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Is the VIP experience at Canalside Live worth the cost?

Linda Kane loves Buffalo. She loves telling people about it, loves spreading the word. She also loves going to concerts at Canalside, and she says she tries to send plenty of people downtown as well.

But one thing she loves that she was hoping to keep relatively quiet is the VIP area at Canalside Live concerts.

"I actually don't want to promote it, because I don't want it to be too crowded," she said with a smile, a few feet away from the stage at a recent show.

Well, sorry Linda, but the secret is apparently out.

General Manager Matt LaSota said Canalside expects to sell out its VIP allotment (750 tickets) for most of its remaining concerts. Based on the many concertgoers we talked with about paying for a $35 VIP ticket vs. the regular $5 general admission price, that's no surprise.

The sentiment was unanimous: The Canalside VIP experience is certainly worth it, and many echoed Kane in that they wanted to keep it to themselves. One woman conveyed her VIP feelings by making the shape of a heart with her thumbs and index fingers before quickly adding: "but don't tell anybody!"

The VIP crowd cited many aspects of their experience that made their $30 worth spending. Whether attendees were in the front row or enjoying themselves far from the stage, it was clear that the package deal was attractive to them, with no one feature earning top billing.

Here's a rundown:

I must be in the front row: The VIP section features a designated section of front-row access. An estimated one-fourth of the stagefront area is partitioned off by the iron fencing, creating a notched-out area for VIP attendees to get right up front to the stage.

"I'm 5 feet tall. That's why I'm right here, and I'm not leaving," said a smiling Kane, who was parked at the very front barrier during one of Umphrey's McGee's breaks. "If it's a good band, I want to be right up front. If I was behind even one person, that's it.

"You get two drinks, decent appetizers, access to get in and out with out the crowd, separate bathrooms, but most of all, this – because I'm short. I'm adding it up and saying, 'Why not?'"

Kane, who estimated that she had bought VIP tickets at Canalside five to 10 times over the last few years, said she would likely go the VIP route for all her future shows. "I probably will, even if I don't love the band – just because of everything you get."

The VIP area with front-row access. (Keith McShea/Buffalo News)

Better place for slower pace: Less than 50 yards from the stage, Carl McIlwain was settled into a white Adirondack chair, enjoying one of his favorite bands.

Side-by-side with wife, Sharon, in her green chair, the retired couple from Ransomville were clearly relaxed as they took in the show from an open grassy area in the VIP section.

"Umphrey's McGee, I'll see them every time -- it takes a band like this to get me here," Carl McIlwain said, before motioning to the main Canalside crowd on the other side of the temporary metal fencing. "It's been a long time since I've dealt with that crowd over there. Looks like fun, but … this is the way to go as far as I'm concerned."

The VIP crowd is decidedly older than the tightly packed throng on the other side of the waist-high iron fencing at Canalside. The youngest of those on the VIP side of the fence appeared to be in their late 20s.

"We do the VIP tickets just to chill here and sit down," said Carl McIlwain. "We don't have to worry about someone spilling beer on us over there."

Sharon McIlwain added: "It's reliving the experience of being out with the young'uns. ... We have to sit these days."

The VIP area includes an open space with Adirondack chairs near the fence dividing those who have VIP bracelets from the have-nots. (Keith McShea/Buffalo News)

Two free drinks: Attached to your VIP bracelet are two removable free drink coupons, which are good for beer, wine, soda or water.

"For 30-something bucks, you get two free drinks, you can't beat that," said Brandon Inlow, as he held his two free drinks, one in each hand. "I was at Darien Lake, I got a 17-1/2 ounce beer and I paid $17 dollars. So these at $7 and two free ones, that's a helluva deal, absolutely. I couldn't believe it honestly when I heard it."

Inlow, who is from Perry in Wyoming County, has attended several Canalside Live shows, but this was his first as a VIP.

"I'm from way down in cow country, but we come up," he said. "To see a band like this up close, normally you have to pay a lot of money for that. Me, I'm not normally a VIP guy, but this is cool."

Free food: Always a big hit, as these are two of the most wonderful words in the English language.

However, this is the one topic where there was a degree of negative feedback culled from conversations at Canalside and social media.

"A couple of years ago you got more for your money," said Sharon McElwain, noting, as others did, that food used to be brought in from outside caterers.

Free food inside the VIP Pavilion at Canalside Live includes veggies trays. (Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News)

What is offered currently looks to be a quantity-over-quality approach. There are two large tables of what Canalside describes as light appetizers provided by nearby food stand The Dish. One table is a giant cheese offering which also includes pepperoni and crackers, the other table features nacho chips, salsa and guacamole and vegetables.

Both tables were consistently restocked during our visit, and the quantity of light appetizers did provide enough for two couples to put four full plates together as they sat at a table under the pavilion.

If you do want to eat a higher class of food, you can go into the main Canalside area. However, if it's the food trucks you're looking for, that means a lengthy stroll to the opposite end of the grounds.

Easier bathroom access: Your VIP bracelet earns you access to private bathrooms. A trailer that has a sink and two stalls for men and women is available, along with additional portable restrooms. When nature calls regular Canalside concertgoers, it means a lengthy walk far away from the stage.

As they stood in a short line for the facilities, friends Shauna Clair and Ashley Stafford included the private bathrooms among other advantages for the VIP ticket.

"We found Adirondack chairs, that was pretty much worth it," said Clair, who saw value in the VIP ticket despite not being a particular fan of the band. "The food isn't crazy amazing, but we ate a lot of cheese."

"I think it's worth the money," said Clair.

In a photograph taken from the stage, the Honda VIP Pavilion is visible in the distance while the all-important private bathrooms are to the right. (Keith McShea/Buffalo News)

A roof over your head: To outsiders, probably the most recognizable part of the VIP area is the large Honda VIP Pavilion with the white roof. It's more than a tent, it's a temporary building with elevated floor and a high, vaulted ceiling. There are 20 tables and chairs underneath, along with a set of couches, in addition to 10 bar tables lining the walkway that faces the stage.

This year's weather (knock on wood) has been great for Canalside Live shows, but in case of rain, there's a place to go for VIPs.

Kevin Vanwagner, in his third year managing the VIP area, said the shelter the pavilion provides was an extra benefit for VIP ticket holders with last year's poor weather, but that "it's a concert, and plenty of people just went out and enjoyed themselves in the rain."

No tickets, no problem: Outside of the VIP area, you need to stop at a tickets tent in order to get food or beverages. VIPs can skip that step, using cash or credit to order drinks at the lengthy bar, which appeared to be staffed by at least four people at a time.

Everything's closer: Food. Drinks. Stage. Bathrooms. Entrance. Exit. Everything is closer, and the lines are shorter, on planet VIP. The separate VIP entrance is on Main Street, across from the KeyBank Center.

"It's great, because there's no lines for beer, you get a beer in like two minutes," said Jon Neyerlin of Buffalo. "And if you want to get really close, all you have to do is walk around the corner and boom, you're front stage."

[Related: Chaos of the Canalside Live general admission beer tent]

The large tent of the Canalside Live VIP area can shelter fans from inclement weather. (Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News)

Room to move: Walking around "normal" Canalside concerts you are moving through a crowd of thousands (usually from 7,000 to 12,000), zig-zagging through lawn chairs and blankets. In the VIP area (capped at 750 tickets), there are very few areas that are congested. Between the pavilion and the concert area there is an open space which includes many Adirondack chairs.

"It's very nice, it's not too crowded and there's more space to move around," said Buffalo's Rachel Keller.

Free stuff: Your VIP ticket includes a souvenir 16-ounce cup, a blue, hard-plastic version of the throwaway red Solo cups that are party staples. However, read the fine print embossed in the bottom of the cup: It's not microwavable and it's not for your dishwasher.

VIP numbers and shows: The VIP section's 750 tickets sold out for the first two Thursday shows (Method Man & Redman and Fitz and the Tantrums) and the special Saturday version with Vanilla Ice on July 7, while 650 tickets were sold for the Umphrey's McGee show on June 27, according to LaSota.

The VIP tickets are sold out for the July 19 concert (Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Beth Hart).

Tickets are available for the July 12 show (Arrested Development). Fewer than 100 remain for the shows on July 26 (Father John Misty and Lucy Davis), Aug. 9 (Headstones) and Aug. 17 (Mighty Mighty Bosstones and Lowest of the Low). Fewer than 200 remain for Aug. 2 (Dark Star Orchestra).

The recently added Canalside Live concert featuring Ludacris (July 28) has a different set up for pricing and VIP. The VIP section will be expanded, with 2,000 tickets being sold at $40; half of those tickets are sold. Regular tickets are $15.

There also is a VIP area available for the July 21 Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra show, which is followed by a showing of the original "Ghostbusters" movie. General admission is free (no tickets required). VIP tickets are $20 and include unlimited popcorn and one free non-alcoholic beverage per ticket, plus themed candy available for purchase, a cash bar and a premium viewing area.

Diverse lineup highlights Canalside Live concert series


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