We used to call them "Meldrum gigs." Lovingly, of course.
What we local musicians meant by that was that the gig would be a great one, the crowd would be the right one. The money wouldn't be much, but it wouldn't matter. When Michael Meldrum put something together, you wanted to be part of it. It just felt right.
For 30 years, Meldrum has been a champion of the Buffalo music scene. He has always operated out of his second home, inside Nietzsche's. As Dave Van Ronk was to the Greenwich Village folk scene of the early '60s, so has Meldrum been to the independent music scene in our city.
Bob Dylan christened Van Ronk "the mayor of MacDougal Street." Meldrum, it follows, has long been "the mayor of Allentown." After all, he has influenced hundreds of musicians with kind and supportive words, with his weekly songwriter's showcase inside Nietzsche's, with his open mic nights, with his annual tribute concerts and with the pure generosity of his spirit.
On Feb. 18, those musicians will have a chance to even up the equation. Thirty years into his career, Meldrum is releasing his debut album, and celebrating the momentous occasion with a big throw-down inside his favorite club.
As founder of the Buffalo Song Project, Meldrum presented songwriters to Buffalo audiences when they were still on their way up. He has long had an ear for folk-based writing, and that ear suggested that he book Suzanne Vega, Michelle Shocked, the late, great Townes Van Zandt and even a nascent Tragically Hip.
That ear also made it clear to him that a certain adolescent with an acoustic guitar and a whole lot to say was someone worth encouraging. Ani DiFranco has never made any secret of her admiration for and gratitude toward Meldrum, whom she credits as giving her a start in the business. Meldrum encouraged DiFranco as a guitarist -- she is today one of the foremost individual stylists the instrument can claim -- and gave her gigs when she was still, quite literally, just a kid.
DiFranco is returning the favor. "Open Ended Question," Meldrum's debut, is being released on her own Righteous Babe Records. Ani appears on the album, and she also co-produced and mixed it.
DiFranco isn't the only musician Meldrum has inspired and encouraged, just the most famous. Meldrum's friends, proteges, and consistent musical collaborators include a virtual who's who of local independent musicians.
Alison Pipitone, Rob Lynch, Joelle Labert, Michael Sheffield, Jim Whitford, John Brady, Geno McManus, Ed Zielinski, John Lombardo, Charlie Quill, Michael Morrissey -- all of these musicians have worked with Meldrum, all have benefited from his tireless enthusiasm for the art of song, and many appear on "Open Ended Question."
"We wanted to pay tribute to Michael and his incredible support for the Buffalo music scene," says Scot Fisher, DiFranco's manager and Righteous Babe's president. "Ani has never forgotten his support, beginning when she was a child, and continuing as she started developing her art. She really wanted to be involved in this. And we decided to go whole-hog, with complete CD packaging -- a digi-pack, with an extensive book of liner notes and photos, including one of Ani and Michael when Ani was something like 12 years old. This isn't just a regional release; it will get the full Righteous Babe distribution treatment."
"It couldn't get any better than this," says Meldrum. "The album was a labor of love for me. I was so lucky to play with all of these fantastic Buffalo musicians, and I was even more lucky to have Ani sing on the record. She took all the files from what I'd been working on for several years, brought them down to her place in New Orleans, and really turned the vibe we had going on the recordings into an actual record, by sequencing it and producing it with Mike Napolitano."
The end result is an album that flows rather seamlessly, following various folk estuaries, and ultimately painting a vibrant portrait of Buffalo song. It really feels like Meldrum's life's work, his experience translated into music.
At Nietzsche's on the 18th, Meldrum plans to perform the album in its entirety, with the help of an incredible roster of musicians, all of whom either appeared on the record or have been a significant part of Meldrum's musical life. In addition to the veritable laundry list of Buffalo players listed above, Meldrum's two children -- 7-year-old Julia and 9-year-old Alexander -- performed on the record, and will reprise their supportive roles during the concert, which Meldrum stresses "will start at 8 p.m. sharp -- We've got a ton of music to get through!"
Though Meldrum has left his mark on so many musicians and bands in Buffalo, many of whom have gone on to become musical ambassadors for our city in the broader world, he remains humble.
"My greatest talent, if you can call it that, has been my willingness to explore the secret crevices of the Buffalo music scene. I've never been anything less than amazed at what I've found there."
"Open Ended Question" is set to be released by Righteous Babe Records on Feb. 18 and will be available during the release party that evening at Nietzsche's, 248 Allen St. Call the club at 886-8539 with questions, or visit www.righteousbabe.com.