Jake Smith should be a big star.
That's as simple as I can say it: Jake Smith should be a big, big star.
The singer-songwriter — who performs as The White Buffalo and played Bend's Silver Moon Brewing & Taproom on Tuesday night — has all the tools to be a major player in the worlds of folk and/or roots-rock.
He's a fine guitar picker. His tunes are stunning.
And that voice. More on that voice later. (Honestly, it deserves its own section of the paper.)
Smith may not have the glossy good looks of Keith Urban or Chris Thile (or whoever), but in a world where scraggly Jamey Johnson is country music's songwriter du jour, there's no reason Jake Smith can't be a big, big, big star.
He put all that star quality on display at Silver Moon, in front of a sizable crowd for a Tuesday night.
I was late to the gig; watching my beloved Kentucky Wildcats lose their first game of the season is my excuse. So by the time I got to the Moon at 8:30 p.m., the pub was already surprisingly full, if not packed. It was comfortably crowded.
And poor Joe Firstman was halfway through his opening set, battling the excessively loud chattering among those gathered near the bar and pool table.
Firstman tried his best, playing stripped-down versions of his poppy folk music and covering Townes Van Zandt's “Two Girls,” which he introduced as a song “by someone who knew Lynyrd Skynyrd.”
Before his final song, he looked away from the mic, cracked a big smile, turned back and wryly said: “Thanks for listening.” So at least he had a sense of humor about it. (I didn't. I thought it was shameful. I understand not paying attention to the music, but to shout over one guy and his guitar in the corner? It was a bummer.)
Soon, though, it was The White Buffalo's turn, and he wasted no time. Within a few minutes of Firstman's final chord, Smith began plucking out the opening notes of “The Moon,” a starkly gorgeous song about loneliness.
And then he sang. And almost instantly, the talkative crowd went dead silent.
It was one of those unmistakably special moments, where hairs stand up on the backs of necks. For three minutes, Smith held the bar in the palm of his hand, 100-plus people engrossed in his performance, as if caught in a tractor beam.
“You kick and scream and cast me out,” he sang. “And all that I know is true is I'm hollow as the ocean's blue.”
From there, some folks turned back to their conversations, but Smith never wavered, delivering more than an hour of pitch-perfect, well-traveled folk using only six strings and that voice.
Smith's talents are many, but his voice is obviously his most distinctive quality. It's a show-stopper. A jaw-dropper. It's canyon deep and sequoia strong, with a natural resonance that 99 percent of singers would kill to have.
The closest comparison I can come up with is Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder, though when he's at his best, Smith makes Vedder sound like Bobby Brady going through puberty.
He's just that great of a singer.
Smith showcased that voice on barnburners like “The Madman” and “Carnage,” with their ultra-low notes, as well as meandering, pretty numbers such as “Sleepy Little Town” and “Where Dirt and Water Collide.” And he let it soar during two of his best songs, “Love Song #1” and “Damned.” The ascendant pre-chorus of the former and the roller-coaster verses of the latter were perfect examples of Smith's skill for writing melodies that are both unconventional and memorable.
The rising chorus of “Damned,” ironically, was almost hymn-like. Two chill-inducing moments in one concert? Not too shabby.
Throughout the night, Smith played to the crowd perfectly, doing a drinking-song singalong and a waltz “about falling in love with a hooker.” He filled a request for The Highwaymen's eponymous song and endeared himself to the old-timers by asking aloud if the Silver Moon used to be the Evil Sister Saloon. (Smith lived in Sisters for several months after college, and some of his family still lives there.)
Last but not least, he obliged calls for an encore with a lively version of the country classic “T is For Texas” that veered seamlessly into Johnny Cash's “Folsom Prison Blues,” before putting down his guitar, waving goodbye and heading down the road to another show.
I, too, headed down the road, toward my home, with a new CD in hand and a head full of buzz from seeing my first great concert of 2010.