By Melissa Wright
The original point of departure for this exploration came from a suggestion to survey the Buffalo underground music scene. In the conversations that followed, it became apparent that either I was talking to all the wrong musicians or that “underground” needs some teasing out. Perhaps, most importantly, the concept of underground is limited in its cultural temporality, seeming to have specific ties to ’60s counterculture, ’70s punk rock and ’80s hip hop.
So this investigation evolved into an interest in two specific questions: if we’re all above ground now—at least in Buffalo, for that matter—is there an interest in remaining “counterculture”? And secondly, can there be an authentic music anymore when everywhere we have sampling, pastiche, cover bands, and throwbacks?
Three India Pale Ales in, I stand front-and-center to watch a local band at McGarrett’s, formerly No Names, on Elmwood. The only people closer to the band than me are a hip-rotating, music-lovemaking, engrossed young woman in overalls and a man hanging over the threshold that separates the band Family Dinner from the bar crowd. His eyes are magnetized by Luke Bennett, the lead guitarist’s hands sliding through a song called “The Spaniard.”
“The Spaniard” is fresh and foreign. Invitingly it descends a full scale to a common, unmistakable riff. A trumpet slices through with the most pleasing sort of unexpectedness: something not so far from jazz—dare I say Miles Davis—in its controlled bursts.
Around the bar, one gets an unmistakable sense of ’60s nostalgia, whether that be from the hung tapestries behind the band, the occasional Grateful Dead T-shirt, or counterculture vibe of the place overall. The façade of the venue begs of a former generation and one can’t help but question whether the bands feel a sense of historical suffocation. Don’t you want your own generation?
“It’s more than a nostalgia for the ’60s,” Bennett begins as we discuss the Buffalo music scene and where his music fits in. “More than anything else, that time was the roots, an inspiration. We’re not simply covering old Grateful Dead songs like other bands are doing.”
And yet, I ask, what are you doing? So many bands in Buffalo seem to be playing fusion jam music. And by fusion, I mean a kind of sampling of multiple different genres. Do you feel the sense that you’re not doing anything new?
Bennett shakes his head in fervent disagreement. “That’s what anyone says before the next musical genre happens. After jazz, they probably thought, ‘what can come next?’ The same thing for jam bands. It’s impossible to tell inside of our own time period. And I think we are doing something new. Fusion is new and every band that’s doing it in Buffalo, from what I’ve seen, has their own sound—U-MELT does progressive groove, Universe Shark does jazz/space jam, we do blues/funk jam, New Clear Fusion did big band funk jam, and the Funky Beats do actual rock ‘n’ roll jam.”
The Family Dinner is truly a part of a network of musicians and bands throughout the Buffalo area. Together, they share jam spaces, instruments, amps, and even swap musicians. The effect is an ever-evolving sound and an intimate music-watching experience, where quite often the line between friend and fan is blurred. In the jam band tradition, these groups plan smaller-scale festivals throughout the year, showcasing both local bands as well as any big name band they can get on the bill. And yet, they are determined not to play backyard festivals for the rest of their careers.
Family Dinner is throwing their second summer festival in June and was lucky enough to get some pretty large names on the bill. “We’re very excited to have The Breakfast and Giant Panda Guerrilla Dub Squad playing at our festival, JAM-Boree this summer,” says Derek Morgan, one of the band’s informal booking agents/ “groupies.”
“We’re not underground, because we want to make it,” Bennett says. Fancy that. I ask whether he considers his band to be fulfilling any kind of ’60s counterculture tradition.
“Counterculture didn’t arise in the ’60s. In the ’20s there were flappers, in the ’40s there was jazz, Django Reinhardt, in the ’50s, with the invention of the electric guitar, you have Chuck Barry, Little Richard, Elvis Presley. When punk music came about, when heavy metal took off—anything that goes up against mainstream America is counterculture.”
I explain to both Bennett and James Gaydos, the bass player for the band, the angle of my story. Gaydos works part time for a local production company called North Star Media Studios, started right in Buffalo and led by a couple of Canisius alumni. I thought he would have insight as to whether there was anything “underground” in the city.
“Did you laugh when they asked you to cover it?” Gaydos questions with a widening grin. “There is no Buffalo underground.”
Bennett chimes in. “We’re not in the NYC rap scene where Eminem and Immortal Technique can push out ‘underground shit with Stan.’ ”
Gaydos offers his stance on my countercultural dilemma. “There’s always going to be a crossover between whatever countercultural scenes there are going on at the time. With all the various types of music I’ve played, I’ve partaken in whatever was the most happening scene for the region,” he says. “I want to be where the thought, imagination, and invigoration is; so yeah, I have been somewhat of an opportunist in my musical career. I played metal festivals in Cleveland and I play jam band festivals in Buffalo, because that’s what’s going on in each town. Jam bands are pretty much the scene all over the Western New York area. All the bar owners are dead heads and you have to be in good with them if you want to play around here.”
Seems ironic—the counter culture is now the dominant culture?
“Hippies are capitalists. It’s very much not a counterculture. It’s simply another scene. Things that were once countercultures quickly become mainstream,” Gaydos says. “Hippy culture now is hippy storefronts more or less. There’s all kinds of places back in Cleveland that are another fucking Hot Topic, except they’re not a chain.”
So can we even say there are counter cultures anymore?
“Things spread too quickly,” Gaydos says, arranging his bass to head out for a practice session. “We’re obviously a YouTube generation and little 15 second clips fly across the country in seconds. Everything is immediately commercialized. When the indie emo scenes were emerging, it didn’t take long before people were wearing tight jeans and riding an old bike around.”
Perhaps this is the thrust of the frustration—radical façades with completely mainstream tendencies, the absorption of real musical difference into a homogenous stream of ready-made culture.
Before Bennett and Gaydos take off, I ask whether they feel stifled by the musical scene they predominantly belong to. “None of us are bound by counterculture influences,” Gaydos says. “There’s tons of old bikers at festivals, punkers at SlyFest. There were some dudes who looked like they were right out of a Slipknot show, rocking snake bite double lip piercings and chest pieces. Dude looked like he was ready to start throwing some bows, but really he was just trying to sell some pot.”