The Great American Music Hall is a post-earthquake 105 year-old 5,000-square-foot, guilded French motif performance hall that has
been a restaurant, a bordello and a host to fan dancers and a stage for golden Jazz era greats like Duke Ellington, Sarah Vaughan and Count Basie and relative newcomers Van Morrison and the Grateful Dead.
But on this night the back stage of the great American is more like a living room at a friends or relatives’ house. I came to meet Jake Smith, who performs solo and with a band under the moniker The White Buffalo. There in the dimly lit room Smith along with Matt Lynott (drums) and Tommy Andrews (bass) offer smiles, handshakes and beverages. After the hellos and intros the talk moves to influences. I tell Smith about a video I saw on You Tube of him covering the Highwaymen’s theme of world adventure “Highwayman.” “Oh yeah.” Smith cracks a smile “Waylon, Willie, Kristofferson and Cash. You can’t do any better than those guys.” He then tells me about the music of his Southern California childhood. “We listened to a lot of things. Country, like Loretta, classic rock I guess they call it now. Blues. Gospel.”
The influences show on Smith’s songs if you look for them. Like the best craftsman of songs he makes them sound easy. Effortless. Like they couldn’t be any other way then the way he’s spinning them out. Then I bait him with the question most musicians hate to answer, “How would you label your music.” “I don’t” he says straight. “I spend my time writing them and that’s hard enough. If I spend time on “Is this country” or “if the Americana” I think the song will suffer.”
Smith and the band then starts to list up the night’s songs. Three musicians, three clean, white sheets of paper. One sharpie. then the discussion begins. “What about the Pilot?” “How about Darkside of Town?” “Might be too slow and bring things down.” “How about Love Song #2.” “Okay but you’ll need to sing backup in my mic.” The process is reminiscent of charting an emotional course of stage logistics,crowd physiology and sonic dynamics. What will take them where we want them to go?
The moniker came about through need and happenstance. Smith once wore a sweat shirt that had the title emblazoned on it and some his friends recalled it when he emailed them ideas for a name. White buffalo are extremely rare. The National Bison Association (yes, there is such a thing) has estimated that a White buffalo only occur in approximately one out of every 10 million births. Smith is a living testament to his moniker standing around 6′ 2″ , solid as a wall and stylistically embodying a rare mix of grit and nuance that you couldn’t squeeze out of a dozen neo-folk acts.
Born in Oregon and raised in Southern California, he moved to the Bay area from Huntington Beach to pursue college on an athletic scholarship. He then made his way to L.A. where he now calls home. Because of his local Smith has had his songs crop up in movies and T.V. A bootleg tape of his music made it into the hands of pro surfer Chris Malloy, and his song, “Wrong,” was featured in his surf movie, Shelter. That led to further film scoring and composing work, with three of his songs featured in FX’s Sons of Anarchy and HBO’s Californication.
With 3 EPs and one fill-length out and one more , Once Upon a Time in the West , set to release February 28th Smith has seen thousands of miles over the last few years opening for acts like Ziggy Marley, and Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, and tonight the Texas blues man Gary Clark Jr. His brooding songs of America’s topological and emotional landscape, “mini-movies” he calls them, transforms on the stage. The darkness, whiskey and gunpowder is still there in narrative but the sound shifts to urgency and electricity. Lynott and Andrews expand the dynamics and work off Smith like a fright train veering off the tracks. They are one of the best rhythm sections I’ve seen live.
Over a beer after the show I ask Smith about his fans and whether online piracy worries a working man with a wife and two kids. “People are buying ticket and I’m selling merch. I can’t do anything about the new world I am working in. I have to trust people.”
In true DIY fashion they set their own gear on stage, sell their own merchandise and pack it all up in a van at the end of the night. Off to the nest show miles away across the dark night of America.
I didn’t take, nor did I find, clips from this show. But I couldn’t post without a taste of what I saw. Here The White Buffalo at Bonaroo.