Free outdoor concerts tend to bring out the part of us that never wants to let the summer go—what summer meant before we spent most of it cooped up indoors at work. However, I began to rethink the reason for the healthy early crowd forming last night, early evening. In our short walk from the artist tent behind the stage to a nearby park bench, myself and Jake Smith, aka The White Buffalo were stopped by folks no less than three times.
Against the the stunning grounds of Salt Creek Beach at Dana Point this tall, salty-bearded man, and Huntington Beach native calmly posed for requested selfies with whole families, middle aged couples, young boys and a gaggle of teenage girls. “I cried today,” one woman who sheepishly interrupted our interview said. “Because of one of your songs, ‘Hereafter,’ I wept a lot,” she added.
“The Sweet Hereafter,” she referred to, from an earlier album, is only one of a growing canon of superbly crafted songs—more like mini-cinematic gems, which have vivid imagery, and imaginative storylines often alluding to greater themes.
But song crafting skill is only one reason why Smith has weathered the whims of an often fickle industry. He is the rare singer-songwriter bird with very little barrier between himself and the audience, not only onstage, but in person, and through his Instagram and delightful “In the Garage” YouTube series. Like a great character actor, Smith is skilled at painting a detailed picture, then reaching through the painting to rip your heart out–or at the very least, make you lean in closer.
“Everything we do, we play on stage there’s no effects, there’s hardly any reverb or anything on your voice, it’s just three guys playing with honesty and passion and there’s no effects,” he told me in a richly-timbred speaking voice.
“He opened for someone else, and stole the show,” Randy Busch from Capistrano Beach told me while in line to buy a The White Buffalo t-shirt. He and is wife try to check out him whenever they can he tells me, but “This is probably the nicest place we’ve seen him,” he said.
Before the show and during fellow OC native Matt Costa’s beautiful set, it was almost too nice. Idyllic even. Kids tumbled around on the grass with distant waves crashing in the background. Adorable dogs were abound as people casually strolled up to the smattering of food trucks and a beer and wine tent (Miller and Golden Road’s Wolf Pup were the only two beer choices, boo.) Despite a sizable crowd, there was still plenty of room. Which left me thinking of outdoor concerts in L.A. where the free parking alone would draw an overly packed audience.
People pushed closer as The White Buffalo took the stage around 6:45p.m. The set included tracks from his most recent album released last year, Darkest Darks, Lightest Lights which true to its title includes night/day shifts from the aching “The Observatory” to the fun, rollicking tune “The Robbery.”
Smith’s voice is remarkably flexible. Much of that flexibility comes from an ability to shift colors, bending to the thematic will of a song. The set, a mix of older and newer put that chameleon-like quality to work on the over 15 songs. From sweetly nostalgic on “BB Guns & Dirt Bikes”, to gently bruised on “I Got You” to furiously rough on “The Whistler”—a track that would be home in a Tarantino film, his voice gives each song the appropriate space.
He was joined onstage by drummer Matt (The Machine) Lynott, who one person I talked to seemed equally excited about, and bassist/vocalist Christopher Hoffee, himself a songwriter/bandleader. Both were key complements in creating a fuller sound, rounding out Smith’s rhythmic acoustic guitar playing.
Earlier this year, The White Buffalo performed in a bullring in Spain had their biggest headlining tour in of all places, Istanbul, Turkey, where apparently, based on some sort of Soundcloud metrics it was determined he had a fan base. After a few more U.S. dates this fall takes them back into Europe, land of the on-time hand clap. “Everywhere in Europe I can go like that [claps] and they all do that in time,” he marveled.
The night closed on an extended encore, with Smith going solo on a few. Then, with the sun setting, he tossed a pick and waved goodbye. I hope he comes back soon with more stories.