They say the only music format that can’t be pirated is live music. I think it’s true. No matter how advanced your camera and microphones are, you simply cannot recreate the magic of being there in the moment, right when the music is playing. Sofar Sounds is a testament to that notion.
The premise of Sofar is simple. You sit in a living room with around 50 other people. You watch the musicians play. There are cameras taking footages of the show, but other than that you ought to put your phones away and respect the music. No ringtones. No vibrations. Or clanging cans. Just the music. This raw simplicity is what makes Sofar unique.
The Bonfire Night entry of Sofar London was in a flat in Hackney. And it’s not an easy area to get into. As Rafe Offer, Sofar’s co-founder himself put it: ‘it’s fucking hard to get here!’ It’s a 10-minute labyrinthine walk through numerous alleys from the Hackney Central overground train station. On the gate of the flat were Sofar posters. There were people by the door holding the guestlist. In order to attend a Sofar gig, you have to apply on Sofar’s website beforehand. Thousands of people apply every month and Sofar can only accommodate a few of them. A spot at a Sofar night is highly demanded in cities like London, where the movement first started, to the point that they aim to have a gig every night.
While the flat did not belong to Rafe – it belonged to a man named Jo, who’s got an impressive book, record and photo collections – he was hosting the night. In between phone calls and chats he made sure that everyone on the guestlist could get in and find a spot to sit. He opened the night when everyone was settled.
Rafe told a bit about Sofar’s story. It was born out of his frustration with live music. Stadium shows are great, but to him they lack the personal connection that intimate gigs offer. Gigs at small venues like bars are also losing their charm as the audience tend to focus more on their smartphones and drinks rather than the music. So in 2009, Rafe and his mates decided to put on a gig and invite serious music lovers to come and watch. They recorded the gig and uploaded them to YouTube. Out of his expectation, Sofar blew up. More than 100 cities are now hosting Sofar gigs. Rafe even lost count.
Several ‘big names’ have played Sofar. Karen O played the New York version in August. Hozier, a rising star in the UK circuit, surprised Manchester folks when he played there a while back. Even Bastille owed their success partly to Sofar. However, it is important to emphasise that Sofar isn’t about big names. It isn’t about who’s headlining and who are the ‘warm-up’ bands. It’s about detaching the musicians from all of those labels and let the music actually speak for itself.
The acts playing tonight were not announced beforehand. Only two posters in the room showed the names of the acts. There is the issue that whenever a gig is being put on, people will ask ‘who’s playing?’ and decide whether to come or not based on it. By keeping the acts secret, Sofar attempted to get rid of our biases and kept music appreciation pure.
Laish, the moniker adopted by singer-songwriter Daniel Green, was the first act to play. He’s got a beautiful backdrop: a bright lamp, an open window and occasional fireworks. For a set filled with poignant folky tunes, it was splendid.
He sung warm, stripped back tunes with his acoustic guitar. There was one song about his friend who has a gambling issue and another on how badly musicians get paid. My favourite song is probably ‘Warm The Wind’, an appropriate title for a cold night.
Baby do not forget
Love is a work in progress
Love is an object
For the second half of the set, a female vocalist, who had been sitting in a corner not too far from Green joined him. She added a layer to the vocals, which was nice. Another interesting thing was how they were not using any microphones. All of the vocals we heard were straight from the source – unplugged and untainted.
With only a five-minute interval, the next act was ready to play. It was Moses Sumney. He’s a singer-songwriter from Los Angeles and has toured with Karen O. He’s pretty funny too.
‘When I looked at the poster and saw Laish on it, I thought that is the best description of me, because I’m not actually from LA.’ (LA-ish. Capisce?)
The audience laughed for a good half a minute before he proceeded with the set. One of his most interesting songs was ‘San Fran’. It was about a deteriorating friendship with one of his mates. Karen O got him to play that song on her set and from then on it became an essential tune in his performances.
Moses Sumney has a strong, soulful voice. On one song he played around with dynamic vocals, shifting between whispering and articulating his words loudly. He pulled it off perfectly.
After Sumney’s set, Rafe announced a twenty-minute break. It was a chance for the audience to use the toilet, get more drinks and chat amongst themselves. The people beside me pulled out two boxes of sushi from their bag and started eating them. Meanwhile, I only brought a bottle of water.
Before the set restarted, Rafe told the audience that Sofar could only happen because of the donations that have been given to them. When I received the e-mail saying that I’ve been selected to attend the gig, there was also a link to donate. The donations go to cover production costs like videography as well as to support the musicians. Rafe referenced Laish’s song about musicians not getting paid well and he said that we could make a difference. He went on to pass a hat to an audience member and whoever wants to donate can put their money in the hat.
There were three scheduled acts that night. But an extra act, Only Wolf, was put in the slot. I love how spontaneous the night can be. Before Laish’s set, I heard Rafe saying ‘there’s a singer from Canada on the door. Can you please get him?’ Even Moses Sumney told the audience that he was asked to play just two or three days prior to the gig.
A cool-looking guy with a beard and round, thick-framed glasses, Only Wolf – the alias for Sean Parker – is from Vancouver. He stood in one of the corners with his guitar and an amplifier. Due to the minimal equipment that night, he couldn’t have multi-layered sounds for his psychedelic folk music, which is how he usually performs them. When he finished his one-track set, he showed the audience his newly released vinyl album (translucent coloured LP!). He also said that he would really appreciate anyone who’d ‘pay for the rides in Hyde Park’ for him.
To Kill A King concluded the night. They are a five-piece band: one singer, one guitarist, one keyboardist, one drummer and one cellist. They’ve toured the US and the UK and will play Shepherd’s Bush Empire in March 2015, but their label kept asking them to play ‘living room gigs’ like Sofar.
Although they have five members, their performance was as warm and intimate as the solo acts before them. On certain parts of their songs, the entire band hummed and I could see a lot of people smiling and nodding their head during these parts. I was particularly drawn to the cellist, who was amazing at providing the rhythm while occasionally being infectious with melodies. They played some new songs that they haven’t recorded, so it was a privilege for the audience to hear them.
Everyone seemed pleased at the end of the night. Some approached the musicians to thank them. Others talked to Rafe, and one person passed the hat filled with bank notes and coins to him.
It really was one of the most genuine, powerful gigs I’ve ever been to. I focused on nothing else but the music. As much as I wanted to take notes on my phone to write this story, I couldn’t. Then again, my story can’t fully convey what the experience was like.
Because you simply have to be there to enjoy the music.