by Geno Thackara
Sofar Sounds is a very well-kept open secret. Never heard of the name? I hadn’t before last week either. (It’s abbreviated from SOngs From A Room, which is worth mentioning just because I always give points for a good Leonard Cohen reference.) It almost sounds like an underground society out of some mystery novel. The gathering happens in a different place which is kept under wraps every month. You reserve a spot in advance, then get told where you’re going and which acts you’re seeing a day or two beforehand. They shoot for a cozy 60-100 people each time (depending on the space) and if there aren’t enough spots for everyone who tries to RSVP, then there’s always next month.
Most often these happen in someone’s living room, but it could just as easily be a warehouse or parish hall – which is just where we found ourselves Sunday evening at Old Swedes’ Episcopal Church in Old City. It made a refreshingly different setting from a loud club under neon lights. This is a small quaint wood-and-brick hall next to a peaceful graveyard. The hosts passed a hat to collect donations for the evening while the kitchenette sold picnicky snacks and homemade meatballs. This is one show where you never have to scream right in somebody’s ear just to get a beverage.
In keeping with that DIY communal attitude, the crowd at a Sofar show is asked to scoot up close, put away their phones and pay attention without chatting or texting or Facebooking. The musicians for their part are asked to play unplugged and preferably un-amped when possible. When Emmett Drueding opened things up, his voice and folky fingerpicked guitar were no trouble to hear through the room even without going through any wires. He mentioned that it was something of a home-community thing for him since the Old Swedes’ hall was the first place that he performed in public at age 13. Two songs weren’t much to go on, but he’s looking to finish a fuller recording over the summer. In the meantime there’s a handful of stuff at Bandcamp.
The feisty Kate Faust pounded the piano loud enough that they probably heard her across the yard, so her bigger challenge was singing loud enough to be heard along with it. Fortunately her voice is just that powerful and then some. Her writing style is firmly in the rock/R&B camp – “music that takes me out of myself and makes me feel something,” as she put it. It was clearly a fun chance to try things out, mashing up a couple top-40 tunes for an audience singalong and giving her compelling single “Never Felt So Lonely” a spin totally different from what’s on record. (As part of her Eros EP, it’s featured on iTunes and free if you grab it before the week’s out.) Her few songs went from the sad to the soulful and left everyone laughing by the end.
For another change of pace, Brian Dunne sang, strummed and harmonica-ed through some charming country-folk that reminded me of the South more than his native New York. He won the room over with just a couple selections from February’s Songs from the Hive (the fun stomp of “I’m Gonna Die Down Here” managed to stay stuck in my head at the end of the night even though I’d never heard it before), and an even newer selection called “You Got Me Good” shows that we shouldn’t stop expecting good things from him any time soon.
“Sorry, usually it’s a lot louder and crazier and things break,” Joe Parella greeted us when everyone returned from intermission. It wasn’t just a comment on the toned-down nature of the show – he was playing solo because the rest of his band Deal Casino were all working elsewhere that night. (He’s the one with a day job to pay the bills; the others work in restaurants. Isn’t the musician’s life glamorous?) This made a fine example of Sofar’s unplug-and-adapt philosophy. In a couple spots, the songs sounded like they were intended for a full loud band and it couldn’t help feeling like something was missing. At other times they worked just as well in a whole different way from how they’d sound in a bar. It left me curious to hear what the band sounds like in full rock mode (their new EP Heck looks like it’ll do the job for now) and also hoping to see them go unplugged as a whole sometime.
It was actually startling to hear electric instruments and speakers again when Palmas began. Still, they were a long way from loud or over driven – they sound more like a backup band you’d see at a dance in some movie set in the 60s. It almost felt like they were digging up some obscure golden-oldies-era rarities I’d never heard, crossed with a helping of classic surf rock right up the Ventures’ alley. I wouldn’t want to use a word like “throwback” since it didn’t really feel like that either. It was more a celebration of some familiar sounds they genuinely love and enjoy without wanting to just copy. These guys were just the right touch to bring the evening to a close as the evening coolness finally got comfortable and the crickets came out.
I’d love to give some hint about how fascinating June’s show will be, but the beauty of it is that nobody knows. Look up the mailing list, learn the signs, practice the secret handshakes and you may get a chance to be surprised along with everyone else the next time around.