Band on the Run: Rockin’ Out in Buffalo’s Allentown

Ember Swift, Canadian musician and touring performer, will be keeping us up-to-date on what it’s like to tour a band throughout North America. Having just arrived back from Beijing where she spent three months (check out her “Canadian in Beijing” series), she offers a musician’s perspective on road life.

We drove over the border yesterday to a sunny early evening in Allentown, a Buffalo neighbourhood that was the location of our gig last night – a bar called “Nietzsche’s.”

is cool. It’s got the vibe of a community of artists, preservationists, historians, antique-lovers, and good chefs. The latter was easy to peg via the smells of incredible cooking coming from several local restaurants and taunting our hungry selves when we really needed to be unloading equipment and setting up for sound check.

This district of Buffalo is one that we’ve been in many times. I always feel comfortable here. It’s an area of the city that borders the downtown and seems to embrace diversity. There are rainbow flags and biker bars, gourmet restaurants and late-night snack stands, funky modern galleries flanked by dusty bookstores.

One of the bookstores also sold music and had displays of their used cds and cassettes in old-fashioned kids’ wagons out on the sidewalk. Love it!


Historically, I learned last night that Allentown was named after the original settler to this land, Louis Allen, who bought the land in 1822 (around 29 acres) and used it to farm cattle. It is said that this very street, Allen Street, was his original cow path for transferring his herds from one edge of his property to the other. In 1832, he sold his land to the encroaching city and it was developed into both residential and commercial structures. Now, the Allentown region stretches 36 blocks or a half a mile squared.

After the gear was hauled in (thanks to some friends and Kenny, the resident and helpful sound guy), I stood on the street and just looked left and right to take it all in. I imagined a bunch of cows in place of the pedestrians and cars. I wondered how they’d react now to the pavement, the bright colours, the sounds of a nightlife hub starting to come alive in the early evening. Maybe they’d just graze the leaves of low-hanging trees and ignore us all. Maybe they’d leave their paddies expertly deposited on the sidewalks in disgust and wander away to greener parklands.

I wandered a block or so to truly appreciate the paint job on the local bar called “Boddington’s.” (At least, I think this is the name of it, although I know that’s also the name for a beer. Does anyone know?) It’s painted purple and decked out in rising flames as though it were a motorcycle or hot rod. They’re beautifully painted – must have taken forever! – and the neon beer signs in the windows were like the feather in the artist’s cap.

When I came back in a few minutes later, the gear was already half set up and I had to hustle to catch up to everyone. I unpacked my guitars and pedals plugging everything in while simultaneously chatting with Kenny about his last six months or so since we’ve been there last. He asked me about China and I asked him about some good artists he’d mixed lately.

It’s always nice to come to a place and actually know the people there. I always feel welcomed at Nietzsche’s.

This venue is definitely a rock room. The old wooden stage and banisters have the faint stench of stale beer and cigarettes (although it’s now non-smoking in there.) Maybe its name has inspired proliferation, but the bathrooms are home to so much graffiti that it takes a long time to pee, I find. I can’t help but read peoples’ philosophical outpourings. (It’s all well-placed, I’d say!) There are also great installations of paper mache artwork hanging in the room from the ceiling and a wonderful busted and slightly crooked ceiling fan that hangs right in front of the stage. I always laugh inwardly at the notion that at least there will be one fan, crooked or not, that will be in front of the stage when we play.

Kenny also has a collection of small tinker toys and dinky cars that are permanently stationed at his soundboard. I asked him if he ever finds some have disappeared after the shows he has in there. They’re fairly visible and my pessimistic self figured there’d be some drunken theft here and there. He said, “Yeah, of course. But, they all just appeared anyway so it doesn’t really make a difference.” I smiled at that idea. I liked the image of these little toys just coming and going as they were meant to, not permanently attached to his sound board or to the decorative role they are temporarily playing. Sort of like a toy liberation movement. People as pawns.

After the show, we hung out for a while in the parking lot with friends before pulling away from Allen Street and staying just a few blocks away, still in Allentown. We rarely stay over in Buffalo since it’s often just a one-off show that enables us to return to friend’s places in Toronto after we play, but the tour rolls on today into more U.S. cities.

I woke up this morning having dreamed about cows and toys taking over the city when the people have all disappeared. Buildings crumbled, trees growing out from broken windows and grass taking back the asphalt.

I guess we’ll never know.

Until that day, Allentown‘s worth a visit. In fact, a spontaneous night out to Nietzsche’s will probably introduce you to a great band you’ve never heard of. They have music every night and sometimes even a late and an early show.

When was the last time you did that?
Ignore the listings. Just take a stab.

Order a drink.

See what happens.