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POLKA DREAMS
MICHAEL NOWAKOWSKI HOPES TO BRING THAT GRAMMY HOME

Michael Nowakowski, Buffalo's polka baron, made it to the Grammy Awards last year but didn't bring home a trophy. Instead, he came back with a band.

And that's why his Sunshine record label earned another Grammy nod this year for an album by Walter Ostanek, veteran polka band leader from St. Catharines, Ont.

Ostanek's album, "Let's Dance!" for Sunshine, has been nominated in the Best Polka category. The Grammy Awards will held on Feb. 21.

Last year, Nowakowski captured national attention after The Buffalo News reported his plight. He runs Sunshine records as a kind of mom and pop business and couldn't afford a hotel and tickets, $750 each, to the event in Los Angeles.

A local businessman read the story and coughed up the dough to send Nowakowski to L.A.

Unfortunately, the nominated song, "Follow Me Follow You" by the band John Gora and Gorale, didn't win. But the trip wasn't a total loss for Nowakowski.

Ostanek, who has earned 11 Grammy nominations and 3 Grammy awards during his career, happened to spot Nowakowski at the ceremonies.

"He came up to me and said: "I read all about you. I want to do a record on your label,' " Nowakowski said.

So, Ostanek joined the Sunshine label to release the "Let's Dance!" album in October. "We got it out just in time for the Grammy nominations," Nowakowski said.

Album sales, though not spectacular, have been solid, he said. Sunshine usually sells its records in the Northeast, but Ostanek has a big following in Cleveland, the Midwest and the West.

"It's getting us a different audience from all over the country and I'm glad about that," Nowakowski said.

Once again, winning the Grammy will be a daunting challenge.

"It's a good record and we think it has a chance but we're a dark horse," Nowakowski said.

Other nominees include Lenny Gomulka, Eddie Blazonczyk and Lynn Marie, but the toughest competition may come from another long-time polka king, Jimmy Sturr, the Elvis of polkadom.

"He gets nominated every year and he's tough to beat," Nowakowski said.

It has been a year of change for the polka baron. He closed down Sunshine's former storefront headquarters in Kaisertown and has moved the record company into his basement.

"I had to do it to cut down costs," Nowakowski said. "The heating bills were killing me."

He needed to save some money because this year, the polka baron has made financial arrangements for the Grammy trip to L.A.

"I don't want to go through what I went through last time," Nowakowski said. "I'm grateful so many people cared about the music and offered to help me.

"But this time, I've got my airfare and hotel. All I'm waiting for are the tickets for the Grammys."

Nowakowski won't be the lone Buffalo representative at the Grammys. Two other acts with local connections have earned Grammy nominations this year: Brian McKnight and the late Grover Washington Jr.

Twenty years ago, 54-50 was formed in the mold of R.E.M. and U2. Music has radically changed in the past two decades, but the Vancouver, B.C., band has stayed true to its brand of alternative rock.

The group, featuring Phil Comparelli, Brad Merritt, Neil Osbourne and Matt Johnson, shows no signs of slowing down. 54-40, a long-time Buffalo favorite, plays a sold-out gig at 9 tonight in the Tralf, in support of its current album, "Casual Viewin'."

Although the band's popularity in Canada and border towns like Buffalo has been strong, 54-40 has never made the big commercial breakthrough. Brad Merritt, who plays bass for 54-40, won't have to worry if things don't work out in music. He invented a device called Decent Coffee Cosy, which fits over most coffee makers. It keeps the java hot, and Merritt has been chalking up big sales for the item on his Web site, decentcoffee.com.

Pop notes

PAT SHEA is best known for his country songs, but he is versatile enough to perform pop and Broadway songs, too. That's what he will be doing at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday in the Lancaster Opera House, 21 Central Ave. Tickets cost $14 in advance and $17 the night of the concert. Shea will be performing one of his favorite show numbers, "Music of the Night," from "Phantom of the Opera."

Goth/metal is an ear-shattering blend of nasty music and dark fashion and the perfect combination for local band MIDNIGHT SYMPHONY. The group will entertain fans at midnight tonight in the Continental, 212 Franklin St.

NOEL STEFAN STOYANOFF, the musician better known as NSS, takes the stage at 8 tonight in Higher Grounds Coffee, 3622 Sheridan Drive.

TROUSER, a four-piece rock band from Nova Scotia, plays Nietzsche's, 248 Allen St., tonight at 10 p.m.

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