(DETOUR: BUFFALO) HERDFEST
I’ll preface this by saying that this post is so incredibly late, but it all works out because I’m having fun reminiscing about my trip to Buffalo back on June 20-21, 2014. This was my furthest Detour for I Heart Hamilton so far – across the border!
Last spring I got an email from Buffablog – a very well-curated and award-winning music blog founded in 2010 from, where else, Buffalo! Editor-in-Chief Mac McGuire wrote me to let me know that the blog would be hosting its very first music festival, Herd Fest, and he was contacting similar bloggers in the surrounding area to invite them. I remember showing Baltimore House owner Grant Winestock the email and was met with an enthusiastic, “Let’s go!”. During the couple of months leading up to it, we even wrote a “Herd Fest” jingle in anticipation of the big trip.
We quickly got to planning, booking two nights at historic Lenox Hotel and Suites, which opened in 1896. I still laugh, because we tried to choose the least expensive room and received the confirmation email: “Congratulations! You’ve chosen the cheapest room at the Lenox Hotel.” Please note, the italics were theirs.
From there, we got down to business researching the area. Herd Fest took place in the artistic and bohemian Allentown, which reminded us a lot of James Street North – a section of bars, restaurants, shops, and galleries, all really colourful and interesting. We later read that Allentown even has an event similar to Art Crawl, called “First Fridays Allentown” on the first Friday of the month, where you enjoy cultural attractions in the community. The area has re-invented itself as the go-to spot for live music, pubs, and bistros (much like our James N). They also have the annual Allentown Arts Festival and Allen West Festival, which exhibit national and local artists, musicians, and street performers. Another amazing parallel to Hamilton, reminding us of our Supercrawl. In fact, throughout our stay, Grant and I had fun finding the Buffalo equivalents of Hamilton venues and shops (and even people if we spotted any doppelgängers!).
We also spent a whole night in preparation, looking up all the bands that were scheduled throughout the two-day fest (which spanned six venues, nine showcases, and 43 acts) making notes of who we especially wanted to see. Each showcase was presented by a different friend to Buffablog – fellow groups who also throw events in the area and some record stores.
The day finally came, and after a quick stop in Fort Erie, it was smooth sailing over the border and then the Lenox Hotel was miraculously right there. After getting settled in the hotel, we took a walk down to Allentown to get the lay of the land. Just steps outside the hotel, I loved the area right away. There were so many trees and pretty landscapes along the street and amazing architecture. We learned that Allentown is one of the largest residential historic districts in the U.S. and is full of colourful Victorian and neoclassical homes. The architecture was one of my favourite aspects of the area. I couldn’t get over all of the bright houses. Even the outside of the bars were painted with vibrant murals.
Allentown was so ideal for a music festival because all of the bars were so close together. The way St. Catharines’ SCENE Fest does it – you have a wristband, know the band schedule, and hop around, catching as much as you can. Aside from a couple of afternoon showcases, all the shows were at night, which allowed time for exploring during our days.
Everyone we encountered was so nice and friendly. We felt immediately at home. It was also World Pride that weekend and I loved seeing all of the rainbow flags proudly waving in the breeze. It was fantastic to see that in the community.
Rust Belt Books was naturally the first spot that pulled us in. It has taken me so long to write this, that I see on their website that they will be moving, so I’m really glad we got to see that location.
Now, one of the funnest things to explore as a tourist is, of course, food. After scoping out the rest of the street and noting where all the venues were, our first Buffalo meal was at The Alley Cat. It was a casual spot with a nice atmosphere and friendly service. Grant and I were both drawn to their signature macaroni and cheese entrées – I went with the original while Grant had the one with stuffed banana peppers, which was right up his Alley (had to!). I got the salad and Grant got the soup that came with the dishes, both delicious. We were also given the rundown of beers. Trying out some new ones, I had Great Lakes Brewing Co.‘s Edmund Fitzgerald and Grant got the got the 21st Amendment Brewery‘s Brew Free! Or Die IPA (which we chose mainly for the cool-sounding names).
After a good feed, it was across the street to our first showcase, at College Street Gallery. It was very similar to one of the small spaces along James North here, like Factory Media Centre. There, we caught our first band Space Wolves. They’re a two-piece with a lo-fi, surfy, garage rock sound. The singer sang through a phone attached to the microphone, which was a neat effect. Right after them we caught a set by NYBRKFST.
From there, it was next door to Nietzsche’s. We compared this venue to This Ain’t Hollywood – dark, divey, and rock’n’roll. There were also some interesting bits of décor, like giant masks. There were two stages, a smaller one at the front, and a full stage at the back. Taking a breather, we grabbed drinks and caught a bit of Jony James Band on the small stage before moseying to our next stop. More on Nietzsche’s later – we would return the following night.
Our last stop for the night was the showcase at Allen Street Hardware. This layout was the coolest I saw all weekend. It was a restaurant in the front, and you pass through a narrow hallway to get to the back room, where the show took place. Back there was a different vibe altogether and it felt like you were walking into a party in someone’s home, like a really hip loft space. The lighting was really cool in there, they had a projection screen and, inexplicably, giant red letters spelling SEX across the back.
moverealfastSTOP were up first. Again, it took me so long to write this post that sadly the band is now defunct. They formed out of something called the Queen City Music Lottery, which sounds like a really cool concept (we should try that here!). In keeping with the unconventional way in which they were formed, their music was just as experimental-sounding. They were a quirky bunch, wearing matching clothes and visors and there was even a little gnome onstage, who I believe was supposed to represent a missing band member.
At one point, mid-song, as their electronic recording played on, the band rushed over to the bar and proceeded to do a series of shots. It was a funny thing which quickly became concerning as the shots went on and on, and they ended up each drinking 10! I still don’t know if that was for real or the bartender was in on it, and it was just for show, but that was something! Here’s hoping the excessive alcohol consumption did not contribute to their disbanding.
In between sets at Hardware there were poets and even a magician! I also loved that in between bands, the music turned into an early ’00s R&B dance party with Aaliyah, TLC, Destiny’s Child, and Sisqo blasting over the speakers. That gave me some future DJ set ideas.
Next up was Nela, followed by Psychic Teens. The majority of the bands featured at Herd Fest were from Western New York but Psychic Teens are from Philadelphia. This gothy-sounding, post-punk trio was the absolute loudest band we heard all weekend, and for me, potentially one of the loudest ever. Shoutout to the organizers of this showcase for selling earplugs! That’s also something I would like to see more of at shows here.
We were right up close to Psychic Teens as they launched into their set. The colourful lights went out and were replaced by a flashing strobe light. The band is so solid; we were really impressed. It was sensory overload in that small space. After their set, Grant bought their latest record, COME, on vinyl and a t-shirt, as we chatted with a band member. Grant and I agreed that the band would go over really well here in Hamilton too.
There was one more band at this showcase, followed by DJs, but we called it a night in order to hit the streets early the following day.
The day began with a stroll to Allentown in search of coffee. We happened upon Cafe Taza which was a little spot, mainly for walk-ins, with a few seats inside. It had a Homegrown Hamilton vibe and we were happy to grab coffees to-go and continue exploring.
Next on the agenda was to hit up all of the antique shops we spotted the day before. Most of the prices were fantastic and there were so many treasures to marvel at. Grant picked up a bunch of cool stuff, including a lamp that was just what he was looking for. It’s always so great when you have a specific image in your mind, and then you find it. Some of the shops we visited included Antiques Allentown, Antique Man, and Ziggy’s.
After the antiquing, it was time for food. We spotted Jim’s Steakout the day before and it seemed like a very American thing to do – to get a hoagie! Jim’s has 11 locations across Western New York. I had the Veggie Hoagie which was loaded with fried sweet peppers, onions, and mushrooms, topped with melted provolone, lettuce, tomato, and Jim’s secret sauce (whatever that is!). Grant got the “Jimmy” (which is actually hilarious, now that I think about it – Baltimore House co-owner Jimmy Skembaris was with us in spirit) and that had steak with a stuffed hot banana pepper on top, melted cheese and Jim’s secret sauce. Buffalo sure knows how to treat Grant – stuffed peppers all around!
The Lenox Hotel being so close to everything, it was perfect for a rest stop. We did a ton of walking on the second day, but that’s really the best way to explore. Allentown was within walking distance from downtown so we hiked down there to see the architecture and take some photos. It was so picturesque that a newlywed couple was even having their wedding photos taken at the foot of the buildings (we were tempted to photobomb).
There was more walking ahead for us as we ventured back the other way and even further past the main strip of Allentown. We hit Spiral Scratch Records for one of Herd Fest’s afternoon showcases. My modest record collection was only a couple of months in at the time, so now I want to dig in a little more next time I’m in town and get some new records. The interior of the record shop was light neon green and they had a retro pinball machine. Like our Dr. Disc which sometimes has bands play downstairs, the showcase took place in the basement. We caught The Poison Arrows play in the dark, tight space, and I couldn’t get over how much the space looked like Grant’s own basement. It felt like a house show.
Being prime patio weather, we staked out a good rest stop in Epic Restaurant & Lounge across the street. Expanding our beverage horizons again, I had Ithaca Beer Co.’s Flower Power (“The spirit of the finger lakes”!) and Grant had the Two Hearted Ale by Bell’s Beer (the bartender complimented our choices). Seated in the sunshine, it was really nice. We needed a pause before the hike back to the hotel.
That evening, before hitting our next couple of shows, we chose to eat at a place we spotted during our walks – Gabriel’s Gate. It felt really cozy in there, especially at night. Lots of rich wood and blue light, and eclectic décor like a lit-up neon blue and purple fish tank, and some Native American influences as well.
We knew that no Buffalo trip would be complete without Buffalo wings (we even bought a postcard that pictured an image of a buffalo – made out of Buffalo wings). Grant got a Caesar salad with grilled chicken on top as a first course before the wings, but didn’t realize it would be so huge. It was a meal in itself. I got the taco salad and, my goodness, look at that beast! I gobbled it up impressively well, but we did have to tote our leftovers back to our room before hitting the bars.
Then it was back to Nietzsche’s to see a show on the main stage in the back. It was a neat setup, with standing room in front of the stage and then tables and seats on either side of the room, on raised platforms. Up there, it felt like we were sitting in our own private box. The paparazzi even caught us – we ended up with our photo on Buffalo News (see photo below).
We caught Strange Acres, who had been on our list to see. They have a chilled-out electronic sound and lead singer Molly Grace has an incredible range. She is an expressive and emotive singer, feeling every word.
The other major venue that we had to hit was Duke’s Bohemian Grove Bar. As mentioned, each showcase was hosted by a different friend to Buffablog, but this one was the blog’s own showcase. We saw Mac McGuire around throughout the weekend and were able to chat, so it was fitting to end with seeing him introduce this final showcase.
We got to see Del Paxton perform as our final Herd Fest hurrah. They’re an indie, emo rock style trio and seem to be one of the bigger local Buffalo bands. They just announced this month that they have signed with Topshelf Records, based out of San Diego.
From there, it was back to the hotel to conk after a long day. We had to be up in the morning to check out, and of all nights, there was a party happening across the hall. Buffalo was goin’ hard on a Saturday night. So we were quite fatigued the next day which was then prolonged by a good couple of hours of traffic when crossing back over the border to our home and native land. But we made it safe and sound.
Grant and I still talk about this mini road trip – it was so much fun and we hope to return. When we got back, we shared some of the music on an episode of I Heart Hamilton on 93.3 CFMU. Mac McGuire of Buffablog even tuned in and tweeted during the show. It was awesome to make this connection.
Huge thank you to Buffablog again for reaching out! Herd Fest was exceptionally well organized, complete with a cool program booklet I have as a souvenir. Very impressive for just their first fest. Next for them, Buffablog celebrates its 5th anniversary at Nietzsche’s on March 28th and the second Herd Fest is in the works again for this June.