Buffalo is associated with some major names in the world of popular music Ani DiFranco, the Goo Goo Dolls, moe. and Rick James among them. But in terms of sheer musical virtuosity, one name stands above the others -- Billy Sheehan.
Since emerging on the Western New York club scene as bassist and bandleader with the legendary rock band Talas some 35 years back, Sheehan has gone on to great success as ambassador of a flamboyant, virtuosic style of electric bass playing that has made him an iconic figure around the world.
Sheehan, who brings his recently reunited, uber-popular 1990s power-pop/hard-rock ensemble Mr. Big to the Town Ballroom at 8 tonight, has performed everything from heavy metal to organ-trio format prog-fusion across the span of 40 years as a working musician. He's had vast commercial success -- much of it with Mr. Big, although stints with David Lee Roth's first post-Van Halen band found him all over MTV and on the biggest stages of the world at the tail-end of the '80s. Yet Sheehan has never forgotten where he comes from, nor the people who aided him in his full immersion in the world of music.
"The musician I am is forever tied to Buffalo," Sheehan said in a phone interview with The News last week. "Wherever I am in the world, there is a Buffalo sensibility in everything I do, because I learned the craft there. I do feel that I'm carrying the gifts given to me by the musicians I played with in Buffalo with me all the time. The musician I am today was forged in Buffalo, beyond a doubt."
Anyone familiar with Sheehan's track record as an electric bassist -- five-time Guitar Player magazine Best Rock Bassist winner, 14-time winner of the Japanese Player magazine award for Best Bassist, and dozens of other fan- and peer-based awards form only the tip of the plaudit iceberg -- might find such a humble stance tough to swallow. Sheehan isn't merely blowing smoke, though. He credits what has been a laserlike focus on what matters to him -- "the music, always" -- with an ability to stay grounded in a business infamous for its ability to vastly inflate the egos of those who prosper within it.
That unerring focus may have something to do with the Mr. Big story as well. The group, formed in the immediate wake of the pair of platinum albums and sold-out world tours Sheehan completed as a member of Roth's band, hit commercial pay dirt with the soulful pop hit "To Be With You," culled from its second album, "Lean Into It."
Though Mr. Big already was renowned as a band able to "shred" with the best of them -- guitarist Paul Gilbert was a product of the mid-'80s school that found countless technically dazzling guitarists following the Eddie Van Halen model, and Sheehan was a legend among the shred set prior to the formation of Mr. Big -- "To Be With You" was an acoustic ballad that soared on the strength of its sunny vocal harmonies and impeccable compositional hooks.
It was an anomaly, in many ways. But the song said an awful lot about Sheehan and his bandmates, revealing a diversity in their approach to hard rock that, Sheehan says today, enabled the band to dodge the "no longer in fashion" bullet as countless trends came and went following the band's mid-'90s breakup.
"When we got back together again, we didn't have to rethink what we'd done the first time around, because we had always been so much about the live performance -- the way that the four of us play together, in real time -- and not about chasing trends. You know, it's impossible to predict how something like this will be received, but I think the fact that we were never gimmicky in the first place certainly worked in our favor," he says.
It would seem so. The first Mr. Big album in 15 years, "What If" -- its cover art depicting a pig with wings about to take flight -- has been well-received, commercially and critically. "This might be the album that has gotten the best reviews of my career," chuckles Sheehan, noting that working with producer Kevin "Caveman" Shirley -- renowned for his work with the likes of Aerosmith and Iron Maiden -- "brought a good kind of pressure to the situation, because he was like, 'You're a live band? Be a live band, then! No punch-ins! No fixing it later! Let's get a good take, and move on.' He forced us to be real, in the moment, and the result is a real record, in my estimation."
Sheehan and Mr. Big have managed to retain a vast following around the world, particularly in Japan, where Sheehan's work has been greeted with an all but Beatlelike reception for decades now. Yet, when the group prefaced the release of "What If" with a show on home soil back in April, Sheehan and his bandmates still felt they had something to prove.
"We sold out the House of Blues in Los Angeles, and the place was packed to the gills," recalls Sheehan. "It was a bit of a risky endeavor to do our first show back together in all this time in a major market like L.A. -- the most major of major markets, in fact [laughs] -- but we were welcomed with open arms. We all like to cultivate a low-pressure situation, to be laid back and centered on the music, and even right there in the thick of the music industry, we felt really comfortable, like, by halfway through the first tune."
Even considering all that he's achieved since he first started playing high school auditoriums in Buffalo with Talas in the '70s, Sheehan retains a youthful optimism and philosophical outlook when it comes to music in general.
"Could it be that the walls between musical genres are coming down at last?" he asks. "I hope so. It would be nice if people could start to look at music the way you and I did when we were growing up -- interested in anything that caught our ear and fired our imagination, rather than just sticking with one very narrow stylistic focus to the exclusion of everything else that doesn't fit that narrow focus.
"That's what has worked for me, I think. I've never stopped looking, and so, for me, the adventure never stops. I keep waiting for the day when I pick up the bass and feel, 'Gee, I've got nothing new to say.' It hasn't come! Everyday, something new shows up!
"The moral of all of this is, you have to be about the music. If you are, everything else will work itself out."
WHEN: 8 tonight
WHERE: Town Ballroom, 681 Main St.
TICKETS: $32 box office, Tickets.com