This year was not the best for concerts in Buffalo. There have been better years, during which you could have feasibly taken in three or four must-see shows a week, and this year wasn’t really one of them.
That might sound strange, but let me clarify. 2015 may not have been, pound for pound and show for show, the most well-stocked concert calendar year. But without a doubt, it was the most significant 12-month period for the local music lover in a good 20 years. That’s because we finally made the leap, not so much into the big time, as back to the big time. At long last, our days as a secondary concert market appear to be numbered. During the 1970s, everyone who was anyone came here. This year, it became not unreasonable to imagine that this would soon be the case once again. (Here’s something to be proud of, Buffalo: In a just-published piece on Statista.com, we’ve been named “one of the most concert-going cities” in the country.)
While 2015 was a good year for Canalside, Artpark, the Town Ballroom, Buffalo Iron Works, and a few other concert clubs and small theaters, the real “tell” in 2015 could be spotted in the listings for First Niagara Center.
You can tell an awful lot about the musical/cultural health of a city based on the amount of time its major arena sits dark, when not being used for sporting events. For what seems like far too long, a big-time concert at FNC was an anomaly, the exception, not the rule. This year, that changed, big time, kicking off in June, with the arrival of Rush on their R40 tour, and continuing with the Eagles during the summer, and a ridiculous run of top-tier performers – Paul McCartney, Dead & Company, Stevie Wonder – beginning in the fall. This streak has already been extended – Bruce Springsteen and AC/DC shows at FNC have already been announced, as have Top 40 gigs like Rihanna, Carrie Underwood, Justin Bieber, Demi Lovato & Nick Jonas, and Maroon 5. Of course, the breaking of the “no live music” reign at Ralph Wilson Stadium, with the midsummer appearance of the Rolling Stones marking the first major gig there in more than a decade, was not insignificant.
For the 25 years I’ve called Buffalo home, there has never been a shortage of great live music. But in 2015, we started bringing the biggest names to town on a routine basis for the first time since the mid-’70s. Fittingly, for the first time since I’ve been here at The Buffalo News, my looking-back list of the year’s best concerts includes a majority of big-name, big-venue shows. Here, in order of their face-melting-ness and unforgettable-ness, are my favorites from the year. (Note: I was on vacation during a few of the year’s biggest and, by most accounts, best shows, including the Stones Ralph Wilson Stadium show, so I have not included them in my list.)
Stevie Wonder, First Niagara Center, Nov. 19 – Wonder’s first Buffalo show in decades simply blew all the others out of the water. The sound quality, the level of musicianship, the setlist choices, the length – four hours – the ease and grace with which the leader of the band conducted himself, and the feeling of necessity surrounding the event in the wake of the brutal assassinations in Paris – these combined to make Wonder’s “Songs in the Key Of Life” tour stop one for the ages.
Dead & Company, First Niagara Center, Nov. 11 – John Mayer joined most of the surviving members of the Grateful Dead for an unerringly triumphant walk through the history of Dead music. This one seems to have surprised a lot of people who had figured Dead & Company to be merely a cash-grab. Instead, we got an inspired and inspiring evening of music.
Paul McCartney, First Niagara Center, Oct. 22 – Let’s face it – McCartney could have been terrible, and we still would’ve been psyched that he chose to play in Buffalo for the very first time ever, either as a Beatle, the leader of Wings, or a solo artist. That he and his band offered a lengthy and mostly outstanding set – I say mostly outstanding, because there were a few moments when the 73-year-old McCartney’s voice was not quite up to the task of nailing the highest notes, and if your name is Paul McCartney, the standard by which you are being measured is incredibly high – made the steep ticket price and the difficulty some encountered when trying to score a ticket easier to swallow.
My Morning Jacket, Artpark, July 22 – All the elements agreed. Great material, a fantastic singer in Jim James, great sound, great weather and a cool, into-it and respectful crowd. That’s all we ever need, right?
Rush, First Niagara Center, June 10 – The greatest progressive rock power trio of all time, playing their hearts out for three-plus hours during a twin-set show that offered as a retroactive tour from the present day until the very beginning, 40 years back. Outstanding.