Across the lawn of the Albright Knox Art Gallery, a hatless Robby Takac came out from a canopy of white tents, leading the Capital Regiment Drumline like a pied piper rock star.
The drum corps group from Drums Along the Waterfront marched out in their tricolor uniforms with plenty of attitude and metal, standing upright like stoic soldiers behind the free-spirited Takac.
They stop abruptly, their conductor giving a commanding look.
At once, a determined concentration sweeps through the group and the drums tap like loaded machine guns, echoing through the marble columns of the museum.
In any other environment, a percussion group led by an alternative rocker would seem incongruous. At the seventh annual Music is Art festival though, it's not just commonplace, it's tradition. Since 2003, punk has peacefully coexisted with country, ska lives in harmony with jazz, and local artists' booths stand side by side with belly dancers.
Fittingly, this year's theme was dubbed "Monster Mashup," showcasing a diverse mix of Buffalo's local bands, artists, deejays and dancers. Early in the morning, Brian Hogle and Geoffrey Thiel from Allentown's Steel Crazy were constructing a giant steel replica of the festival's mascot, a Cyclops-like metal robot. Over by stage three, Bella Dea Tribal Fusion danced to mixes of "Can't Touch This" and "Billie Jean" next to a live art mural by Sam Sturniolo.
Like the theme of the day, the murals were part of a collaborative mash-up among the artists.
"I've been inspired by some of the kids today who are just throwing down," Sturniolo said. "It makes your heart light."
The artist tapped jagged lines of vivid orange onto his canvas in a staccato rhythm with the bold retro sounds of the Brass Monkeez. The '60s-inspired quartet's youthful harmony and pining lyrics would remind one of the Beatles' scruffier days at the Cavern Club. Especially impressive was lead singer and guitarist Steve Fleck. At just 14 years old and with only three guitar lessons in his young career, Fleck performed a cover of "My Generation" with the same stutter and passion as The Who.
"All I really learned from my teacher was the song "Sweet Home Alabama," Steve said. "Then he taught me this thing called guitar tab. Then whenever I learn a song I just look it up and if there's a chord I don't know, I just look that up on a different Web site and learn it."
The talented youth of Buffalo also was well represented through Takac's projects like Rock Ed and Music in Action. Rock Ed, founded in part by West Seneca West teacher George Olmsted, has evolved into Buffalo's own school of rock.
"I wouldn't be the musician I am without this program," said Jimmy Devany of West Seneca Senior High School.
"They learn confidence," Olmsted said. "Middle school kids struggle with their identities and with their place in the world. As a middle school teacher, I just try and help these kids just find a place where they can fit in."
Rock Ed is definitely not having an identity crisis though. Its distinct mixture of rap, funk, jazz and rock is combined with commanding lyrics such as "tell me the definition of a sell out, then get the hell out."
The list of young artists at Music is Art continued with acts such as Erin Sydney Welsh, whose surprising range and a little bit of soul complemented her witty adolescent lyrics. Erin even performed a new song that compared music to art called "Paint Me a Picture."
In contrast to Erin's mellow vibes, Declan Miers and the Scorched Earthlings delivered a heavy dose of heavy metal. Nine-year-old lead singer Declan channeled his inner Steven Tyler with a screaming rendition of "Dream On" and a scarf around the microphone.
"I am a big Aerosmith fan, and I love Steven Tyler," said Declan. "I wanted to dedicate this song 'Dream On' to him because he's in the hospital right now."
Over on Stage Two, last year's Battle of the Bands winner, Inlite, drew crowds with its catchy riffs and dance hall beats.
However, this year the Student Battle of the Bands victory and main stage glory belonged to Abominable Killer Snowmen. The jazz-infused band was evocative of the golden age of '90s ska as they trumpeted through each song.
"We grew up listening to Mustard Plug and all the elusive '90s ska bands," says lead singer Alec Dube. "And now we're playing with them and that's pretty like 'Whoa, next up Mustard Plug. I can't wait to get back into the crowd.'"
Like the monster mash-up theme of the day, AKS' ska vibe incorporated several styles.
"It's a genre that lends itself to blending with other music," says saxophonist Seamus McDonell. "You can blend it with punk, funk, we've seen it with hardcore, everything. Jazz was pretty much the original blending".
During its song "Down Again," Dube lent his punk vocals to the jazzy rhythm, and the song "Whatever Happened To" was replete with horns, adding to that perfect ska quality.
While most bands wield the ax like a weapon on stage, AKS blows a trumpet like nobody's business. Their third song "Hole in the Wall" had a slightly darker tone at first, but then began a rapid beat similar to "Shipping Off to Boston." The band closed with "A Memory Of," a light bubbly West Coast-feeling piece that even had three band members, including trumpeter Ricky Coates, doing the can-can.
Diversity was well represented throughout many of Western New York's most established bands and artists.
Free Henry! gave one of the most charismatic performances of the day, persuading both adults and children to dance around the lawn.
Even between the acts, Music is Art didn't lack stimulation. From Star Wars re-enactments by the Rebel Legion to Swiss Miss throwing yodel-offs by grown men in lederhosen, MiA included many entertaining interstitials.
The diverse regional flavor of Buffalo was certainly on display at Music is Art. Skateboarders, bikers and tween hipsters were ubiquitous. Children and parents alike twisted their torsos swinging oversized hula hoops around the lawn. Families sat in the curved stone seats of the Knox, bouncing their heads to Gruvology's base. A mother and daughter clapped their hands in rhythm between bites of kettle corn. Even babies in strollers sported bright blue Mohawks over by the deejay booth, where they spun nostalgic noises of old school Pac Man and Atari games. One mural near the deejays painted a graffiti scene, reflecting the inherent street style of the music. At once, it seemed there was total harmony between music, art and people.
"If we could all cooperate on one day, things just might be a little nicer!" Takac shouted to the audience.
By nightfall the festival had transformed into some otherworldly creature of the night. The steel robot finally loomed 10-feet tall, its green Cyclops eye glowing while its chest blinked with the yellow Music is Art logo. The white columns that once shined in the bright afternoon sun were now bathed in the artificial glow of green, blue and purple lights. The two murals that flanked the stages had completed their metamorphoses, the fire tossers casting an eerie glow on their canvases. Yet somehow this mass amalgam, this mutt of a culture, had formed the monster mash-up that is simply Buffalo.
Leigh Giancreco is a freshman at Canisius College.