The Rolling Stones – Ralph Wilson Stadium (Orchard Park, NY), 7.11.15

CARLOS ORTIZ, staff photographer, Democrat and Chronicle

CARLOS ORTIZ, staff photographer, Democrat and Chronicle

 

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When I sent this text to my friend Alex after hearing that the Rolling Stones would be playing the stadium that was home to the Buffalo Bills, it was more observational than anything else. I didn’t recall any concerts being played at the Ralph since I became a fan and the idea of the Rolling Stones treading the same ground as a routinely disappointing football team seemed like a surprising juxtaposition. I kind of assumed the response would be “Yeah that’s weird and/or surprising” and that would have been the end of the story. Instead, last Saturday I found myself in one of the luxury suites at the stadium, having a blast while the Stone rocked on before me. I lead an interesting life.

I wasn’t hinting in my text about going to see the Stones primarily because I didn’t think that anyone else would be interested. While in the great rock and roll divide I am #teamBeatles rather than #teamStones, partially because my indoctrination of the former came much earlier in my life and was far more prolonged, I’d always harbored something of a secret desire to see Mick Jagger and company live and in person. Just because if push came to shove I preferred the Beatles didn’t mean that I also didn’t really like the Rolling Stones as well; they always seemed edgier and more pure rock and roll than the Beatles and my affinity for bad boys, at least in theory, is well established. So since the idea of a Stones farewell tour began cropping up in the 80s, it had been an item that was bucket list adjacent.

However, going to see the Rolling Stones has always been an issue of cost/benefit analysis. They tend to only play big stadiums and their ticket prices are not cheap. Add in the fact that the members of the band aren’t exactly spring chickens and there was also the question of the quality of the show. While I’ve seen Springsteen – a guy in his sixties – play a three hour concert barely breaking a sweat, he hasn’t lived the lives that the Stones have. The members of the Stones look old; it’s frankly a medical miracle that Keith Richards is even still alive, let alone on stage playing his guitar. I didn’t want to spend a lot of money on a show where it was a bunch of old guys that were shadows of their former selves. Not only is that a waste of my hard earned cold hard cash, that’s just a sad concert experience.

However, apparently some sort of higher power decided that seeing the Stones was something that I should do, since the star aligned so not only would I see the Stones in Buffalo, but I would see them from a luxury box for free. Now the stakes were very low – even if they didn’t put on a show that was all that great, I wouldn’t have invested much beyond my time and I’d be chilling in one of the suites, feeling like a VIP. Honestly, the fact that I wouldn’t have to share a bathroom with the masses was reason enough to be excited about the situation in which I found myself; anything else would be gravy.

We arrived at the Ralph early, so we got to spend some time hanging out in the parking lot before the gates opened. This brought back many fond memories of the years when I had season tickets to the Bills and would spend my mornings tailgating before the game. For a variety of reasons, I haven’t been back to the stadium since 2012 so going to a concert here was a nice little homecoming for me. It was weird to not see people fully decked out in Bills gear, though there was more than I expected to see. The #12 Kelly jerseys had been replaced with Rolling Stones concert t-shirts. Apparently Stones fans haven’t gotten the memo about not wearing the shirt of the band that you are going to see.

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We made our way inside and we were the first people to arrive at the suite, which is probably for the best because we were totally geeking out about it. If other people had been there we would have acted blasé like we hang out in suites all the time, but since it was just us for the time being we could be impressed at all the amenities that we had at our disposal. We weren’t sure what the food situation was going to be – we didn’t want to assume that someone sprung for that as well – but there were snacks everywhere and the attendant invited us to help ourselves to anything in the fully stocked mini-fridge. They told us that the main food would be brought in later and that we should just let them know if we wanted anything (I wanted to put them to the test to see if they could find me a phone charger, but didn’t want to push my luck). The staff couldn’t have been nicer. I adapted to the high life pretty quickly.

The only “downside” of the suite was its location relevant to the stage; the suite was located at the far end of the stadium so we didn’t have a particularly close view:

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This wasn’t really an issue, as we still had a pretty great sightline to the stage and there were giant video screens that flanked both sides of the stage. I had brought binoculars just in case, but we never really used them. It turns out that distance only does the Stones some favors; I really don’t need to see Mick, Keith or the other guys all that up close and personal. There was also a long catwalk section of the stage and when anyone was on that we could see their facial expressions fairly clearly without having to rely on the video screens.

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The Rolling Stones took the stage at 9:30 pm and immediately kicked things into high gear with “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and really never took their foot off the gas pedal. Any fears that I had about their semi-advanced age (for rock stars) was immediately dispelled; Mick Jagger may be 71 years old, but that man moves like he’s in this 30s. He danced and strutted and ran around that stage like a man half his age and his voice sounded absolutely great. That youthful exuberance extended to the rest of the band as well; Keith Richards may look like death warmed over, but that man can still rock out on his guitar. He even took lead vocals on two songs that I didn’t know (“Before They Make Me Run” and “Happy”) and sounded pretty great as well. The rest of the band may not have had the same level of energy that Jagger did, but they easily worked the stage and didn’t miss a note. Ronnie Wood had a pretty great pair of red sneakers on that made me laugh every time they showed them and also had a cigarette dangling from his mouth for much of the show. If this is what they were like in concert as the elder statesmen of rock and roll, I can only imagine what it was like to see them in their prime. They were electric and exciting and could still melt your face off.

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The band primarily stuck to their hits, which is easy to do when you have a catalog of songs like the Rolling Stones do. There were also several costume changes throughout the night and I can tell you that Jagger’s amazingly svelte physique was the talk of the ladies’ bathroom; he’s so lithe and lively and as thin as he ever was that he is kind of like a live wire jumping across the stage. It’s a little depressing to know that Jagger has a smaller waist than I do.

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The show just flew by and in no time flat the band had been on stage for over two hours. While it was all great, there were some particular highlights: for “Sympathy for the Devil,” the stage was engulfed in (faux) flames and Jagger came out in a red feather boa jacket that was both ridiculous and amazing.

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I have a particular fondness for “Start Me Up,” so that was pretty tremendous to see live. I was torn on the audience request song that they played; before the show fans were supposed to vote to select which song the band would play and while they played the option that I liked the best – “Let’s Spend the Night Together” – that meant that they didn’t play another song that I also really like, “She’s So Cold.” If this is my biggest disappointment of the night, that’s a pretty great show. By far my favorite moment of the evening was their performance of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” both because that is my favorite Stones song of all time but also because they brought a local choir out on stage with them. What a thrill for that choir and it sounded amazing. The whole show had much better sound quality than I expected for a stadium show; my only complaint was that occasionally the music was so loud that it drowned out Mick a little bit. It didn’t happen often and for all I know that was by design to mask some of the harder notes.

Some other thoughts:

  • Because the NFL sucks and doesn’t like its female fans, purses are supposed to be banned from the stadium. Women are allowed to bring in a clutch that is the size of their hand or a clear bag of a certain size. Since I am a rule follower who also tends to drop things, this was my purse for the evening:

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So believe me when I tell you I was super pissed to see so many women inside the stadium with their designer bags. Apparently the policy was applied haphazardly at best, which means my beautiful Coach bag was sitting at home while I looked like an idiot with this stupid plastic purse.

  • One of the funnier moments of the evening was when Mick Jagger told a Tom Brady joke. I’m sure he was told to tell it (it involved deflategate), but it still showed an excellent reading of his audience and got a big laugh even if it wasn’t all that hilarious.

 

  • The opening band, St. Paul & the Broken Bones, were fine; they were primarily a bluesy band, which isn’t necessarily my thing, but they ended the set with an excellent cover of “Try a Little Tenderness.”

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  • I became friendly with the Sheriffs that were providing security and even was put in charge of watching some of their gear during the show. Always smart to become pals with law enforcement.

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  • For dessert, they brought these cookies in to the suite:

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All in all, it was a really spectacular night; the only real sour note was our experience getting out of the parking lot of the stadium. We sat for over an hour before making it out on to the street, partially because there was no one directing traffic so it was a bit of a free-for-all with people creating their own lanes only to then have everyone have to merge into one lane to actually exit. This is a nightmare on game day as well and is the one thing that the staff at the Ralph don’t execute well at all. There was also the issue of navigating ourselves back to Rochester, as Siri kept directing us in ways that would either re-route us right back into traffic jams or that were impassable as they closed down some roads by the stadium. Thankfully, I have some sort of muscle memory for getting out of the stadium and back on the Thruway (I always drove us home from games), so I remembered a back way that got us away from all the other cars and back on our way home. But even that headache and frustration couldn’t really dampen what was a really incredible night. We got to be spoiled by our luxurious location as well as see a great concert and meet some new people. The evening far exceeded my expectations and I really couldn’t have hoped for a better Rolling Stones experience. I’m so glad that I finally got the chance to see them live; the Stones more than lived up to their rock and roll legacy. I’m so very thankful to the people that made this happen for me.

Setlist:

Jumpin’ Jack Flash

It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll (But I Like It)

You Got Me Rocking

Tumbling Dice

Out of Control

Wild Horses

Can’t You Hear Me Knocking

Let’s Spend the Night Together (by request)

Honky Tonk Women

Before They Make Me Run

Happy

Midnight Rambler

Miss You

Gimme Shelter

Start Me Up

Sympathy for the Devil

Brown Sugar

Encore:

You Can’t Always Get What You Want

(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction

 

The Great Chicken Wing Hunt – A Review

When I became a Bills fan, I had no idea at the time that I would also unofficially wind up adopting the city of Buffalo. But after so many years of making the trek to Orchard Park, I really couldn’t help but have a soft spot in my heart for the good people of Buffalo. Spending so much time out there, I got to meet a lot of residents of the city and the one thing that you have to respect about Buffalonians is their passion and their general optimism. Buffalo is a city that hasn’t had a lot to be excited about in the last few decades; as the country shifted from an industrial to a service based economy, old cities like Buffalo that relied heavily on factories for their economic development got left in the dust. A once thriving metropolis now has a lot of empty buildings and the region of Western New York is now economically depressed. Add in the cold and the snow and you wouldn’t think that the people of Buffalo have a lot to be excited about. But talk to anyone that resides in or near Buffalo and it will quickly become apparent that they are passionate about two things: the area sports teams and chicken wings.

Exhibit A

Exhibit A

 

While the former has not necessarily been a source of joy over the years, the fact that Buffalo, New York is the home of the chicken wing has consistently been something to brag about. It is a source of pride and if you want to really rile up Buffalonians, ask them the best place to get wings. I guarantee you that a spirited debate will ensue. Blood may be shed. Chicken wings are serious business in this part of the country.

It was this type of enthusiasm for the chicken wing that led Matt Reynolds, a native of the Buffalo area, to quit his job as a journalist and set out with a group of friends in search of the perfect Buffalo chicken wing. Over the course of nearly three weeks, his ragtag group of judges traveled 2,627 miles and tried 284 varieties of wings. This quest is the basis of his debut documentary, The Great Chicken Wing Hunt.

Now I am not Buffalo wing purist; in fact, on the occasion that I order wings I tend to get flavored sauces over the basic Buffalo wing. As someone who is a total wimp when it comes to spicy food, I find that it is way too risky to order Buffalo wings; on several occasions, I have been burned (pun intended) when I ordered mild wings that were still too spicy for me. Since every restaurant has a different conception of how spicy various wings should be, I’ve simply decided that it is too unpredictable to risk my delicate palate. Therefore, you are more likely to find me chowing down on honey mustard or garlic parmesan wings than wings coated with the traditional Buffalo sauce.

But that doesn’t mean that I can’t appreciate the search for the perfect Buffalo wing, so when I heard that The Great Chicken Wing Hunt would be playing for one night in Albany, I decided that it would be a good distraction from the bitter cold and a nice way to support a small documentary by a semi-local guy. A lot of other people in the area must have had the same idea, as the film showed to a packed house (who, I am happy to report, did NOT talk during the movie).

The Great Chicken Wing Hunt was a tremendously fun and enjoyable documentary; while the film was ostensively about finding the perfect wing, it was also about the interplay of the various personalities of the hunters and the search for perfection. This was a spectacularly humorous film; I can’t remember the last time I laughed this much watching a documentary. It was certainly funnier that a lot of films that bill themselves as comedies (Delivery Man, I’m looking at you).

The hunters took their search for the perfect wing very seriously and had a very detailed score card that they used to judge the wing on a variety of factors, including sauce, meat, heat and overall flavor. Before setting out on their journey, all the hunters ate and rated a batch of “control wings” that served as a baseline for future evaluation, which made the social scientist part of me very proud. This may have been a somewhat frivolous subject matter, but they did not take their approach lightly. The gang then set out to various restaurants in what they dubbed “the wing belt” – the stretch of New York State from New York City to Buffalo. They tended toward independent restaurants, but chains were not automatically disqualified from consideration. At each restaurant they tried a variety of wings – to be considered a Buffalo wing, it must be a deep-fried unbreaded wing, coated in pepper-vinegar sauce and butter – and then made their rating. The scores of the group were then averaged to reach the final score for the restaurant. For most of their journey, the group ate nothing but chicken wings; they would often visit five restaurants in a day.

While watching people eat wings may not sound exciting, the great cast of characters that are assembled in the film make this a fascinating journey. These are people who know their wings and they are so descriptive in their assessments that you almost feel like you are eating the wings right along with them. Over the course of the film, you get glimpses into the personal lives of the hunters: one is a competitive eater, while another is on the trip as a way to escape the frequent layoffs at his job. All the hunters have some sort of interesting backstory and you learn just enough about them that you are curious for more. The focus is on the wings, but they add their own type of flavor to the film.

The documentary also is about the journey to find the perfect wing and not just about the destination. Along the way, there are some deeper issues raised about if perfection even exists, relationships, nostalgia and American identity. The documentary never gets too heavy nor does it delve too deeply into these larger issues, but these considerations lend some gravitas to what they are doing and make you think. I wasn’t expecting that from a film about chicken wings.

The audience that I saw the film with was great; they were respectful of other movie goers, but there were definite murmurs of recognition at the various restaurants that they stopped at and even occasionally gasps when favorite places did not do as well in the rankings as anticipated. The hunters had stopped in Albany as part of their tour, so of course there was an enthusiastic reaction for that portion of the film. I was surprised to discover that of the restaurants that they tried in Albany, almost all of them were within a three mile radius of my apartment. I have apparently been living in the center of the Albany wing mecca and I had no idea.

After the film there was a Q&A with the director, who proved to be as affable and charming as he was in his film. Usually I hate audience Q&A because the quality of questions is terrible and people tend to ramble on and on, but all of the questions at the screening were well thought out and interesting. Matt gave good answers as well, so the post film discussion actually only increased my enjoyment of the film. That almost never happens. A friend of mine actually won the award for asking the best question, which was a nice bonus (Good job, Deb!)

You can’t watch a documentary about chicken wings and then NOT go get wings afterward, so a group of us followed up the film with a stop at one of the restaurants that was featured in the film (Dorato’s for local peeps). I had actually never even heard of this restaurant prior to the film, despite the closeness to my home, so it was good to give the place a try and I was really hankering for some wings at that point. I don’t know that they were the best wing I ever had – I went with the mild Buffalo wing in the spirit of the film – but they were enjoyable and it was great company, so it was a nice end to the evening. There were several Buffalo natives in the group, so naturally the topic of conversation turned to the Bills. It was probably the most Buffalonian evening that you could have outside of Buffalo.

Some other quick thoughts:

  • There was a separate category for “novelty” wings, which derivate from the traditional Buffalo wings formula. During the Q&A I was happy to find out that the Maple Whiskey wings at Bomber’s (a place I frequent and wings that I enjoy) did well in this portion of the competition. Sadly, my favorite wings locally (the “moonshine” wings at Junior’s) were not part of their hunt.
  • Unfortunately, one of the places that they tried in Albany is recently closed, so I can’t try their wings. R.I.P., Sutter’s.
  • I’ll be very curious to see how this film plays in Rochester and Buffalo, since some local favorites did not do particularly well in the rankings.
  • I will never understand people who don’t love blue cheese; to me, that’s a large part of what makes chicken wings great. And don’t even get me started on people who dip their wings in ranch. Savages!
  • I’ll admit that I never gave much thought to the invention of the Buffalo wing before this movie; it seems surprising that it was such a relatively recent creation (and that was legendarily born out of accident).
  • This hunt was apparently a big deal  – they received a lot of media attention and were even on the radio locally – yet I have absolutely no memory of this transpiring.
  • Even though I am not a huge fan of Buffalo wings proper, I feel inspired to check out some of the places that were featured in the film next time I’m in Western New York.

I would highly recommend The Great Chicken Wing Hunt; you don’t even need to be a wing enthusiast to enjoy this documentary, thanks to the colorful cast of characters and their dedication to their search. This is easily one of the more entertaining documentaries that I’ve seen and you’ll be surprised how invested you become in their search. I found myself rooting for one particular winner despite the fact that I’ve never tasted their wings. Matt Reynolds and company put together a thoroughly entertaining film; just don’t go see it on an empty stomach.

The Great Chicken Wing Hunt is currently available on iTunes and is playing various cities and festivals. For more information on the film and the restaurants that they went to, check out the documentary’s website.