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This weekend belonged to the Tea Party.

On Saturday, the Canadian trio -- guitarist/vocalist Jeff Martin, bassist/keyboardist Stuart Chatwood, drummer Jeff Burrows -- played two quite different gigs in Buffalo, and both made it clear that this band is the finest hard-rock ensemble making music today. If that sounds hyperbolic, so be it; the Tea Party kicked it, and kicked it hard, along the way reaffirming one's belief in the continued resonance of hard rock.

On Saturday afternoon, the band played a private, semi-acoustic gig in the living room of an obviously enthralled 92.9 WBUF-FM contest winner. Martin, Chatwood and Burrows tore through a set highlighted by tunes from their new "Seven Circles" album, which is quite conceivably the strongest effort of the band's career.

It may have been early -- the band had just crossed the border, leaving behind rehearsals in Toronto to launch an American tour -- but by the midpoint of set opener "Stargazer," the Tea Party hit its groove.

By the time the three embraced the bittersweet "Oceans," one was transported, embracing a musical experience akin to an epiphany. Martin's rich, sonorous voice wrapped itself around the minor-key ballad, a song that has deep meaning for the band, as it's dedicated to their manager, who died tragically and unexpectedly a few years back. It was impossible to miss the sense of loss in the tune, which somehow managed to turn such bitter loss into something profoundly beautiful.

Martin then led the band through a gorgeous, inspired take on Daniel Lanois' "The Messenger," which the Tea Party manages to make wholly its own.

For the roughly 20 folks littering the Black Rock living room, this intimate but still-grandiose gig was something they're not likely to forget. Sprawled on love seats and Papa San chairs, or standing with early-afternoon cocktails hoisted high in praise, the faithful ate up the Tea Party's spicy gumbo, then clamored for an encore of "Overload," for which Martin strapped on his trusty Gibson Les Paul and shredded his vocal chords in a paean to the elusive muse.

By 9 that evening, the band was back on stage, this time in front of a rowdy capacity crowd inside the Dome Theater. It's to the Tea Party's credit that it can produce startling music in a mellow, laid-back atmosphere or a full-on arena-rock ambience with equal aplomb.

"Sister Awake," "Stargazer," "Overload" -- these tunes breathed fire, and the band's dense aural assault was matched by its blend of subtlety and sophistication. The rhythm section of Chatwood and Burrows -- for my money, the most brutal bass/drums pairing this side of Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones and John Bonham -- proved that one needn't sacrifice dynamics and taste in order to play hard rock with both serious attitude and resplendent chops.

The highlight of the evening show was once again the elegiac "Oceans," which Martin introduced as a song he was "proud of, but wish I'd never had to write." The tune hit hard in its stripped-down format earlier in the day; under cover of the night, it was simply overwhelming, a darkly beautiful piece of music.

The crowd was on fire, in the hip pocket of the band every step of the way. Hey, American record industry dude -- here's an idea. Sign this band to a stateside deal. Let the rest of the country in on the congnoscente's secret. In the arena of present-day heavy music, the Tea Party has no peer.


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