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The Best of Summer 2014

For those who object to being told that summer is losing its warm grip on us, may we direct your attention to the Halloween candy displays in the supermarket that long ago supplanted the dusty back-to-school merchandise?

Face it: Our longest, sunniest days are behind us. But rather than curse the polar vortex to come, Buffalo News critics look back on the best that the summer of ’14 had to offer.

Through the looking glass

To find the most popular art exhibition of the summer, there’s no need to leave your house. All you have to do is open up your Instagram feed.

Chances are you’ll find at least a few selfies taken inside Lucas Samaras’ insanely popular “Room No. 2,” otherwise known as the “Mirrored Room.” The interactive installation, a favorite of Western New York art fans since it first appeared here in 1966, went back on view in June in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery after a five-year absence.

Its return was accompanied not only by a thousand Instagrams, but by a glitzy, mirror-themed fundraiser on the west lawn of the gallery and the installation of mirrored tents at the gallery and at Canalside.

The reinstallation of the piece, which is only on view through Nov. 16, speaks to the way our favorite artworks take on different meanings in different eras.

The Mirrored Room at the Albright-Knox is Colin Dabkowski's best of summer. (Sharon Cantillon / Buffalo News file photo)

The Mirrored Room at the Albright-Knox is Colin Dabkowski's best of summer. (Sharon Cantillon / Buffalo News file photo)

Before the age of Instagram, the room seemed more like a private space for personal reflection – a strange ritual in which you removed your shoes and communed for a few moments with Samaras’ creative vision.

Today, it functions more like a photo-op to induce social media jealousy, to amplify a personal experience into something seemingly more significant, to bring the inside out and the outside in. It’s so 2014.

Whatever you see in the room’s reflection, the community buzz the piece generated both in person and via social media has been heartening to see. If you haven’t experienced it yet, you still have a few more months to grab your iPhone, make sure you’re wearing socks and explore one of the city’s favorite works of art.

– Colin Dabkowski

Oliver’s on target TV

Last summer, John Oliver’s work substituting for Jon Stewart on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” became must-see TV.

It led HBO to steal the British comedian from Stewart to launch this summer’s must-see Sunday night comedy news program, “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.”

I must admit that I was a little skeptical of Oliver’s program becoming relevant skewering news events weekly that Stewart and Stephen Colbert do nightly on Comedy Central.

But Oliver quickly won me over with a hysterical piece questioning why the media gives equal times to the crackpots who don’t believe in global warming and the 97 percent of scientists who have evidence to back up their claims.

Oliver made his point by trotting out 97 scientists – including Bill Nye the Science Guy – and three nonbelievers to show how lopsided those are in favor of global warming.

A Sunday doesn’t go by without Oliver giving an extended period of time to injustices in the world and the political foolishness that often has the potential to lead to disaster.

British comedian John Oliver exceeded Alan Pergament's expectations. (New York Times)

British comedian John Oliver exceeded Alan Pergament's expectations. (New York Times)

While the nation and the world were embracing the FIFA World Cup, Oliver explained the greed of an organization that has awarded a future competition to an extremely hot country, Qatar, that already is a living hell to those building the facilities and could be one for the footballers playing in 2022.

And just a few weeks ago, he humorously attacked the current payday loan industry that greedily preys on those in desperate financial shape with the help of politicians who look the other way or stand to be rewarded for their support.

Of course, you have to pay to get HBO. But some of the funniest bits in Oliver’s program quickly become free to watch via YouTube.

Oliver unfailingly makes his points with laugh-out loud, R-rated humor. Sure, he does overuse an expletive that starts with sixth letter of the alphabet, but overall he gets a summer grade of A plus.

– Alan Pergament

At last, righteous ramen

It’s not fair asking me to pick one thing I ate this summer, and declare it the best.

But let me tell you about the ramen at Sato, a new Japanese restaurant on Elmwood Avenue. I have suffered from a severe ramen deficiency since encountering the iconic Japanese noodle soup in Manhattan. I’ve sampled every version I could find in Buffalo, and none quite hit the spot.

Then I heard that Sato would feature an authentic version. Satomi Smith, the chef, was born to ramen-shop-owning parents in Japan. When the restaurant opened, initial word-of-mouth ranged from positive to ecstatic. When I went to review the place, though, they were out. I had to write my review without scratching that itch.

In June I was able to return. The ramen was terrific, from springy noodles to tender pork to deeply flavored broth that tasted like distilled essence of roasted meat. I swooned.

Satisfaction isn’t always about luxury ingredients and exquisite service. The creation of gnawingly specific hunger, and its blissful obliteration, keeps me smiling after the dish is long empty.

– Andrew Z. Galarneau

New music on the rise

I’m going to do something I’ve never done before. I’m going to pick a show that I didn’t particularly like, based not so much on its musical muscle, but on its significance as an event: Alternative Buffalo 107.7 FM’s Kerfuffle Festival, held at Canalside on July 26, for top honors because I believe it signaled the beginning of genuine change around here.

This was a brand new festival, presented by an almost brand new radio station on a piece of real estate under brand new management, in a part of Buffalo that, before we know it, will look brand new. And it was comprised of young bands, most of whom have never played Buffalo or its surrounding environs before and, without the active involvement of those who made Kerfuffle happen, might not have been here this summer.

Alternative Buffalo's Kerfuffle sold out Canalside. (Harry Scull Jr. / Buffalo News)

Alternative Buffalo's Kerfuffle sold out Canalside. (Harry Scull Jr. / Buffalo News)

The show was a sell-out, too. That doesn’t make it good, on its own, but it should be noted, nonetheless.

To be honest, I didn’t think most of the bands were very good. There were an overabundance of ’80s synth-pop homages happening, courtesy of bands like Big Data and Bleachers, and often, the music came across as almost self-consciously “alternative,” rather than organically musical. Bear Hands, Kongos and Cage the Elephant are all interesting and exciting bands, though.

Kerfuffle represented a real breakthrough in area concert booking, and suggests hope for the future. We get more than enough classic rock and country around here. This felt fresh, exciting and different, and for that, it gets a tip of my hat.

– Jeff Miers

That Renaissance feeling

My life itself being a comedy of errors, I almost did not make it to “A Comedy of Errors” this summer at Shakespeare in Delaware Park. But someone suggested it – on Sunday, the last night. It was hard to say no. And so I said yes.

You could tell before you even got there that it would be a hit. It drew the biggest crowd I had ever seen at a Shakespeare in Delaware Park performance. Shakespeare Hill was so crowded that even getting there 40 minutes in advance, it was impossible to find a good spot where you could see.

No matter. We could still hear the play, and there were lots of laughs. Shakespeare, this play reminds you, was the master of the off-color joke. The costumes were bright and the music, as is traditional, was a kind of a cross between Renaissance and pop. The staging was just out of bounds enough to make me start thinking of other masterpieces I had enjoyed over the years on the Hill. (Remember the “Midsummer Night’s Dream” that took place on the ship and featured guys in undershirts?)

When I needed a rest from craning my neck, it was fun just to take in the scene. There were no cars – just trees, and the twisting path, and the lake in the distance. You could imagine yourself back in the Renaissance. The intermission was unhurried and bucolic. Not to mention so very Buffalo: Strangers talked and joked, and Channel 7’s Mike Randall, starring in the play, was one of the actors who went around passing the hat.

After intermission the crowd was smaller and so we could see if we stood up. The strands of the convoluted plot began coming together. Things began to feel magical. The stars were out. The crickets were chirping. And the end of the play, finessed just right by Nick Lama and Norm Sham, was so sweet and so funny that it was as if all the spectators held their breath.

The Bard was right. The play’s the thing. Gallop apace, ye fiery-footed steeds! I’m already looking forward to next year.

– Mary Kunz Goldman

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