by Geno Thackara
After a summer of bouncing around from studio to backyard to church hall, Philly’s floating Sofar Sounds program was back to its normal habitat (as much as that’s ever the case) on Friday night, bringing a mix of new and familiar faces into a cozy living room to share something special up close. It was basically the kind of cozy you get from fitting six people into a five-seat car, but that’s all part of the intimate experience. It’s a program that’s always inviting and continually digging up fascinating things to offer each month.
For starters, it was a great surprise for an Old Crow Medicine Show fan to walk in and see the name Gill Landry at the top of the list. He’s been nicely keeping active since leaving that band earlier this year and touring behind his third solo album, so it seems natural enough that he’d pop in for a small unplugged stop on his evening off before appearing Saturday at Union Transfer. His rich singing and smooth fingerpicking took us right down to his old busking ground of New Orleans for a short and sweet 25-minute opener. Maybe I should really say short and bittersweet, as he admitted that virtually every song was about women and relationships gone wrong. “Sorry to start out on a such a down note,” he apologized partway through. “I don’t have any up notes.” Nobody seemed to mind.
Local band Lou (errr, interesting name to choose in the search-engine age, guys) broke from the pattern only a little. Their singer/mastermind Tess Emma estimated that they had exactly one happy song, and even that was called “Devil’s Doo-Wop.” But it’s not really downbeat so much as quiet and thoughtful. It’s coffeehouse folk that coasts easily on smooth voices (Emma’s is especially smoky) and inviting harmonies. Even with some laid-back drumming, they kept their easygoing late-night sound soft enough that it mixed perfectly with the sidewalk traffic and street noise just outside the windows.
Apparently the real up notes were being saved for the second half of the show. I don’t know what the full Kennan Moving Company experience is like, but it must be a big loud party if Oliver Kennan’s solo performance is anything to go by. The rest of the band couldn’t make it – it wouldn’t have surprised me if they were just stuck futilely looking for Center City parking all night long – but their frontman handily rocked the place by himself. He could have had the whole room dancing if it was a bigger room. As it was, he settled for a few fun catchy indie-poppy tunes before letting the group choose an audience singalong. I was rooting for the Over the Rhine song that almost got picked first, but the room changed its mind the moment he mentioned Taylor Swift. Well, I suppose nothing else really would have stood a chance. He and “Blank Space” left everyone with nothing but smiles and laughter all around.
It was a beautifully eclectic set to round things off when Tall Heights came along, fresh off the release their newest EP Holding On, Holding Out – and when I say fresh, I mean it was the day of release. “It’s sort of fitting that we’re playing unplugged in somebody’s living room for a bunch of people who have no idea who we are. Maybe we should do this for every release,” guitarist Tim Harrington murmured while announcing the fact. It would be an appropriate tradition for a duo that got their start busking in a public market. With guitar, cello and voice harmonies verging on sublime, their songs could be rooted in the American south or the folk traditions of Europe. And as compelling as that is already, the EP and their more recent shows have added some drums and electronic beats. It’s quite a blend to pull off, but these guys make it sound like the most natural thing in the world.
While passing the hat (these shows run on donations – as artist-direct as it possibly gets), one of the team mentioned that the next show will be to celebrate Sofar Philly’s fourth anniversary. There’s no telling what else is up their sleeve, but we can find out on November 13th.