Perhaps a headline from a New York Times article published July 30 caught your eye. “Once Just a Punch Line, Buffalo Fights Back,” ran the bold type above the byline. It was essentially a positive piece, despite the rather condescending headline. (I’ve personally never felt like a punch line living here. In fact, I always thought the joke was on everyone else.)
Times writer Keith Schneider broke down the recent investment boom – the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus provided him with most of his hook.
Schneider also mentions area developer Howard Zemsky, principal of the Larkin Development Group, and the man whose $50 million investment made Larkin Square a reality. For Buffalo’s arts community, Zemsky’s work provides a visible hook on which to hang our hat. Larkin Square, as it turns out, made an artsy panacea out of what was not too long ago an urban wasteland.
This is the second summer of Live at Larkin, the weekly free concert series held from 5 to 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Sept. 18 at the intersection of Swan and Seneca streets. In addition to the beauty of the surroundings – the covered outdoor seating, the pavilion-style stage, the surrounding restaurants and vending areas – Live at Larkin distinguishes itself from other area summer concert series by presenting a roster composed solely of Buffalo-area talent. Live at Larkin has been packed every week this summer, which in itself speaks well of Zemsky’s investment. That so many people are turning out to see local, original, independent talent makes the advent of the series a considerable victory for the Buffalo music scene.
My summer has been essentially a blur of directionless motion, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing, to borrow a line from the Bard. I’ve been all over the place, and thus, missed the majority of the Live at Larkin season. I righted this unintentional wrong recently, however, when I took in sets from the wonderful, esoteric, dreamy and awesome Lazlo Hollyfeld, and the gloriously bluesy, soulful raunch of Terry Sullivan and the All-Stars.
The music, unsurprisingly, was fantastic. But above and beyond the strength of the performances, I was struck by the fact that I was standing in the middle of a Buffalo success story. Live at Larkin will not single-handedly rescue the area music scene from whatever might befall it, of course, but the fact that this once abandoned area is now home to a fairly ritzy weekly music series comprised solely of Buffalo bands has to be taken as an incredibly encouraging sign.
So what are they doing right? What makes the Live at Larkin series such a low-pressure, laid-back good time?
First of all, the setup makes it possible for people merely wishing to mingle, eat, drink and chat, while hearing the music mostly in the background to do so without bothering folks who are all about the music. If you want to get up close and personal with the band, hear the music at high volume, and generally involve yourself directly in the show, you have that option, too. (Guess which one I chose?) This reduces the amount of friction that can be caused when representatives of these two divergent philosophies are forced to share immediate space with each other.
The evening I was there, the crowd was largely 35 and older by my estimation, and that might have something to do with it. There’s also the fact that, even at its most packed, the Larkin Square area is still housing less than 2,000 people on a given Wednesday. The layout of the area, with the pavilion area housing the stage and plenty of walk-around room in the surrounding square, ensures abundant personal space, too. There’s good food available from local vendors. Easy access to bathrooms. Good beer selection at a reasonable price.
Most of these positives can be attributed to the relatively small crowd size. It’s far easier for 1,000 people to get along and enjoy themselves than it is for 10,000 or 20,000 to do the same. But there’s something else at play at Larkin.
I believe it’s the community-based aspects of the affair that make it special. Local people hearing local music and patronizing local vendors in a beautifully renovated area that was once written off as a wasteland. Doesn’t sound like a punch line to me.