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Club hopping; A night in Allentown shows homegrown music at its best

I'm starting to feel a little bit spoiled. Over the past few weeks, I've seen more fantastic live music in Buffalo clubs than I did on arena and shed stages throughout the summer. It's getting to the point where I feel like I can't miss every time I venture into clubland.

Case in point: Last Friday evening, within a single block radius on Allen Street, I caught some six hours of absolutely killer live music, all of it delivered by Buffalo-area bands.

My evening started at Duke's Bohemian Grove Bar with an inspired happy hour gig from Sonic Garden. (Full disclosure -- my son and his friend sat in with the band during its twin-set show that night.) At 10 p.m., I ventured directly across the street to Nietzsche's, where the nationally touring jam band supergroup Kung Fu was headlining over a pair of local combos.

What a revelation both of these bands turned out to be.

First off, on the club's rear stage, I took in my first live set from Universe Shark, a fairly new foursome prone to describing its music as "carnivorous space-funk." Turns out that description pretty much nails it. These guys are indeed killers.

Universe Shark's genesis took place at Kenmore West, where most of the quartet attended high school. The band actually formed while all four members -- guitarist/vocalist Adam Bronstein, drummer Dave Prinzbach, bassist Mike DiSalvo and keyboardist/vocalist Scott Martin -- were either attending or simply hanging out at the University at Buffalo, and performing at the weekly Jam Clubs held in Student Union Theater. It was during these UB jams that the band's vision began to come into focus.

And what a vision it is. Part jazz, part rock, part jam, part funk and a whole lot psychedelic, Universe Shark makes blinding virtuosity fun and danceable. Think that's easy? Give it a shot some time.

During the band's Nietzsche's set, a continuous stream of music found themes erupting, disappearing and showing up later on to provide conceptual continuity. Clearly heavily composed sections gave way to just as clearly improvised jams and startlingly mature soloing was underpinned by churning, groove-centric rhythms of the danceable variety.

If all of this suggests that Universe Shark is an awful lot like another band whose members found their collective voice while jamming together on a college campus -- Phish -- well, then so be it. Guitarist Bronstein has certainly studied the work of Phish six-string guru Trey Anastasio, and the band's blend of uber-complexity and lighthearted musical irreverence is most assuredly Phish-like.

That said, what blew me away in Nietzsche's was the manner in which these guys filtered that influence through a decidedly individualistic musical temperament. Is what Universe Shark plays "post-Phish jam-funk," then? Maybe. But whatever it ends up being called, it is awesome.

After Universe Shark finished swallowing my universe whole, I wandered in a daze toward the front-of-club stage in Nietzsche's, where Slip Madigan wasted no time commencing with its first downbeat. I've written about this band in the past, after sampling a dozen or so of its tunes via Facebook. But seeing the five-piece do its thing live was still an eye-opening experience.

If Universe Shark has taken a page or two from the Phish playbook, then Slip Madigan points back a generation further in the influence department, toward the music of the late, great Frank Zappa. Filtering Zappa's polyrhythmic genius through the soft-focused lens of the deliriously experimental Ween, Slip Madigan -- named after the famous football coach, and comprised of youthful virtuosos RJ Acanfora, Ryan McDonough, Brad Robbins, Ben Smith and Jay Stewart -- ably accepted the baton from Universe Shark and finished the dizzying race.

The Slip Madigan guys are apparently masters at the art of introducing structure, then bending that structure beyond recognition and to the point of collapse, before bringing it all back home again, fully intact. They make all of this look and sound easy.

Interestingly, a week prior, I'd witnessed Peanut Brittle Satellite pull off a very similar feat on that same stage. (The group was opening for Project/Object that night, although last-minute production problems meant that the guys didn't so much "open for" as "fill in between sets" on the front stage, a mishap which the band turned very much to its advantage by playing its collective butt off.)

While Universe Shark and Slip Madigan were stretching my synapses at Nietzsche's, right next door at the Bend, Caitlin Koch -- fresh from her inexplicable elimination from the "X Factor" TV show -- was belting her heart out in front of the Jamie Moses Band.

I witnessed all of this without having to move my car from its original parking spot even once. Buffalo -- you've really got it goin' on.


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