The White Buffalo performed several concerts in 2020 live from The Belly Up Tavern in Solina Beach, California, a great example of artists and venues working together to reach audiences at home and raise awareness of the needs in the music industry right now. As of April 2020, The White Buffalo had also released the new album On The Widow’s Walk, taking in a number of oceanic themes as a kind of “undercurrent” in the songs, if not as any kind of master narrative. While playing those songs and many favorites from five preceding albums formed the backbone of previous concerts, the one held on February 21st 2021 was themed around Jake Smith’s songs featured on the show Sons of Anarchy. Those songs, of course, reached an avid fanbase and brought greater attention to Smith’s work at the time the show aired, and still have a place in the hearts of fans as well as those continuing to discover the show through streaming services and DVDs.
Interestingly, Smith, drummer Matt “The Machine” Lynott, and guitarist Christopher Hoffee played a first set comprised of songs that were not featured on the show Sons of Anarchy, but instead played songs that Smith had selected as having similar sounds and themes. They were songs that “could have been on the show,” Smith explained. Looking at just which songs Smith chose for this set highlights why his music was chosen for the show in the first place. As most fans know, Smith did not write songs for the show, but rather his existing work was chosen for the show, aside from “Come Join the Murder” which was written with Kurt Sutter and originally recorded with SoA’s in-house band, The Forest Rangers. The first set of the performance really illustrated how original and consistent The White Buffalo music is, as many other songs Smith has written would have fit the show very well, too.
Some highlights from this first set were Smith’s reflective opener, singing and playing solo on the guitar, “I Am The Moon,” “River of Love and Loss,” and “No History,” all of which suggest the extreme highs and lows typical of the show, but “No History” really broke out the faster-paced Punk elements that are also part of Smith’s musical DNA. The set also included a bonus, surprising, inclusion of the song “Fantasy” which Smith recorded some time ago but didn’t make an album appearance or release in the USA until recently (it did appear on a UK release as a bonus track). That song is now available for streaming, and with its more Country-inspired elements had a certain Willie Nelson vibe which worked well with the other songs in the set.
The pre-Anarchy set also included darker themed songs like “I Got You” but took a turn toward watery settings and ideas with “Into the Sun” before taking on the coastal ideas of the new album fully with “Sycamore.” Though Smith has always liked pulling up from the limited human perspective to get a bit more vantage in his more narrative-driven songs, “The Pilot,” which closed out the set, is still probably the best example of that drive for escape, distance, and a certain welcome disconnect from life’s wheel of fortune. It made for a great bridge into the SoA songs, which took the audience deeper into a narrative context they’d be familiar with.
In full, the songs from the SoA set included “Sweet Hereafter,” “Damned,” “The Matador,” “Wish It Was Time,” “Oh Darlin’ What Have I Done,” “The House of the Rising Sun,” “Set My Body Free,” “The Whistler,” and the finale “Come Join the Murder.” This was the first time that The White Buffalo has ever played all of these songs live in a single set, so it makes sense that The Belly Up offered the purchase of a soundtrack download for fans getting tickets to the livestream concert. The concert also offered an SoA inspired custom event t-shirt design by music, skate, and surf community favorite Scrojo.
Hearing these songs played together also highlighted the traditions that make up Smith’s work, ranging from the mythical to the religious, but always grounding observations and monologs in the concrete aspects of landscape, of human habitation, and quite frequently, of a solitary position in a house, a farm, or a bar. The first set of songs was more wide-ranging in this regard, the SoA set narrower, more focused, and for that reason, had an even more intense and volatile effect when the songs were played together.
While the first set was also wider-ranging musically, often bringing in Punk and Metal vibes alongside Roots traditions, the songs from the SoA set predominated in Roots music, particularly Western traditions, but with that trademark harder edge from Punk and Metal handled more delicately as accompanying elements. An exception was The White Buffalo rendition of “The House of the Rising Sun,” which had a proportion closer to 50-50 between traditions, taking a very well-known song and making sure to update it with a harder sound to great effect. Of course, this was also an excellent showcase for Smith’s voice, whose force certainly hasn’t been curtailed in any way by having to stay off the road in 2020.
“Set My Body Free” came off as more of a modern day myth in this context, with its rhetorical and haunting questions about life feeling maybe even more relevant these days than when it was originally released. “The Whistler” ramped up the suggested violence before the equally mixed doses of steely-eyed reflection and resignation to a dark fate in “Come Join the Murder.”
Looking through this double set may suggest a deal of planning and construction that had an artificial goal, but it was more the product of solid instincts and deep familiarity with the material that led to such a meanginful and effective set up. Because, as usual, The White Buffalo is very much about informality and authenticity in live performance. The entire show was presented in an informal way from what is essentially a small venue. One of the most positive aspects of that was that the sound set up actually conveyed the audio feel of a small venue during performance, rather than conveying an overly slick or modified experience to the audience due to digital delivery.
With a couple of brief pit-stops for Chris Hoffee to get a bass cord that worked, occasional shout-outs to the audience at home, and a focus on energy and delivery behind the “Songs of Anarchy” performance, this show was about as close as you could get to being in the room. That effect is surprisingly hard to achieve in a livestream show, and The White Buffalo easily surpassed that goal this time around.