Known by locals as The Wild Buff, The Wild Buffalo House of Music strives to provide a stage for the widest variety of live music in the Bellingham region. Delivering reggae, hip hop, funk, soul, Americana, and electronic to name just a few, The Buffalo promotes live music, supports local musicians, and provides a safe, fun place for people to come and experience the art form at its best.
First opened in 1998 by community-minded musician, John Goodman, the venue was named after a close relative of Goodman’s who was part of legendary folk hero Buffalo Bill Cody’s posse. Goodman’s mission was to create a Bellingham venue for local musicians to play that would become a cultural center for experiencing the live music scene. In October 2008, Goodman moved on to other projects and passed the torch to Craig Jewell and his partners. Those partners changed in the last year and now include Joey Crahan and Lee Huffman. Together, they’ve continued to build the venue into the largest and most popular of its kind in the area.
Many local groups play The Buffalo often, including bands that have been playing there since its inception. Regulars include The Walrus, Polecat, Acorn Project, Baby Cakes, Rabbit Wilde, and Snug Harbor. But Jewell has also noticed a shift by some musicians away from forming bands and instead toward producing and DJing so they often offer those shows as well. In the end, Jewell researches and books for The Buffalo what its fans want.
A number of big names also come to The Buffalo because of the relationships Jewell has built with agents and acts over the years. Occasionally, the care Jewell has taken to keep talent happy pays off down the road. Artists who pass through Bellingham as they rise remember their shows at The Buffalo and come back, even when they are able to sell out stadiums in major cities. For example, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis will stop by on September 1. “He’s coming here sort of as a thank you to a handful of venues,” explains Jewell. “Macklemore opened for other people here maybe five times and slept on my couch. He’s a friend and it’s a cool gesture on his part.” Being only a couple of hours drive from Seattle has helped Jewell pick up significant national talent looking for another show along the I-5 corridor.
Jewell also worked very hard to bring to Bellingham one of his favorite acts of all time, soul singer Charles Bradley who will have the room on its feet on September 16. Seattle native, Sir Mix-A-Lot, will perform on October 1 for the third year in a row to help the Buffalo celebrate Jewell’s anniversary of taking over the reins from Goodman.
I’m also looking forward to Vancouver, BC’s Five Alarm Funk who will play September 24. They played last New Year’s at the Buffalo and I joined their fan base after seeing them at last year’s Downtown Sounds hosted by the Downtown Bellingham Partnership. I also make sure to see Portland-based March Fourth Marching Band whenever they come to The Buffalo. MarchFourth appreciates The Buffalo and Bellingham talent, as three of their current members hail from our area including trombonist Mars Lindgren, trumpet Paul Chandler, and circus performer Mary Gargett.
Although not well known by name, one of the most influential music legends of all time, the keyboardist and composer known as the Wizard of Woo, Bernie Worrell, spent some of his later years in the Bellingham area. Worrell may be best well known for his keyboard contributions to the Talking Heads, Keith Richards, and The Pretenders, but his influence on the course of music history is much wider including those he inspired. Worrell wrote many of the songs that made famous another national artist who also stops by Bellingham, the one and only Snoop Dogg.
Before Worrell passed away in June 2016 due to complications from cancer, he developed a special relationship with The Buffalo. They hosted a memorable fundraiser to benefit Worrell’s family via Sweet Relief where Worrell jammed with many local musicians as well as Primus drummer Tim Alexander who also lives in the Bellingham area. Jewell is currently in the planning stages of an additional Sweet Relief fundraiser show he hopes to announce in the near future.
In addition to providing a stage for local and national bands, The Buffalo also hosts a couple of weekly and monthly shows that have developed a loyal following. Jewell first created the monthly show, Free Funk Friday, as a chance to play his guitar and perform with local friends. Lately, Jewell has become busy booking talent and so the show instead rotates through some of the area’s best funk ensembles.
Each Monday night’s Lip Sync Battle is a tiered competition that Jewell created over a year ago. Each contestant performs three songs, two of which are chosen in advance by the performer, plus a ‘fake-it-until-you-make-it’ wild card song that Jewell chooses. “People bring in props, back up dancers, and costumes. Most places are closed on Mondays but we have a huge crowd because we give away $500 cash to the winner plus concert tickets and other prizes,” explains Jewell of what has become a full house evening for The Buffalo. “Our voting system makes sure it’s not a popularity contest and we’re always looking for new contestants.”
There are lots of things to like about The Buffalo. The cover ranges from free on up to about $25, with rare exceptions for nationally-recognized touring artists like Snoop Dogg. The sound system is good and loud and there is ample space to party on the dance floor. They offer a wide variety of beverages including about 12 beers on tap, several of them locally-brewed. One of my favorite things to do when I’m taking a break from the dance floor is to head up to the ‘balcony’ behind the band for a great view of the venue. Looking out over the dance floor makes me feel like I’m sittin’ in with the band.
Because of the variety and affordability, one only has to watch the Buffalo calendar to find great live music to see. Whether its local or national you’re after, electronic, hip hop, or classic funk and soul, The Buffalo is making sure they offer something for almost everyone.