by Geno Thackara
Things got a bit changed from the pattern with our latest local Songs From A Room, that traveling mystery show that brings a surprise lineup to a different intimate venue each month. Our MC Dan McGurk actually apologized at one point for breaking pretty much all the program’s usual conventions. For one thing, it was the first time a Philly installment took place outdoors in someone’s yard (so it sort of feels like this one should have been called SOFAY). Everyone was amped through a PA system, something these shows usually avoid as much as possible, and it wasn’t in the city but up north in Ambler. Unusually they’ve also got two installments planned for August, so if you didn’t feel like taking a train ride or dealing with blocked roads around the turnpike, you’ve got another chance to be surprised somewhere else on the 23rd.
Sunday was the most lovely summer day you could want for a friendly garden party, which was exactly how the whole evening felt. The house and our hostess Ericka couldn’t have been more welcoming. Upon heading back to the yard, we were asked to help finish a couple coolers of beer left over from the previous night. Everyone was even invited to stay for a cookout after the music was over. The yard was livened up with handmade art sculptures among other interesting decorations, and a really hungry guest could have picked some fresh tomatoes or squash straight off the vine for an early snack. (I didn’t, but I won’t say it wasn’t a little bit tempting.)
Max Garcia Conover embodied the no-frills DIY aesthetic from the start, strumming a guitar and using a suitcase for a kick drum. At first he sounded like he’d come straight off the road from Texas. It turned out that’s not quite right since he’s from Portland in Maine, but his songs have no small amount of that rustic good-old-boy charm. Maybe it comes from his time wandering the country in a mobile home (enough to have written a love song about it after it finally broke down). He’s the first one to admit that he’s not the smoothest at telling stories or working a crowd, but his sincerity means that other stuff doesn’t really matter. It’s hard to listen to him and not feel a connection all the same.
“I’m so glad I never came to fit in,” Caleb Hawley sang during his opening single “Little Miss Sunshine,” and that sums him up as well as anything. It’s a song about being bullied that turns out to be genuinely sweet and encouraging under a dreamy feel of classic oldies-pop. He hits a few throwback notes – “Let a Little Love In” is a piece of pure soul you could almost swear you’ve been hearing on the radio all your life – and can still sound contemporary as much as retro, even when he’s not singing about Beyonce. His irresistible stage manner carried the crowd away well before he strolled off the stage during one chorus to mug for photos. His set just flew by until McGurk came out to announce a break before Arc Iris and “their eccentric awesomeness.”
He seemed unsure how to describe Arc Iris. Well, so would anyone. This band is a one-of-a-kind melting pot of genres full of whimsy and imagination – sort of what you might get if you threw Peter, Paul and Mary into a blender with Björk and David Bowie from his arty glam days, topped off with a dressing of Peter Gabriel-era Genesis. Anything (and I mean anything) is fair game. Pixie folk, electric 70s funk-fusion, bubblegum voice harmonies and classical cello are all part of the mix. Fairy-tale story songs felt right at home alongside prog-rock complexity and still left space for a Hall & Oates tune reimagined as quirky indie pop. It felt almost like a miniature traveling sideshow, witty, wholesome and charmingly bonkers all at once. The audiences for the remainder of the band’s Long Time Coming tour have no idea what they’re in for.
And neither does any Sofar audience, of course, but that shouldn’t stop the curious from signing up and maybe offering to bring s’mores. It’s nothing if not inviting.