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Celebrating Susan Tanner, heart and soul of our music scene

Jeff Miers

"Today, we lost our beloved Susan Tanner. She was an engaging, strong, generous, energetic, positive, loving spirit."

Ani DiFranco posted the above to Facebook on Monday afternoon, while it seemed that the entirety of the Buffalo music community was in a collective state of shock, as the news of Susan Tanner's death spread.

DiFranco knew Tanner well. Tanner worked for the songwriter and activist's Righteous Babe Records for years, and as anyone who has ever dealt with that most independent of indie labels knows, the RBR staff is much more a family than a mere collection of co-workers.

But DiFranco's words, as spot-on as they are, were really one more teardrop in an ocean. Everyone who knew Tanner at all considered her a friend, unless they had some sort of innate inability to feel kinship with a fellow human being. She was easy to love. And so, we all mourn, and deeply, for Tanner left an indelible mark not just on our music scene, but on all of us, as human beings touched by her generosity of spirit.

I met Tanner a few decades back, in her capacity as Righteous Babe's marketing person, a position she treated more as a community outreach gig than a mere "flogging the latest product" deal. Discussing a new Ani album was a personal matter for her, and she made it feel personal for us, too. The Lil' Folksinger's music was and is, after all, a direct outgrowth of the Buffalo music community we are all a part of, and Tanner drove that point home with subtlety and grace.

Tanner worked tirelessly in support of artists she believed in, whether that meant DiFranco, some up-and-coming local band, or a touring act in need of a place to stay and a local gig. So it more than made sense when she found in Marty Boratin her partner in life, love and music, for Boratin is perhaps the single person we might cite as the architect of the Buffalo music scene that came of age in the '90s and laid the template for what's happening still.

What Boratin and Tanner built at Mohawk Place created the model for what we're seeing at places like the Sportsmen's Tavern today – a tight-knit, community-based hub, one that touring bands are eager to return to, largely due to the hospitality and enthusiasm directed their way.

The 2005 Susan and Marty wedding celebration, at the couple's house in Hamburg, is the stuff of legend – a celebration of true love, and simultaneously, a celebration of our extended musical family. Naturally, live music from some of the couple's favorite bands and Marty's exceptional culinary skills were a major part of a day none of us who were there will ever forget.

When, several years later, we learned that Susan had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and that she suffered a brain aneurysm while undergoing treatment, it struck all of us as a huge karmic injustice. And yet, Tanner was still everywhere we were, cheering on bands, offering us a hug, a smile and some warm conversation, and then more than likely, heading back to the homestead to make sure the band members had clean sheets and hot food after their long day.

The Tanner-Boratin home became an oasis for traveling bands, as the couple routinely opened their doors to road-weary souls – some of whom they knew well, but many of whom were pretty much strangers. They gave them a warm bed, a seriously delectable Marty-cooked meal, and a strong sense of how we roll around here – with kindness, easy-going hospitality, and a belief that the deep-rooted love of music makes us sisters and brothers even before we've met.

The couple would often present stripped-down concerts in their home, offering artists an opportunity to add an extra gig to the schedule while passing through town, and the chance to play for an appreciative audience in an intimate setting. If you've ever traveled the country by dilapidated band van, struggling to make it from gig to gig, performing for gas money, and sleeping in lousy hotels or on hardwood floors in fans' cramped apartments, you know how much  the sense of home Tanner and Boratin consistently offered is worth.

"Susan was an artist's best friend, a 'superfan,' " said 97 Rock DJ and longtime friend Anita West. "She helped bands and artists by finding them an audience, she gave them confidence, she opened her home to them, found them gigs. It wasn't about the money, ever. It was simply about the love of music. How rare is that? And she not only did that in our community, she did it in Boston, New York City, New Jersey. Even when she was fighting cancer, you would always see her at shows, smiling and diggin' it. I will miss her, Jeff."

We all will. Tanner represented and embodied the best of what we as a community have to offer, both to each other and to those simply passing through.

DiFranco summed it all up so perfectly with Monday's post, noting that with the love we'd received so selflessly from Tanner came a responsibility to pay that love forward.

"Susan, you are an inspiration. Your light shines through us."


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