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Throwback R&B closes season at Canalside

It’s been a banner summer for Canalside – with record crowds at the once-barren waterfront swath buoying the buzz about Buffalo’s rebirth, as a wide variety of free events continue to bring all corners of the community to bask in the bountiful Lake Erie breeze.

Here in year five of this revival, the star of the stacked schedule is still the Thursday at Canalside concert series, which after 25 years at Lafayette Square has evolved in scope but largely paints the same scene: national touring acts with local openers playing for an all-ages mass of engaged music lovers and indifferent people watchers.

Those of us who have been around the block can say what they will about the throng of loitering teens who have swarmed around the scene, but who can blame them for flocking to the place when admission is free?

All this action has led to some forgivable planning hiccups on the part of Canalside host Global Spectrum, but they were refreshingly overprepared for this year’s Thursday finale headlined by mass-appealing flashback R&B act En Vogue.

An overflowing crowd gathered for the similarly mass-appealing Salt-N-Pepa in 2012, organizers closed Scott Street and placed an additional screen on the grass at the new canals, accommodating thousands more who ultimately never showed.

With plenty of room to move, the still-huge crowd was met with an opening set from a trio of teens backed by their dad in Spinning Jenny.

One wonders how a band from Mingo Junction, Ohio, won the “Girl Power” portion of Canalside’s battle of the supposedly local bands to earn the opening slot, but regardless, their 25-minute mostly original set showed flashes of prime-time pop-punk potential, earning by far the most applause from the R&B-ready earlybirds for their cover of TLC’s “No Scrubs.”

One could also question the turning over of this most-coveted opening slot at the Thursday concert series from the stalwarts of the local scene to the amateur-enabling battle format, but an inarguable fact is that said battle adds programming for Canalside’s growing space.

Fortunately for the finale, the hip-hop battle winner was a road-tested veteran in Chuckie Campbell and the Phaction – freshly home from a 30-city tour.

The band delivered an intense, half-hour set backed by a five-piece live band that had the many thousands thoroughly engaged.

This band could’ve easily learned the songs to back En Vogue’s 55-minute set.

Instead, the trio – Terry Ellis and Cindy Herron, along with newcomer Rhona Bennet – performed over backing tracks, making for a glorified karaoke vibe.

The group’s ’90s hits, “Never Gonna Get It” and “What a Man,” were delivered with their choreographed catwalk strut and heavy three-part harmonies – albeit lighter than when they established themselves as a quartet when they exploded out of Oakland in 1990.

Curtis Mayfield-penned hits “Giving Him Something” and “Hooked on Your Love” were stirring vehicles for Ellis and Bennett, while “Free Your Mind” featured the three in full form and breakout hit “Hold On” had an a cappella intro that proved their vocal power.

Considering the history of Buffalo’s beloved Thursday concert series and the momentum leading to this moment, the finale felt forgettable.

But, if you “Free Your Mind” of such perspective, it was a beautiful night for a big crowd in Buffalo’s place to be.

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