The Tralf Music Hall is celebrating its 30th anniversary at its Main Street location this year, and for 22 of those years, I've been making regular pilgrimages to the club, in the process taking in some of the most inspired musical performances I've seen since making Western New York my home.
There's something magical about a Tralf show, something transformative about the best musical experiences in that building at 622 Main St. There is a feeling of having gone through the looking glass when you arrive in the Theatre District, take the staircase – or the escalator, back in the day – up to the second floor, walk down the long hallway, greet the amiable, enthusiastic doorman who's there at every show and has been for years, and make your way into the club.
Past the doorway, and there's another hallway leading down into the bar area. This one boasts a hall-of-fame ambience. Lining the walls is a photo gallery of greats from the Tralf's history, among them jazz giants Chick Corea and Pat Metheny, Buffalo-born rocker Willie Nile, Kris Kristofferson, Leon Redbone, Richie Havens and even clown-rock legend and guitar god Joe Walsh.
Jeremy Hoyle, local musician and promoter with ESI, who books the majority of the acts at the Tralf these days, wrote to me in hushed text-tones about the autographs scrawled by performers on the walls and ceiling in one of the Tralf's sound equipment storage rooms. Dizzy Gillespie, Warren Zevon, Gregg Allman, Prince – it's an autograph sculpture that stands as a monument to the greats who have passed through the joint.
Point made – you're in the presence of the ghosts of greatness, and anyone taking the stage within this hallowed hall must stand on the shoulders of some serious giants.
At the end of the "gallery of the greats" hallway, the bar is on your right, and usually the always pleasant Kathy Marfione is behind it. There's the balcony seating to the left – always full by the time I stomp my way into the building, but I did manage to sneak up there once when Adrian Belew was simply tearing the place down, something I've seen him do nearly a dozen times at the Tralf over the years.
Dead ahead is the stage, fronted by what is sometimes a dance floor, and sometimes a seated area with tables – again, for the lucky (and planning ahead-adept) folks who get their early enough to claim them. The Tralf is not a huge place, which means that as long as you're in the house, you're going to be a part of the show – the intimacy of the room is ingrained in the experience of the music itself on the best nights. The sound is almost always superb in the venue, too, which is important when you consider the wide variety of musical idioms that have been blasted through the Tralf's PA over the years.
Last week, as I watched the Robert Glasper Experiment blow the minds of the full house with a program of music that suggested what the future of jazz might look, sound and feel like, I was jolted into a mood of reflection. I've seen hundreds of shows at the Tralf over the past 22 years, and though I don't like to break all of those experiences down into a "Top 10"-type list, it's interesting to wander down memory lane for a while.
I can recall seeing the late Chris Whitley playing a solo show at the Tralf, and it was a dark, intense and absolutely spellbinding show. I had a seat for that one, and Whitley's performance had me nailed to it. I never even got up to hit the bar, to say nothing of the men's room.
I remember a particularly poignant set from Dicky Betts; Seattle prog-rockers King's X melting my face and battering my eardrums, the after-image of lanky bassist/vocalist Dug Pinnick standing on one of the tables and towering over the assembled; standing dead-center in front of the stage, with Los Lobos' David Hidalgo a foot away from me, leading the band through a smoking encore of the Allman Brothers Band's "Whipping Post." There was the night I took my son to see one of his guitar heroes, prog-jazz virtuoso Alan Holdsworth, for the first time, and introducing him to Holdsworth just before he hit the stage, too; freaking out as cult legends and space-rock icons Ozric Tentacles asked us to come along as they toured the cosmos for a few hours, then delivered us safely back in our seats.
There was the night Prince played a show at Shea's, and then kicked out the funk all night long in the "after-hours jam session" tradition at the Tralf. (A major regret in my musical life – I missed this one. Had to give my ticket away at the last minute, having contracted a nasty case of food poisoning. Talk about blowing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.)
I recall sharing a few pitchers of beer with Marillion singer Fish, who lived up to his name by drinking like one, following a strong solo set on the Tralf stage. A few years later, I met Ike Willis of Frank Zappa/Project Object fame in that same dressing room. I've had a handful of transformative experiences during Todd Rundgren's many Tralf shows, too.
I fondly recall sharing a table with my colleague Jeff Simon as revered jazz drummer and Buffalo native Bobby Previte came back to town to lead a home-grown collective of musicians through a startling interpretation of Miles Davis' "Bitches Brew."
OK, then. Enough reminiscing. I'm ready for the next 30 years!