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Music Festivals in WNY offer testament to depth of regional talent

Though dropping the word “Woodstock” into every conversation regarding music festivals has become a cliché, it’s a cliché for a reason – that reason being that Woodstock created the template for what we now accept as a common occurrence. Woodstock was the first multiday music festival, and the music was diverse both in terms of style and age group. People camped. Some got naked and rolled around in the mud. Others took too many drugs and ruined their experience. Some took it easy, paced themselves and made it until the end, when they were rewarded for their temperance with a festival-ending performance by Jimi Hendrix.

Folks now travel from points all over the country to converge on festivals that follow the same blueprint every summer. There are the biggies – Bonaroo, Coachella, Lollapalooza – but there are new festivals cropping up every year. The bands change, but the song remains the same. These festivals are all about escaping the strictures and structures of conventional time, embracing the moment, and depending on the location of the festival, getting in touch with nature while taking in dozens of bands within a single temporary city.

More often than not, the Western New York summer concert season is so packed that I’m unable to blow town and head off to get my hippie on at Bonaroo, or to break out the Doc Martens for a trip to Lollapalooza in Chicago. Happily, the multiday music fest idea is alive and well right here in our area.

In addition to annual affairs like the Music is Art Festival (a fantastic showcase for local bands for more than a decade now that returns on Sept. 21), the Allentown Art Festival and Elmwood Avenue Festival of the Arts, there are camping-friendly multiday gatherings including Otto-Fest, which welcomes a plethora of jam-based bands to Otto each August for the past 35 years; the Blue Heron Music Fest; and the always fun Rhubarb Family Picnic in Ellicottville. Moe.Down, the annual festival thrown by Buffalo-born outfit Moe., doesn’t take place in Western New York proper, but the inclusion of regional bands and the three showcase performances from Moe. itself guarantee a Buffalo-esque vibe at the festival.

And this year, there was Sunwaves.

While Cheech and Chong were performing to mark the 44th anniversary of Woodstock at Bethel Woods on Aug. 15, regional festival organizers Lost Studios were kicking open the gates from Aug. 15-18 to welcome revelers to the Sunwaves Music Fest at the North Fork Music Park in Warsaw. I went. And it sure seems to me that those of us who did make it to Sunwaves got a way better deal than the faithful who flocked to Bethel Woods on the same day.

North Fork Music Park is set in a sprawling area in the hills. Sunwaves boasted several stages – a massive main stage, a smaller pavilion stage and a few satellite stages, including a “Late Night Stage” accessed only via a trail fairly deep into a lush wooded area. There was a vendor village, a small but stunningly beautiful lake for fishing and swimming or just zoning out and staring at, and an alternating schedule of performers that enabled the music to play nonstop between 5 p.m. and 4 a.m. on the weekend. There was more than enough room for the few hundred people in attendance to camp in a spacious manner. Sunwaves transformed North Fork into a temporary village, and as corny as such sentiments sound in the age of irony, there was a sense of community throughout my time at the festival. One is tempted to summon “the spirit of Woodstock” as a point of comparison, but really, Sunwaves felt more like the early days of Lollapalooza, when large crowds gathered to get their freak on in an environment of mutual respect.

For $25, Sunwaves attendees were treated to some 30 artists, the majority local talent. Even the Aug. 16 headliner – the Alan Evans Trio – has ties to Buffalo, as erstwhile Soulive drummer Evans grew up and launched his musical career in our city.

I strolled the grounds, took in the sights, met some very cool and interesting people, sat in with Relics on the Pavilion Stage, and caught performances from regional bands that, in a few cases, completely blew me away. I’ve said it before, and will surely do so again – Western New York is a mecca for music. The list of bands that performed across the span of the weekend included Little Mountain Band, Haewa, Slip Madigan, DJ Universal, Universe Shark, the Jony James Band, White Woods, Pine Fever and Blind Baby’s Holiday. That’s a broad cross-section of Buffalo-area talent on display.

Highlights included Rhubarb’s main stage set. Watching this band evolve over the years has been a real treat. Guitarist Mark Stojanovich, bassist Nick Gonzales and the group’s most recent recruit, former Peanut Brittle Satellite drummer Ryan Campbell, are able to marry funk, prog rock and jazzlike improvisation into an embraceable, danceable whole.

Later, after taking in a jam housed within a small “cathedral” constructed of recycled two-liter pop bottles (I’m not kidding; this was both awe-inspiring and eerie), I caught a set from one of the only non-Buffalo bands on the bill, Philadelphia’s Infinien. These guys left me speechless. While a throng danced, stood slack-jawed, twirled neon hoola-hoops, or even juggled lit torches, this quartet offered a mind-expanding fusion of styles rooted in progressive music, but boasting aspects of jazz, rock, pop, alternative music and improv. Vocalist/pianist Chrissie Loftus put on an incredible performance, and the crowd simply ate it up. Infinien has played Buffalo before, and it is essential that the band comes back and does so again. (You can find Infinien on Facebook.)

Sunwaves eased the pain of not being able to travel to some of the massive star-studded fests taking place across the country. The moral of the story I tell here is not a new one, but it bears repeating – we are blessed by an abundance of incredible musical talent in our area. Festivals like Sunwaves should become the norm around these parts each summer. And there’s one more coming before the nights grow too cold – the Night Lights Fall Music Festival takes place Sept. 13-14 on the Blue Heron Music Festival Grounds in Sherman. The festival, founded by members of Lazlo Hollyfeld, will also feature performances by Marco Benevento, Schleigho, the Manhattan Project, Jimkata, the Heavy Pets and Aqueous. For info, see Maybe I’ll see you there?