By Elmer Ploetz
JAM Editor

Basic truth of life: everybody can use some live music in their life.

It was almost as if I had to be reminded of it over the past couple of months, and Saturday’s (April 29, that is) Pine Dogs show really drove it home.

I wonder how many people out there have become music hermits in the wake of Covid? I know I have, at least to some degree. My life patterns changed. Bernie the Beagle, our pandemic puppy, changed up our priorities a bit, and recorded music is always at hand.

But I was in a dismal mood toward the end of March.

First there was the Springsteen show on March 23. Or in my case, the not-Springsteen show. When I saw ticket prices, I gave up thoughts of going. With the wacky ticketing schemes they’re using now, I probably could have gotten tickets at well under the $315 minimum I saw when the show was announced (if my memory is right on that number).

I refuse to play that game, though, even though Springsteen is perhaps the only performer I would even consider going to see in an arena anymore. But when so many of your friends are going … and saying what a great show it was … well, talk about peer pressure!

The following day, Irving Klaws played the Revolution Gallery, but I couldn’t make it for personal and family reasons. The same went for the McCarthyizm show at the downtown library on March 25 and the Szelest Fest event at the Sportsmen’s Tavern on March 26.

The bad thing about all of the great music in the Buffalo area is that it means you’re always missing some, and  that particular week left me feeling like there was an empty corner in my heart.  But the great thing  about Buffalo is that there’s always more music.

Will Johnson

In this case, the stars finally aligned. On Monday, March 27, I got a reminder that my friend Marty Boratin was hosting a house show with Will Johnson, the guy behind Centro-Matic and other alt-country shows. It was four miles away from my house. I went.

Will Johnson is a singer in the Townes Van Zandt category. Smart. Literary. Bleak as all hell. As Marty has been known to say after a show by similar artists, “hey, great show … I think I’ll go kill myself!”

But it was a great show. And it had the exact opposite effect. Sitting in a living room with maybe 25 other people, many of them long-time friends, listening to Johnson’s stories and songs reminded me of the power of live performance to enrich our spirits. Amidst the tales of hell-bound souls was a sense of depth.

My favorite lines? From the song “Bloody Boxer,” Johnson sang:

And nothing hurts like the quiet
And there’s no healing like moonlight
I am accustomed to this battle every night
And long ago, my mother taught
Me about the crucial act of simply showing up
And though I’ll fail, I’ll try my best
To replicate her unrelenting love 

Since then, the music has been coming more often.

Stress Dolls – the duo version

There was another house show at Marty’s, with the two-person version of the Stress Dolls opening for Chicago singer-songwriter Nora O’Connor. O’Connor was very good, but the real joy was in getting a chance to see Chelsea O’Donnell and Sally Schaefer, two young performers I’ve known for a long time,  in a listening room kind of venue where their playing was easy to pick up and you could actually hear the lyrics.

After that, it was on to Peter Case at the Sportsmen’s Tavern, where he played with Jim Whitford and Mark Winsick (his old friends from his Hamburg days) and drummer Rob Lynch. Case never disappoints, but he and the band were really on point that night. Ben de la Cour, whom I had heard before, opened up with some solo songs with wickedly good lyrics (I’ve since realized that two of my favorite songs are taken from book titles: “Appalachian Book of the Dead” and “In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash”).

Peter Case (right) with Jim Whitford and Mark Winsick

Last week I got a chance to hear Kody & Herren play some of the songs from their upcoming CD release live, but that’s a topic for another piece this month. It was a chance to catch up with friends and hear their new songs, although not in a listening room context. For that, you can catch their release show at the Springville Center for the Arts’ Arts Cafe on May 20.

Finally, there was the Pine Dogs reunion show. … Wow.

I’ll confess that there were tears in my eyes at least a few times. Needing to remember to exhale. Part of the emotional impact was just seeing all five Pine Dogs — Whitford, Gretchen Schulz, Don Vincent, Tom Fischer, Jim Celeste) together on stage for the first time in what seemed like forever (but was actually 14 or 17 years).

Part of it was just how good the band sounded. Part of it was flashing back to the 1990s, when the Pine Dogs, Steam Donkeys and Scott Carpenter & the Real McCoys were my go-to Western New York bands and were local Americana legends. And a lot of it was reliving a certain era of my life when the Pine Dogs were a big part of it.

The Pine Dogs

Now a few decades removed, it was easy to see and remember the little details that always made the Pine Dogs greater than the sum of their parts. There was the way the voices of Schulz, Whitford and Vincent were all so close in range that their harmonies seemed understated but perfect. The way Schulz and Vincent together sound like the Everly Brothers. The fact that, as Whitford reminded us, Schulz is not only a great singer but a great rhythm guitar player. There was the kind of playful banter that always added fun to the shows.

And the songs! The Pine Dogs had — and have — songs that most bands would kill for and that would have made them national level stars in a just world, if only the world were just. Almost all of the songs were unfamiliar with anybody outside of the Buffalo area or those cool enough to catch the band’s regional shows back in the day. But for those at the Sportsmen’s on Saturday, those songs were like our “Born to Run” or “Satisfaction” or any of Tom Petty’s hits.  The crowd was singing along with them the same way. Rock ‘n’ roll never forgets.

But perhaps the biggest aspect was the sense of community as the band came back together and its community reunited too. There’s a lot to be said for the bonds that performers forge with their audience.

The music still has to be great, and here in Western New York we’re blessed with a multitude of great songwriters and performers. The SAM Foundation is one of the groups dedicated to celebrating them.

But there’s a lot to be said for joining with friends to immerse yourself in the music. And when the musicians have become friends as well, it’s even deeper and better.

I realize I love Springsteen and his music, but I don’t need him to feed my soul. For me, I need performers like the Pine Dogs, Peter Case, the Stress Dolls and Kody & Herren and I need the friends who are there with us.


The Editor

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  • Steven Strickland says:

    Im glad my blurry eyed nostalgia was shared by most that day. They hit another level in their music and i was so lucky to share in the creative fires they kindled. Just great human hearts sharing a facet of our humanity. I am changed by that show.

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