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Back to the future; Kleinhans Music Hall was once the city's must-play venue for rock concerts. Now, BPO Nation is bringing those sounds back.

The hallowed walls of Kleinhans Music Hall have long resonated with the finest symphonies beneath some of the most revered batons in the world of orchestral music. But if you were born after 1970, or are a recent transplant to Buffalo, there is an alternate history of Kleinhans that you are likely only familiar with through hearsay, if at all. Indeed, the home of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra has witnessed some of the greatest rock concerts of the past 40 years. The acoustically pristine and aesthetically stunning music hall was once a must-play venue for the biggest rock and pop acts going.

"In the '70s, if you didn't play Buffalo, you didn't go on tour," says Mike Montoro, promoter with BPO Nation, a new organization seeking to return Kleinhans to its glory days as a venue with a full, year-round schedule. "The deal was, you played Cleveland, Buffalo and Toronto, and when you played Buffalo, you played Kleinhans."

Montoro knows. Working with local independent promoter Festival East in the 1970s and early '80s, Montoro either booked or witnessed a list of performers that should make the jaw of any discerning rock fan hit the floor: Elton John, Led Zeppelin, the Guess Who, Derek and the Dominos, Yes, Chicago, Aerosmith, the New York Dolls, Humble Pie, Gentle Giant, Traffic, the Grateful Dead, the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Peter Gabriel all played Kleinhans.

"I remember seeing Gentle Giant play Kleinhans, the same week that Frank Zappa released the 'Joe's Garage' album," says music fan Greg MacDonald of Buffalo. "The show was completely packed, people were way into it, and it was just a rowdy, wonderful night of fantastic music. I recall the sound in the room being just plain perfect. And then, after the show, I went to crash over at my buddy's house, and he pulled out the brand new 'Joe's Garage' vinyl, slapped headphones on my head, and said 'Check this out.' A night I will never forget!"

BPO Nation, the brainchild of Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra Chairman-Elect Louis Ciminelli, is looking to do many things -- fill the best-sounding room in Buffalo during nights when the venue would otherwise remain dark, bring new audiences to the orchestra and the building, and raise money for the BPO (after concert expenses are paid, all profits go to the BPO).

But perhaps more than anything else, the new entity hopes to let Western New York music fans in on what seems to have devolved into one of the area's best-kept secrets -- Kleinhans has an incredible history, and it's a story that should be an ongoing one.

"My main desire for BPO Nation is to develop a future audience for the BPO," says Ciminelli. "That's number one. I want to foster ticket buyers for the BPO, and I want to reintroduce concertgoers to this amazing building. This is an earned-revenue strategy, certainly, because as far as finances go, the BPO is always struggling. But it's more than that, too. My first-ever concert experience was seeing Led Zeppelin at Kleinhans. This is not something that it's possible to forget.

"So many fantastic rock artists have played the building, because it was once the most prominent venue in Buffalo," Ciminelli continues. "I'd like people that come to these concerts -- like Jon Anderson and Rick Wakeman, for example -- to realize that the BPO is a great band, too. I was lucky enough to take music appreciation classes in high school, and to realize that so much of the rock music we loved from the late '60s and '70s was based on Bach. If you listen to Zeppelin or Yes, you can hear that the music has movements, just like a symphony. Great music is great music."

Toward that end, Ciminelli enlisted Montoro to begin booking artists who might draw open-minded listeners to Kleinhans, in the hope that the venue would become a regular stop for them. Earlier this year, BPO Nation presented Graham Parker and Garland Jeffreys, as well as a supergroup featuring jazz heavyweights George Duke, Marcus Miller and David Sanborn in Kleinhans. Coming up are Cyndi Lauper and Doctor John on Tuesday, iconic Yes singer and keyboardist Anderson and Wakeman on Wednesday and Joan Baez on Nov. 4.

Plans are also afoot to merge the rock and classical worlds with one of the most incisive and far-reaching late 20th century pieces -- Frank Zappa's "The Yellow Shark."

"When George Duke played here, I spent several hours with him after the show, just listening to him talk," recalls Montoro. "He was remembering his time playing with Zappa, and he said, 'Zappa changed my soul, and my whole approach to music.' That is such an amazing statement. Back in the '70s, it was hard to appreciate Zappa, but I think time has proven him to be such a complete genius. We are hoping to do 'The Yellow Shark' here to possibly introduce people to that side of his work."

Ciminelli says that the BPO and Music Director JoAnn Falletta have been working with the Zappa Family Trust to make this performance happen. "JoAnn loves 20th century music, of course, and this Zappa piece is certainly right in her wheelhouse," he says.

Montoro recalls former BPO principal conductor Lukas Foss as "a real rock guy, a man who loved the best, most adventurous rock music."

"Foss knew Bobby Weir of the Grateful Dead, and he called him and asked the Dead to do a concert with the BPO. This is now an absolutely legendary, near-mythical show that seems to be the one Grateful Dead show that was not recorded by anyone. To this day, people call Kleinhans on a regular basis hoping to track down information on this early-'70s gig. It really did happen."

Of course, so much has changed since the glory days of the rock music industry, which lasted from the late 1960s until the early '80s, when, Montoro said, "Prices more than tripled for the acts themselves, and independent promoters were simply priced right out of the business."

Bringing back the days when Kleinhans had very few dark nights on its schedule will be an uphill battle, but it's one both Ciminelli and Montoro are more than willing to fight.

"Buffalo has so many things to offer from a cultural standpoint," Montoro says. "The BPO and Kleinhans are two of the finest of those things."

email: jmiers@buffnews.com

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The fall roster at Kleinhans Music Hall

*Cyndi Lauper & Dr. John: From Memphis to Mardi Gras, 8 p.m. Tuesday

Brilliant pop chameleon Lauper digs into her blues handbag, with the help of legendary New Orleans pianist Dr. John, and inimitable blues harpist Charlie Musselwhite. Tickets are $30 to $65 general, $65 VIP circle.

*Jon Anderson and Rick Wakeman: Project 360, 8 p.m. Wednesday

The voice and keyboard that helped make Yes progressive rock's finest band team for an evening of personal favorites from the Yes catalog, as well as pieces from their new album, "The Living Tree." Tickets are $20 to $45 general, $60 VIP.

*An Evening with Joan Baez, 8 p.m. Nov. 4

Iconic folk singer Baez comes to Kleinhans fresh from a fall tour of France. If you wonder why Bob Dylan fell in love with her all those years ago, you should come to this show. You'll understand by halfway through the first tune. Tickets are $35 to $55 general, $65 VIP.

Tickets for all BPO Nation shows are available at the Kleinhans box office, by calling 885-5000 or visit www.kleinhansbuffalo.org.

-- Jeff Miers

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