, Jeff Jackson of the local band Mudtown Rudy became one of the chief organizers and changed the name to B.O.M.B.

Last year, more than 3,000 people turned up at downtown clubs to hear the bands. Jackson said about 1,000 tickets have been sold for this weekend's bash, and he is optimistic it will be the biggest yet.

"We want to get people to listen to music who normally don't come to hear it in downtown Buffalo," said Jackson, whose band will play at 11:30 p.m. Saturday at the Tralf.

Chippewa Street is usually packed on weekend nights, and this is the first time B.O.M.B. acts will be showcased on the popular entertainment strip in the heart of downtown.

Bands from Pennsylvania, Toronto, Ohio, Kentucky, Texas and Massachusetts also will be performing.

The B.O.M.B. is also one of the few events that brings bands of varying musical styles together in a downtown showcase.

"The people who come downtown for music usually come for a few bands they like, but won't go out to hear other bands," said Geno McManus of JunKulture, which plays at 10 p.m. Saturday at the Tralf. "This adds a little adventure to the local scene. It gives the fans a chance to explore new bands and new music."

McManus hopes the local music festival can grow in stature and attendance. Eventually, he would like to see a Buffalo music festival that could build into something that might be like festivals in Austin, Texas, and Toronto.

"It's not going to happen overnight, but if this thing keeps growing every year, it could turn into something special," McManus said. "Remember, four years ago we didn't have anything like this here. Now you've got almost 70 bands playing over two days. I think that's impressive."

The B.O.M.B. certainly won't solve all local musicians' problems. Radio airplay for local music is scarce on commercial stations, and finding gigs for up-and-coming bands can be difficult.

Then there's the economics to consider. McManus said $60 for a night's gig is about the best his band has done in local clubs. "That's why something like B.O.M.B. is so important. It's an opportunity you have to take advantage of, because you don't get many around here."

The opportunity goes only so far, said Leah Pinnavaia of Cosmic Stepping Stone, which plays at 9 p.m. Saturday at Big Shotz.

"You meet a lot of other bands from out of town that can help you get gigs, but you really don't get that much exposure," she said. "It's mostly a local thing."

But as Leah Zicari can attest, that local exposure can pay off.

"In this business, it usually comes down to who you know," Zicari said. "The B.O.M.B. gives you a chance to know a lot more people."

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