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Homegrown talent; Local music festivals have become a big part of the summer scene

Time was, many of us would plan our summers around the big music festivals.

This meant travel, sometimes involving great distances. Lollapalooza in Chicago, or Bonaroo in Tennessee, the New Orleans Jazz Fest in Louisiana, or Coachella in California. Even Phish's weekend-long to-do required a trip to Watkins Glen this year -- not too tough a trek, but when you factor in work, family commitments and economic realities, things can get a bit more complex rather quickly.

The good news? Though it was easy to miss this fact amid this summer's onslaught of outdoor shows, free gigs and the like, Western New York is now teeming with weekend-long festivals of a homegrown nature.

These are locally promoted and produced affairs, featuring dozens of regional original artists, killer tribute bands, and in some cases, national headliners. They might not be as glamorous as Lollapalooza, but they're close by, cheap, often family friendly, and in most cases, held in gorgeous, underused locales -- places many of us have never even seen before, even though they are in our own backyard.

Recent weeks found a slew of these mini-fests in the area. The Weekend Off festival, for example, marked its third anniversary in early August with a three-day music and camping extravaganza. Held in the North Fork Music Park in Warsaw -- a roughly 45-minute drive from downtown Buffalo -- Weekend Off was headlined by jam-band cult hero Keller Williams and boasted a lineup that included everything from funk to folk, electronica to progressive rock.

The setting is an idyllic one and the 55-acre spread -- with two stages providing a seamless flow of live music -- allows plenty of room for camping, swimming in the nearby lake, and a "Shakedown Street"-style mini-village of vendors.

Most significantly, though, Weekend Off is emblematic of the general homegrown festival tendency in Western New York -- it provides an ample showcase of our area's considerable independent band talent pool. Up-and-comers like Aqueous, renowned turntablists and DJs like Big Basha and regional jam-funksters Funktional Flow all joined together in a celebration of what can only be described as a vibrant and vital music scene.

It's a scene that often feels like a too-well-kept secret. Maybe that's changing, though.

The Papa Bear campgrounds in Clarence celebrated the birthday of Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia with a weekend-long celebration of Dead and Dead-inspired music in late July. In a similar vein was last week's Odyssey Fest, held at Odyssey Acres in Eden.

Next week, the weekend-long festival Slyfest comes to the North Fork Park in Warsaw. Slyfest marks its sixth -- and most ambitious -- year starting next Friday and running through Aug. 28. "This is our way of giving back to the music community and culture that offers us so much," runs the overview of the event penned by organizers on the Slyfest home page, www.onthesly.org.

Like its local festival peers, Slyfest offers on-site camping, local vendors, crafts and arts, and a generally giddy air of cultural celebration -- one that, when the music is right, blends a tinge of regional pride with an acknowledgment of our good luck. Where else can one see so many bands for so little money? (Most area music fests charge in the area of $50 for a full weekend pass, and some will prorate the admission fee on a per-day basis.)

Slyfest 6 is a study in musical diversity, though one might loosely assemble the participants beneath the jam-band and indie-rock umbrella, should one find such categorization necessary. Area bands including Peanut Brittle Satellite, Aqueous, the Jony James Band, Universe Shark, Dali's Ghost, Handsome Jack and Audioinflux will all participate in the music that kicks off at noon next Friday.

All of this is encouraging for folks who strongly desire the music festival experience but can't quite get around the travel expenses and time allotment necessary to take in a Lollapalooza, a Bonaroo, a Coachella, or even Moedown. (The Buffalo-born Moe. throws the 12th edition of its yearly festival Sept. 2-4 at Gelston Castle Estates in Mohawk. In addition to moe., Bob Weir, TV on the Radio, Ween, the Levon Helm Band, Bruce Hornsby and the Noisemakers, and more than a dozen others will be making the gig.)

Is it possible that, in the not-too-distant future, we might find, say, Weekend Off becoming a festival that makes the summer wish-list of an erstwhile Bonaroo or Coachella devotee? I'd suggest that it might. We've certainly got the talent around here.

email: jmiers@buffnews.com

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