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As First Night Buffalo turns 30, memories from musicians of its early years

It started 30 years ago as an alternative to what my father routinely referred to as “amateur night,” his way of suggesting the best place to spend New Year’s Eve was in the safety of your own home with the car keys safely tucked away and the fire blazing in the hearth.

First Night Buffalo took its inspiration from an annual family friendly event founded in Boston, Mass., in 1976.

The idea – embraced by original sponsors WNY United Against Drug and Alcohol Abuse, and Rich Products – was to offer a New Year’s Eve celebration you wouldn’t be ashamed to take your kids to, one that wouldn’t find you welcoming the new year with a blinding hangover the following morning.

Thirty years on, the event “currently draws about 5,000 Western New Yorkers each year and has outlived many similar events across the country,” according to Carrie Meyer, executive director of the Independent Health Foundation, First Night Buffalo’s executive producer.

“Over the past 30 years, we’ve hosted hundreds of acts and entertainers,” Meyer continued. “From cartoon and storybook characters, to magicians and musicians, including a talented local, up-and-coming band called the Goo Goo Dolls, who performed at the very first First Night Buffalo.”

That “local, up-and-coming band” was joined by a diverse bill of Buffalo artists performing across several venues in the downtown area, among them the food court of the Main Place Mall, where the Goos played to what many remember as a large, boisterous and decidedly young crowd.

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Interestingly, the crowd is one of the few things some members of the Goos, the Ramrods, Outer Circle Orchestra, Billy McEwen and the Soul Invaders, Them Jazzbeards, and the Jamie Moses Band remember.

The Goo Goo Dolls, in their first publicity photo, around the time the band played the inaugural First Night Buffalo event. From left: Robby Takac, George Tutuska and John Rzeznik.

“It was in the food court at the mall, I remember that,” Goos bassist Robby Takac said. “Details are sketchy, but I remember someone pulling the curtain down while we were playing, and that I finished up the night playing inside a huge planter,” he laughed.

“It felt a little weird, because it was New Year’s Eve, and there were no drinks to be had, but it was a lot of fun, and there were tons of young people there.”

“Back then, it was held at multiple venues across the city, including the Main Place Mall, the library, Alleyway Theatre and CEPA Gallery,” Meyer recalled.

That led to some bands performing several gigs in several venues beneath the First Night umbrella. It was not until the 2006 event that its lone venue was the Convention Center.

“I have a vague recollection of a split-venue approach,” said Dave Elder, guitarist with the Party Squad. “We played the 97 Rock ball drop for 14 years – brrrr! – but I recall at least one year where we played more than one venue as part of First Night.”

First Night was an alcohol-free event from the get-go, but bands will be bands, and at least one musician among the ranks on the inaugural gig arrived filled with more than straight-up holiday spirit.

“I was drunk,” Ramrods guitarist John Paa told me.

“Can I quote you?” I queried.

“Absolutely.”

“Can you remember anything else?”

“Honestly, I don’t remember anything about that show. I thought I had joined the Splat Cats by then. Was it at the Tralf?”

“No, Main Place Mall, in the food court.”

“I’ve got nothin’. Sorry, man!”

The Ramrods, as they appeared in rehearsals for their 2013 reunion shows. Bill Scott, Patrick Neal, John Paa and Norman Schwagler. On drums but not visible is Craig Voigt. (Buffalo News archive)

David Kane, founder and leader of Them Jazzbeards and, these days, co-leader of the excellent, dark, synth-infused alternative band Night Slaves, recalls little beyond the great vibes of that inaugural First Night.

“Barely,” he laughed, when asked if he remembered that gig. “But I’m sure we had a great time, like we did throughout the '80s. I do remember that Them Jazzbeards played as many as five gigs, going back and forth between the Cabaret, the Convention Center and an outdoor stage.”

David Kane of Them Jazzbeards. (Buffalo News archive)

My own recollections of First Night Buffalo’s early years involve playing a New Year’s Eve 1993 gig with the Tails in the same Main Place Mall food court Takac recalled performing in with the Goos. I remember it incredibly clearly, because it was, at the time, the largest and most “into it” crowd we’d played for, and it was comprised of seemingly sober young people who approached the show like it was a serious party. They were too young to be admitted to the clubs comprising the Buffalo music scene, but they clearly wanted to be a part of it, quite possibly because the bands from that scene were routinely played on Buffalo State College’s student-run WBNY-FM.

They treated us like rock stars. I was both pleased and bemused. It was a wholly enjoyable gig.

Which seems to be the whole point, a modus operandi consistent throughout the event's  30 years in Buffalo. First Night offers an evening of good, clean fun that you’ll remember the next morning.

“It’s remarkable that for 30 years now, this event has engaged thousands of Western New Yorkers in fun, safe and healthy activities to kick off the new year,” Meyer said.

She’s right. It is remarkable.

Happy new year, everyone.

Carrie Meyer, executive director of Independent Health Foundation and First Night Buffalo, shown on the 25th anniversary of the series in 2013. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

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