Sofar Sounds Brings Unique Concert Experiences to Your Living Room

May 5, 2015

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Photos by Lindsay Corry

You’re invited to a concert but it’s a secret. The location and time are revealed the day-of, and you RSVP’d a month in advance. You don’t know who’s playing, and you certainly don’t know who is going to be sitting in the audience with you.

There’s something about a sense of insecurity that makes people afraid, but for others it’s an enticement. For the adventurous 60-person audience of Sofar Sound’s Pittsburgh Show on April 19th it was the latter.

Sofar, short for “Songs from a Room,” is a five-year-old company founded in London that specializes in “secret gigs” held in over 100 cities all over the world. They curate pop-up shows in unique locations that encourage audience members to sit down, pay attention, and genuinely enjoy the music. It’s an oddity- and one that Pittsburgh has welcomed with open arms.

The Pittsburgh chapter was founded by 22-year-old Gabe Wolford with the help of Dean Davis, Sofar’s spunky community manager. Davis opened up the April 19th show at Runaway Studios in Bloomfield with a flurry of energy. He informed the audience that four other Sofar shows were running parallel to Pittsburgh’s that night: in Brooklyn, London, Singapore, and Belgrade.

Screen Shot 2015-05-05 at 4.25.01 PM“You are representative of this movement here,” he said to the crowd, crammed into Runaway Studio’s unique artist space.

It may be odd to hear a concert experience being called a “movement,” but Sofar Sounds encapsulates the mission of any artistic movement: Change the way people think about the world. The aim of the company is to support local music while creating a global network of show planners and attendees. By creating the RSVP, each concert curates a unique audience who are dedicated and attentive.

The SoFar site states, “Our events are not ‘a party with live music,’ but an interactive listening experience for people who want to discover new music and meet like-minded people.” Audience sizes range based on the size of the venue, but tend to be on the small side.

That night in Bloomfield, the stage was set at the back of the room, and a small loft peered over it from behind. Abstract paintings decorated the walls, and twinkling lights framed the performance area. Tiny details made the space inviting: a small globe hanging from the ceiling, a rope hammock perched up on the loft, a sign reading “my soul costs $40/month at CLAY yoga” partly obscured by sound equipment.

Perhaps the biggest oddity of the space was the “hoagie petting zoo” at the entrance to the room. Visitors were immediately confronted by a fully-functioning petting zoo with several day-old hoagies (yes, sandwiches) sitting, fenced in. Latex gloves were available for those brave enough to pet a hoagie.

The audience exuberantly embraced the corky space (more than one person dared to pet a hoagie), and eagerly followed Davis’s instructions to take 30 seconds to compliment the people seated around them before the first performance.

Screen Shot 2015-05-05 at 4.25.18 PM“We build a community,” David said, “We want you all to be friends with each other. That’s the whole point. Get out of your comfort shells and be excited about people!”

And with the buzzing energy that results from strange compliments from people you don’t know, the audience settled into the first act, a man named Chet Vincent, who played a few soft acoustic tunes on the guitar. There were five-minute breaks between acts that allowed the audience to stand up, stretch, and make a couple of friends.

The 60 or so concert attendees ranged in age, from high-schoolers, to middle-aged professionals. Everyone had different routes to attendance. Many were on the email list, having heard about Sofar from their YouTube Sessions, or from a friend of a friend who went to a show in London, or from a connection to one of the planners. Some attendees were press, others were musicians themselves, and all were music fanatics.

Natalie Sweet, an attendee who joined the email list a few months ago, has been to several Sofar shows in Pittsburgh.

“I feel like people here have a lot of respect for the music,” she said, “You can’t get this kind of show at a bar. People really respect the musicians here.”

Chet Vincent was followed by André Costello, who charmed the audience with tales of burning pianos and the songs that resulted. All the acts were local Pittsburgh musicians and their sets were shorter than the usual opener or main performances at a concert. The audience listened intently and respectfully to each act, an anomaly in the world of live performance.

The headliner of the night was quintet White Like Fire, whose stunning harmonies filled the room with palpable pleasure. They played five tunes that sounded like folk versions of their normal pop-punk sound, each arranged acoustically that week for the Sofar show. It was a pleasant surprise- after all, no one knew what type of music was even going to be played that night before arriving.

When Wolford began the Pittsburgh chapter of Sofar, he was surprised at the high turnout. Pittsburghers have been receptive and supportive of tiny shows crammed into living rooms, lofts, artist spaces and galleries. To challenge and appease the wide crowd that attends these shows, Wolford tries to include a mix of genres.

“You’re inclined to branch out and explore a different genre that you might not have given a chance before,” he explains.

Wolford and Davis look ecstatic throughout the night. It’s hard work to coordinate music, sound, audience, and a video crew, but the two appear to be relaxed conductors of the evening. But that’s what happens when you’re crafting something that you care about.

“I do this because I really like it. The feeling after the show is really really great,” Wolford says. This isn’t his full-time gig. In fact, it’s completely volunteered time.

After White Like Fire finished their 20-minute set, the audience mingled in shared appreciation and pride regarding their newly budding Pittsburgh music scene. Stepping out of the studio space into the pouring rain was like entering back into a less exciting, less curated, and less special world.

But the wait for the next get-together isn’t long: The date for the monthly show will be released within the next week. Of course, you won’t find out the location until you make it on the list.

Get there:


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