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'We’ve got your back, brother': Buffalo music community rallies around Michael DiSanto

This is a story about a deeply talented, hardworking, independent career musician who, one early evening while preparing for his fifth or sixth gig of the week, found he couldn’t lift his gear into the trunk of his car, called a close friend and hours later, ended up in the hospital, where it was discovered he’d had a stroke.

It’s also a story about a tightknit, battle-scarred, ceaselessly toiling music community coming together, no questions asked, to aid a brother in his time of need, by any means necessary.

It’s a Buffalo story, then.

We take care of our own

Michael DiSanto suffered a stroke July 22. He lost use of the left side of his body and is now facing a lengthy period of physical rehabilitation in order to be able to walk, to say nothing of being able to play the music that has been his passion, his lifeblood and his sole source of income for nearly two decades.

Like most full-time independent musicians in this country, DiSanto does not have full medical insurance coverage. As he recovers in bed at Mercy Hospital, he faces a calendar stuffed full of gigs he can’t possibly play and a rapidly mounting pile of medical bills.

Jeff Miers writes, "The outpouring of love and support has been deeply moving for those of us who are close to Michael DiSanto. (Provided photo)

This is where the Buffalo music community sprung into action. A committee of concerned friends and peers was set up via social media. Quickly, musician after musician volunteered to cover DiSanto’s bookings, turning the money over to him.

“Tip jars” began appearing at nearly every venue DiSanto has frequented as a staple of the live music scene, to help cover his bills and the care of his two beloved dogs, Martha Stewart Washington and Scotch, while he recovers. Benefit concerts are at present transitioning from the planning stage to firmly booked status. A GoFundMe page has been generated.

As I write this, in excess of $16,000 has been donated by DiSanto’s friends, peers and fans. Many of us fit into all three of those categories.

The list of musicians and friends who’ve selflessly offered their talents and services is too lengthy to list here, but is filled with folks you’ve seen perform, rubbed shoulders with at gigs, shared a drink and a chat with. They’re your neighbors.

“Nothing says ‘Buffalo’ more than moments like this one,” said Eric Crittenden, DiSanto’s closest friend and longtime musical compatriot. “Whether it’s an impromptu blizzard dropping 8 feet of snow on our sorry selves, or something like this. For me, when something like this happens … dude, this is what Austin, Texas, was striving to be as a music city, but they don’t have this camaraderie. They have everything else, but they don’t have this. This is very much a Buffalo thing.

“This whole way that we get together to lift a person up when they’ve fallen – it’s one thousand percent Buffalo. We don’t have all the money, but we’ve got all the love. Just to see the way that everyone has come together, motivated by compassion and love and understanding – it’s remarkable.”

The outpouring of love and support has been deeply moving for those of us who are close to DiSanto. It has also touched the heart of the man himself.

Mayor of our neo-soul scene            

DiSanto is, in many ways, the mayor of the Buffalo music scene.

Through his work running “serious players only” open mics, and ultimately, the weekly Neo-Soul Tuesday series featuring his band Verse and an endless parade of special guests at DBGB in Allentown, he all but single-handedly joined together factions of the music community previously considered disparate and incongruous. In so doing, he blew a hole through the wall separating the east and west sides of Main Street, helping to birth a neo-soul movement in a city and its surrounding environs where such a movement was badly needed.

During that time, he’s been a mentor to dozens of area musicians and singers. One of them happened to be my son, Declan. I took him to several Neo-Soul Tuesday shows at DBGB when he was barely a teen and his dedication to a life in music was cementing. He was inspired. Visibly so. He set his sights on gaining a spot in the Neo-Soul Tuesday lineup. DiSanto watched him develop, supported him, but made him wait. He wanted him to earn it. “You’re not quite ready yet,” he’d say. Then one day, that changed. “You’re ready now,” he said.

I called Declan in Los Angeles, where he now lives and works as a full-time musician, to tell him what had happened to our dear family friend, and to ask if he’d like to contribute to this piece.

“Michael brought consistency and open-mindedness when the city and the scene was in desperate need of both,” Declan said. “There was never a Tuesday that would go by without me and others like me thinking, ‘Damn, I bet Neo-Soul with Verse is gonna be smackin’ tonight.’ His musical excellence, understated showmanship and exceptional professionalism set a precedent that would be pretty tough to meet, let alone top.

“Michael’s a Buffalo legend, through and through.”

Glue that holds us together

For Crittenden, the rush to mobilize on DiSanto’s behalf in the immediate wake of his stroke is something he’s not likely to ever forget. It speaks to the depth of his dear friend’s impact on our music community.

“When we started talking initially, we were just like, ‘Why don’t we see if we can cover some of Michael’s gigs and give him the money?’ As soon as that got out there in the atmosphere, it just exploded. A spreadsheet developed, and suddenly, you’ve got artists all over the place, all playing this dude’s shows, giving him the money, and putting out a tip jar and giving the tips to Michael as well. Cats are just like, ‘All right, it’s time to mobilize.’ So you’ve got all these musicians from different genres, all these people from different walks of life, people that don’t even get along with each other in some cases – it doesn’t matter. Michael is the glue. He’s bringing everyone together.”

That’s a fitting testament for a musician who, one day in the late '90s, walked into his rock band’s rehearsal and said, ‘I’ve been listening to the Roots. I don’t wanna play just rock music any more. We need to dig deeper.’ That decision, which DiSanto never wavered from, led ultimately to the creation of Unit 9, then Verse, and finally, to Buffalo’s own deep neo-soul scene, one that has routinely found, for example, jam band musicians playing with gospel pros, hip-hop artists rubbing shoulders with soul crooners and grizzled rockers learning how to hang with a D’Angelo groove.

DiSanto was a primary catalyst for the creation of a Buffalo music scene that truly reflects the diversity of the city and surrounding environs that produced it. For that, we all owe him a debt of gratitude.

Be strong, Michael. We all love you. And we’ve got your back.

A mid-'90s jam session at the Steer in University Heights. From left: Jeff Miers, Michael DiSanto and Eric Crittenden.

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