July 28 was the busiest day of western New York’s 2018 summer concert season thus far.
Ludacris stormed Canalside, Tommy James and the Shondells settled into The Riviera Theatre, Ween squelched the weasel at Artpark, and Lord Huron joined Madisen Ward & the Mama Bear on a mission to entertain the sots at North Tonawanda’s Gratwick Park during its annual Brews & Wines on the Water event.
All of this was going on while the local flag-bearers for the neo-hippie movement opted to spend the day at Cobblestone Live!, a two-day music and arts festival nestled within walking distance of where The Ludameister had chosen to treat The Queen City to a little southern hospitality. Everything from tattoos and food trucks to CBD oil and an alpaca corral were on display, so the fact that 22 bands were slated to provide the soundtrack felt like an added bonus. Five minutes of being on the grounds were all anyone needed to realize that what the organizers had here was a more earnest, less materialistic version of Coachella that boasted a musical lineup comparable to anything the major American festivals are swilling out these days. They might not have been household names, but everyone on the bill came to destroy.
I arrived on the scene just as Buffalo’s own First Ward was taking the stage to what couldn’t have been more than 20 people in the immediate area. Vocalist/guitarist Zak Ward led the band through a shimmering set of melodic indie rock that appeared to pick up right where Ward’s previous outfit, Son of the Sun, left off. Ward’s live performance has always been swathed in white heat and an immutable attention to detail that makes every note feel as if he has to get it off his chest at that exact moment in time, which becomes even more compelling when paired with an ensemble capable of matching him at the highest level. Guitarist Dave Harris, bassist Josh Mullin, drummer Jeff Schaller, and keyboardist Kevin Sampson are the right men for the job, and, the longer they played, the more I couldn’t wait to see what their next gig was going to be.
Apparently, the reason for the scant attendance laid just around the corner, because Andy Frasco & The U.N. drew a small army to the Columbia St. stage for a go-for-broke 90-minute clinic in how to leave an audience craving more. Whether it was orchestrating a synchronized dance party in the crowd or having the lucky souls in front hoist him up in a chair while the band played “Hava Negila,” Frasco was an id-driven dynamo hell-bent on making sure that the Cobblestone universe knew he was one of the most soulful blues singers they’d never heard before. Torrid takes on “Waiting Game” and “Stop Fucking Around” bounced off unexpected covers of Nine Inch Nails and Rage Against the Machine seamlessly, which was a testament to how well The U.N. is able to transition from one style to another.
Guitarist Shawn Eckels and saxophonist Ernie Chang seized the spotlight on numerous occasions as Frasco insisted on acting as if they were all just making the set up as they went along. The strength of the musicianship combined with Frasco’s profane jocularity meant that whomever was playing next would have a tough act to follow.
It’s a good thing, then, that Aqueous doesn’t really have to work too hard to win people over at this point in their career. The music speaks for itself and the fluidity with which each song flows through the fingers of its players creates an exploratory soundscape worthy of being booked on both nights of the festival. Guitarist Mike Gantzer, guitarist/keyboardist Dave Loss, bassist Evan McPhaden, and drummer Rob Houk are top-shelf musicians, but the point of an Aqueous set isn’t to single anyone out. These guys have been playing together long enough to know each other’s styles intimately, so the moments of collective improvisation are what elevate their live experience to greatness.
“Second Sight” and “They’re Calling for Ya” were immaculate while a version of Paul McCartney’s “Live and Let Die” illustrated just how deep the band’s tastes run despite the reputation for self-indulgence usually associated with bands on the jam circuit. When the music was over, they could have easily stretched out another 90 minutes of material and no one would have staged a protest.
When outsiders ask why a resurgent Buffalo is worth a summer trip, you’d be hard-pressed to cite a better example from the artistic community than Cobblestone Live!