When Mr. West woke up the fest
Alumni, critics and fans reflect on Kanye West’s historic 2005 Fall Fest performance
Kanye West wasn’t a big fan of presidents in 2005 and he probably never expected to dap one up when he visited Alumni Arena on Oct. 21 of that year.
But Dela Yador –– the 2005 Student Association president –– thinks about his encounter with West often.
He remembers waiting in the basement of Alumni and hearing the words “Oh, you’re the president,” followed by a friendly welcome from an artist who was on his way to becoming a 21-Grammy winning, eight Billboard No. 1 album-earning superstar.
When Yador looks back on that day, however, he doesn’t just think about his encounter with West. He thinks about the impact he left on the student body by bringing the rapper and producer –– fresh off the release of his sophomore LP “Late Registration” –– to campus.
“Now they can tell their kids they saw Kanye perform on tour in Buffalo,” Yador said. “They can tell their friends who were at other schools that Kanye West performed in ‘05. I love that people can take away those memories and still get reminded of it now, 14 years later.”
Fourteen years ago, West announced his 2005 “Touch The Sky Tour” and the fourth stop, snuggled inside the 44-city spectacle of an announcement, was Alumni Arena. The arguably soon-to-be artist of a generation came to campus for a special two-hour set as part of Fall Fest 2005, rocked a UB T-shirt while playing through “All Falls Down” and took the venue of 6,000 on a trip into the mind of a musical genius. And despite some students complaining to The Spectrum in 2005 about West’s set “dragging on,” many look back and see the show as historic.
Preparing for the pink polo
Yador and his team had some things to figure out before fans could “Touch The Sky” in Alumni.
He remembers talking about Fall Fest with his staff beginning in June of 2005. Some names that students requested were far out of SA’s budget at the time and were “always on the list,” but Yador knew West was on the radar from the jump.
“I was definitely a Kanye fan, from early on. From ‘College Dropout,’ even before that from the mixtape scene, I thought he was super dope,” Yador said. “And I thought his audience was such a diverse audience. I really thought that was a good reflection of entertainment that would’ve been a good look for UB at the time.”
When Yador’s team mentioned West, they noticed he was about to depart on his “Touch The Sky Tour” featuring openers Fantasia, Keyshia Cole and Common. And then they saw the price of booking him –– $100,000 –– was right under budget.
“I think at the time, when Kanye was a possibility, even a 1% chance, it was like full steam ahead. Let’s get the offer out there.”
They locked it in.
Students and locals alike were thrilled by the announcement of West headlining the show.
“I was shocked by the big name, but I think more shocked by Kanye putting on an amazing show,” said Buffalo resident Nicole Nowak. “I was anticipating a quick, half-ass performance similar to what we see at Canalside –– a scaled-down, 45-minute performance.”
What she got, however, was much different.
“This was anything but. He performed like it was Madison Square Garden.”
Buffalo News music critic Jeff Miers covered West’s performance. The show was one of roughly 10 fall and spring fests that Miers has covered in his tenure at the News. He says the show came at a pivotal point in West’s career.
“Obviously, it was a big deal having Kanye come to UB,” Miers said. “Remember, this was well before his rather confusing image breakdown, his seeming embrace of [Donald] Trump and his display of what many have called a ‘mental struggle.’ Kanye was just a wildly creative hip-hop artist who gave every indication of being at the outset of an iconoclastic career.”
Evan Parker Pierce, who at the time was a managing editor for The Spectrum, said he still remembers the magnitude of the West show, which followed years of students getting lackluster talent at fests, he says, like acts such as 3 Doors Down.
“Kanye, at the time, might have been the most meaningful rapper or musician who appealed to every corner of the UB demographic,” Pierce said. “I do remember the excitement. It was a huge deal to have such a current, relevant artist play at UB. ... I remember how excited campus was. Relevant musicians! Hip-hop! Something that was ascendant and worth going to!”
But just a week before the show, the tour’s lineup took a hit.
On Oct. 14, 2005, The Spectrum reported that rapper Common dropped out of the lineup to focus on a movie role. Yador explained that SA wouldn’t be seeking a replacement opening act, as the tour was a package, according to the article. Instead, West expanded on his setlist and promised to give a set full of more material.
Yador doesn’t remember Common dropping out of the lineup but recalled numerous times since 2002 when artists dropped from fest lineups.
“There were artists [who] were supposed to perform but just didn’t for a million and one reasons,” Yador said.
Students at the time didn’t generally seem too concerned, but some were understandably upset.
“I was totally stoked he was going to be here, I have his CD and I love it,” freshman Cristina Bruni told The Spectrum at the time. “A lot of talented musicians go into movies and they’re usually bad. He should be on tour.”
He wasn’t. And he never surprised fans at the show like Yador hoped he might at the time.
But this just made it so fans could enjoy some extended ‘Ye.
The day of ‘Ye
When the show rolled around, Yador recalls, he and SA Entertainment Director Marc Rosenblitt had meetings to discuss the magnitude of West’s rider (performance requests). West’s people brought in massive lights to the venue, and Yador thinks SA might have brought in an extra generator to accommodate.
“This was an actual tour,” Yador said. “This was a national tour in which Verizon was one of the sponsors. For it to come to Buffalo was a pretty big deal.”
But the lights weren’t Yador’s only concern on show day.
West’s performance fell on the same weekend as Howard University’s homecoming in D.C., a huge weekend for the black community at UB. Many of the black organizations and fraternities on campus traveled to Washington to attend the event each year, and Yador was worried his fest would see a low turnout.
“I just remember people [were] so conflicted on if they were going to Howard or staying for Fall Fest,” Yador said. “And a lot of people stayed.”
A lot was right.
Students piled into the venue for the show, as the Alumni Arena box office sold 1,100 general admission tickets –– leading to an audience of over 1,000 non-students –– and nearly the entirety of the 5,000 available student tickets were collected.
In 2005, Yador called it the biggest fest SA saw in a “long time,” triumphing over 2003’s Lil’ Kim and Godsmack show.
“I saw some grandmas in the crowd. It was so impressive,” said then-sophomore David Horesh in 2005. “I would say SA drew in a bigger crowd because they brought in a more up-to-date act. I mean, Kanye’s an up-and-coming star and everybody knows who he is.”
Kanye’s set was long to say the least.
Two hours long.
Due to Common dropping out of the lineup, West remained on stage for well-over the usual fest performance timeslot, something not all students were happy about.
“He put on a really great show, but I think it dragged a little bit,” said then-junior biomedical science major Ben Cassidy. “The songs were a little bit self-indulgent. However, I haven’t seen a better performance at a Fall Fest.”
But West had every right to “drag on.” His show was laced with a grand curtain reveal, a tight string section of two cellos and four violins and an overall “theatrical” approach, according to The Spectrum’s 2005 coverage.
He spent some of the show lying on a bed, like during deep cut “Spaceship,” and other portions rocking a UB shirt, like during his performance of mega-hit “All Falls Down.”
He seemingly sensed the diversity in the crowd, too.
“To all my white people out there, this is the only chance you’ll get to say n---a. So join in,” West screamed during “Gold Digger.”
Some said the performance stood out like a diamond in comparison to his openers as West even included a bit of dazzling confetti and a disco ball during his run-through of “Diamonds From Sierra Leone.”
Keyshia Cole and Fantasia’s performances, however, featured some inaudible instrumentalists and backing vocalists, making West’s massive display seem even more massive.
“I recall feeling a little bad for Fantasia and Keyshia Cole, because the event was so clearly all about Kanye,” Miers said. “People were psyched. Obviously, there is generally a party atmosphere for UB students at these events –– they’re for them, really. But I recall seeing a lot of people there simply because they wanted to see what the fuss about Kanye was all about.”
Miers recalls West’s musical knowledge shining during the performance –– with the rapper feeding the audience bits of soul, rock, R&B and everything in between.
“I felt like Kanye was a bright, vital and creative artist who was making a big mark on hip-hop and popular music in general,” Miers said.
‘Taking these motherf-----s back to school’
West essentially rewrote the script for UB’s hip-hop shows on that October day. Since West’s touchdown on North Campus, and his transcendence into stardom, SA’s fests have become predominantly hip-hop centered.
Fests have since seen the likes of Nas, The Roots, Clipse, J. Cole, Kendrick Lamar and Travis Scott, who many current students still recall orchestrating mosh pits in Alumni in 2016.
For Nowak, however, seeing West live at an early point in his career was more memorable than the last tour where she caught a glimpse of him.
“I was a Kanye fan then,” Nowak said. “I still am. I’ve always said he put on the most amazing show then when he wasn’t as big. It’s just always stuck with me.”
Miers understands the legacy of performances on UB’s campus, and still sees the West performance as a “rare” experience for fans.
“So many legendary artists have played UB fests – from the Ramones to Peter Gabriel to the Tragically Hip to a young and largely still unknown Bruno Mars, to P-Funk, to the Goo Goo Dolls and Big Audio Dynamite,” Miers said. “What I’ve always loved about the fests is the diversity of talent. In many ways, these shows have transcended UB culture itself and become part of the broader Buffalo culture.”
Yador is grateful to have been a part of UB’s musical history and still keeps the photo of him and West ready to share in his camera roll.
“For me, I’m proud that I was part of a team that was able to bring someone who was at the top of the world,” Yador said. “If people are still talking about the show, just to be a part of that, it’s a real honor.”
Brenton Blanchet is the Editor-in-Chief and can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @BrentonBlanchet.