At half past three o'clock Saturday afternoon, Brigette and Kristen Brzezniak pulled into a parking lot behind Ralph Wilson Stadium. The traffic wasn't too bad. The energy was mellow; it was a chill summer day, the kind that hasn't been seen around this stadium for nearly 20 years.
But give it a few hours. By a little after 9 p.m., that chill mood would become charged thanks to a few gentlemanly Brits who have been strutting and thrashing on stage for more than 50 years.
The Rolling Stones were back in Orchard Park, and with them came more than 50,000 fans spanning the generations. Take the Brzezniak's five-person party: Brigette and Kristen, 26-year-old twins, were the youngest of the group. The eldest was Lorraine Howard, their 63-year-old colleague from the Buffalo law firm where they work. The group hung out in the parking lot for a solid three hours, listening to 97 Rock's Rolling Stones marathon before heading to their seats: Section 114, adjacent to the stage.
“Worth every penny,” said Brigette, wearing a black Stones T-shirt with the neckline cut just above the group's iconic lips-and-tongue logo.
The start of the show was the capstone of the Brzezniak's Stones adventure, one that started a full day earlier. They, like many, aren't just casual Stones fans. Their dedication to the band is as pronounced as Mick Jagger's strut on stage.
Despite the bright red tongue that pops off the front of their shirts, Stones' fans passion isn't the in-your-face kind. Or the early rising kind. Jay Milligan, who owns a property across from the stadium at the corner of Southwestern Boulevard and Abbott Road, was surprised that the first cars didn't pull into his parking lot until 9 a.m. By noon, his 210-vehicle lot – which also includes O'Neill's Stadium Inn & Grill, had only eight cars.
“I was surprised,” said Milligan. “I expected a bigger crowd earlier in the day.”
To that point: The late-arriving Stones crowd was laid back. They tailgated quietly, sipping beers and playing music softly. The merchandise booths outside the stadium were jammed for hours before the show. But the party atmosphere was quiet, not raucous. (Later, as the show was underway, a crowd of several hundred fans lingered on the plaza along Abbott Road, soaking up the Stones for free.)
In fact, it wasn't until about 7 p.m. that parking lots near the stadium started getting full. “It's been pretty mellow,” said Milligan, who was headed to the concert with his wife, Denise, and their daughter, Ashley. As he chatted and gave directions to his staff of 10 workers, Milligan was wearing a bright T-shirt and camouflage shorts. From wardrobe to behavior, this was nothing like a Bills game – no ill-behaved customers “to weed out,” Milligan said.
Which is a good thing when you consider the generational blend of the crowd. Though the septuagenarian Stones' audience skews older, for sure, many fans were bringing their children for the first time. A pigtailed little girl who looked to be about 8 – wearing the requisite tongue-logo shirt – walked into the stadium with wide eyes. “The concert is outside?” she asked her mom, who nodded and hugged her.
Robert Larschan, who lives in the Long Island town of Lindenhurst, brought his 15-year-old daughter, Nicole. They camped Friday night in the Poconos Mountains of Pennsylvania, then drove five hours to their Cheektowaga hotel before heading to the stadium. The father-daughter duo often attend concerts together; one of their recent outings was One Direction. They were both dressed in black Stones shirts, though this was Nicole's first show.
“I told her she owes me this one,” Robert said, laughing.
Nicole looked at her dad. “Yeah, but I like going to these.”
“When she was a little girl, she used to imitate the Keith Richards kick,” Robert said, demonstrating the guitarist's iconic move.
Nicole shot her dad a “don't-say-that!” look, then smiled.
“It was pretty cute,” Robert added.
'Your hair stands on end'
Bob Mussell gets it. The 60-year-old rock photographer from Tonawanda showed up at Ralph Wilson Stadium knowing that the mood would be mellow until the Stones took the stage.
“Just wait,” he said.
Mussell, who has photographed hundreds of rock stars from Marilyn Manson to Deep Purple, had a niche gig for several years shooting passport photos for the Stones' road crews.
“If they walked in this room right now,” Mussell said, “you wouldn't (have to) look at the door. You'd feel them come in. You'd catch the vibe off everyone else. All of a sudden your hair stands on end. It actually happens, I'm not kidding you. It's unreal.”
It's not just fans, or photographers, who get that feeling. Even other rock stars get it.
“They're the greatest rock band ever; it's what every band longs for,” said Robby Takac, a founding member of the Buffalo-bred Goo Goo Dolls.
At the show, Mussell was picking up a Les Paul guitar autographed by the Stones to be auctioned at an Aug. 27 fundraiser for Takac's nonprofit, Music is Art. It's one of several guitars that will be sold, but this one will stand out.
“The Stones guitar, that's definitely a big one – it's going to help the organization a lot,” Takac said. “It's pretty rare to see something like that.”
Where do the Stones roll?
It's pretty rare to see the Rolling Stones in Buffalo, too – they haven't played here since 1997. So the Brzezniak sisters and their co-worker Howard, who has seen the band five times, decided on Friday to go on a Stones hunt. After work, they strolled toward The Mansion, chatted with a security guard from a nearby facility (not the hotel) who claimed to be with the Stones at the airport Thursday. He said the band had multiple floors at the Hyatt Regency Buffalo, so the ladies headed there.
“It was like a scavenger hunt,” Brigette said.
The Hyatt lobby was quiet when the sisters walked in a little before six o'clock. They met a couple from Houston decked out in Stones attire, checked out a few floors but saw no signs of heavy security. There was a private masseuse who entered one room, but does that mean a rock star was on the other side of that door? Hardly.
So the sisters chilled for a bit in the lobby, debating whether to head to Cattaraugus County, where Stones backup singer Bernard Fowler was signing copies of his solo album at the Ellicottville Depot, a Stones-themed restaurant. There were even rumors that the Stones themselves – known to play warm-up shows on concert eves – were going to show up in Ellicottville. That tip came from a family friend who's such an ardent Stones fan that she has the band's iconic tongue logo tattooed on her buttocks. “So I'm thinking (she) might know,” Kristen said.
But the sisters were reluctant to drive an hour based on a tip, especially when the Stones might be right here.
But then the lobby came alive with security. And photographers. And Mayor Byron Brown. And, finally, a real-life Stone. Ronnie Wood, the Stones' 68-year-old guitarist, emerged from the elevators wearing a red shirt and dark jacket and pants. He met the mayor, waved hello to the lobby crowd – including Brigette and Kristen –and left for dinner.
Twenty-five hours later, the sisters and their friends were watching Wood on stage.
“It is probably one of the greatest things I have ever seen – the man and the performer,” Kristen said as the Stones' played “Out of Control,” which was released in '97 – the same year as the band's last appearance here, when the sisters were only 8 years old. “It's like two different people – but both incredible.”