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When I arrived in Buffalo during the summer of 1990, the Thursday at the Square free concert series was discussed among local musicians as “a stroller gig.” It was a family-friendly event, with plenty of room within its Lafayette Square setting for parents to push their children around in strollers, for hacky sacks to be kicked and for impromptu dancing. On Thursday, the freshly christened Canalside Concert Series, an outgrowth of the original Thursday at the Square series, announced its summer concert lineup. That lineup stands in stark contrast to the “stroller gig” era.

This lineup certainly has its fair share of highlights, including free concerts featuring moe., Sam Roberts Band, Gord Downie & the Sadies, Sheila E. and Shaggy and the ticketed Tedeschi-Trucks Band concert. But there is the occasional head-scratcher (Extreme), and the just plain odd man out (Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra). The BPO playing the music of Earth Wind and Fire and Michael Jackson seems, on paper at least, like an ill fit for the series. Then again, this booking is certainly something different for Canalside, and perhaps it will turn out to be super funky, a dance party, and the surprise hit of the summer season.

Thursday at the Square officially moved all of its summer programming to Canalside in 2011, after the crowds drawn to the series had consistently outgrown the original site’s ability to accommodate them. It was not unusual for more than 10,000 people to attend a Square gig, and the vast space at Canalside immediately proved a better fit.

What was lost in the process? Intimacy, and any trace elements of the “stroller gig.”

What was gained? A series held on prime waterfront property, boasting a diverse concert lineup that sought to please a broad demographic base with high-profile headliners and, often, prominent local acts in supporting roles.

This year’s lineup – the first to be announced since Philadelphia venue management corporation Global Spectrum took over event management at Canalside earlier this year from Buffalo Place, which had handled the series for some 14 years previous – is very much in keeping with what has been offered at Canalside since the move.

But there are a few glaring changes that are likely to affect the concert experience for the tens of thousands of concertgoers expected to attend Canalside shows this summer.

First, although the 10 Thursday shows scheduled between June 12 and Aug. 14 will all be free, for the first time, the area directly in front of the stage will be reserved for those who purchase a $40 VIP ticket, which also will guarantee access to a VIP tent with beer, wine, appetizers and VIP restrooms. Canalside is not the first to adopt the VIP idea – Artpark for example, has been doing a similar thing for several years now. However, one holdover from the Square days allowed the front-of-stage area at Canalside to be available to anyone, on a first-come, first-served basis. If you have been a regular attendee at the Thursday shows over the years, you surely are familiar with “the dancing guy” and “the air-guitar guy,” who would attend every gig religiously, be the first through the gates to claim a spot near the front. No more. Those days are over.

Another first: Canalside will be presenting a “Battle of the Bands” series, in which local artists will compete to land an opening slot for one of the gigs. On five Sunday evenings between June 8 and July 27, Canalside will host these “battles,” open to the public.

The “Battle of the Bands” offers the opportunity for additional programming at Canalside, a chance for local artists to play before potentially large crowds, and additional entertainment for concertgoers. On the other hand, it remains unclear, at press time, how the bands will be chosen for the competition, who will do the “judging,” and whether or not local artists will be paid for their services. Is this a great opportunity for local artists, or merely another opportunity to be exploited?

Another new event, “Music & Dance,” will be held from 7 to 9 p.m. Wednesdays from July 9 to Aug. 27. It features local instructors teaching basics to novice dancers. After the 45-minute session, there will be two 30-minute dance sessions with set to live music. Here’s the schedule: July 9, swing; July 16, tango; July 23, ballroom; July 30, salsa; Aug. 6, swing; Aug. 13, tango; Aug. 20, ballroom; and Aug. 27, salsa. Free.

email: jmiers@buffnews.com