by Adam McGrath
Songs From a Room is a simple enough concept: invite music lovers to discover new local bands in the comfort of a stranger’s living room. But Sofar Sounds has quickly capitalized on a desired musical experience and grown a community around intimate, immediate expressions of artistry.
The attraction of the unknown is a key element in the operating model of Sofar. The artist lineup of each show is kept secret, and the venue is only revealed via email a few days prior to the performance. Subscribers to the newsletter need to grab a spot for upcoming shows as soon as notified and trust that they will enjoy the selection upon arrival.
While the company has branches all over the world, Sofar Philly is celebrating two years of shows featuring local bands and up-and-coming national acts. On Friday night at Nomad Recording Studio in West Philadelphia, six different artists graced the bill in honor of the milestone.
Aaron and the Spell opened the program just after seven o’clock (and you can read our interview with Aaron here). The cross-legged audience were just a few feet in front of the four stools that sat the band. The reverent quiet that is a necessity in these kinds of listening rooms was easily achieved and Aaron Brown’s velvet voice rolled smoothly throughout the house. As veterans of Sofar Philly, Aaron and the Spell was a natural choice to set the tone for the evening, and the group made new fans with flawless performances of signature songs “Don’t Cry” and “Bleed Me Dry.”
Next, spoken word artist Vanessa Ingram invited the room into a personal space with passionate, rhythmic pieces that progressed through pain, pride, and empowerment. Ingram was feeling good enough to add a little guitar to some of her lyrics, and pulled off her turn with aplomb.
After greeting us at the beginning of the night, Sofar Philly organizers Ken and Carolyn turned emcee duties over to Justin of the Philly rock group Satellite Hearts. The singer had to play more librarian than party host, and seemed to bear the brunt of too-long set changes and intermissions. Not that I didn’t need the breaks; I’ve never had both of my legs entirely asleep at the same time, and by the second half of the night I needed to stay standing at the back of the room.
The second act of the program offered some excellent musicianship with sets from Avi Wisnia and Our Griffins. Wisnia was without his bass player due to injury, but still managed to achieve a warm jazz lounge feel with electric piano, guitar, drums, and a melodica (a keyboard played by blowing through a tube). On dulcet tunes like “Blue Sky,” Wisnia’s un-miked voice was slightly lost, but he finished strong with an upbeat toe-tapper.
Our Griffins delivered the performance of the night. The development of DJ Brown as one of the premier Philadelphia songwriters is a story everyone should be following. The group was poised and professional, utilizing a combination of strings and unique percussion to produce a lush, layered sound. The song that caught me was “My Cousin All Grown Up,” which builds emotion slowly before the satisfying catharsis of the “I’m sorry” refrain.
The third act featured two of the guys from Elijah and the Moon, who made the drive down from New York to celebrate with the Sofar crew. Their style was backyard, boot-stomping rock, augmented nicely with vocal harmonies. The guitarists encouraged crowd participation and invited the room to its feet for a final sing-a-long.
Cruiser was the final band of the night, and seemed poised to get loud with a traditional four-piece outfit. But once the music finally started after a failed pedal connection, jangly hipster rock was all we got. After some awkward efforts at crowd engagement, the group finished with their best effort, “Kidnap Me.”
Sofar Sounds is just the latest success story in Philadelphia’s long history of house concerts. There’s no reason this unique aspect of the city’s music scene can’t keep growing, allowing artists and fans to connect on a human level.