In 2009, London musician Passion Ate Dave looked around him and did not like what he saw. In his view, seeing live music had come to fall into two distinct experiences: you were either in a giant amphitheatre watching tiny dots dance on a far away stage or you were in a tiny pub near the stage, but the people around you could care less. Being a new musician was (and still is) really tough; unless people already know you, they probably aren’t going to pay much attention to you – even if they managed to wander in to a pub during your set. Unknown musicians garner little respect and little attention.
So along with co-founders Rafe Offer and Rocky Start, the trio founded Sofar Sounds (‘SOngs From A Room’). Every month, a willing volunteer offers up their private space for a lineup of local musicians. Guests sign up for the newsletter, hear about the gig and show up with BYO in hand. It’s the music industry’s answer to the pop-up shop. Since its birth in London, the movement has gone global with Sofar Sounds affiliates in over 30 cities around the world, including Sydney since October 2011.
Curious to see what it was all about, this Honi writer went along to check it out.
I pitch up at seven o’clock with a bottle of wine in one hand and plastic cups in another, not quite sure what to expect – the address I’ve been given has led me to a warehouse in one of Marickville’s industrial precincts. The venue this month turns out to be a studio-by-day-living-room-by-night; an obvious choice for an organization that prides itself on reinventing private spaces.
Giant cartoon screen-prints, a two-meter geisha fan and a collection of gold-framed landscape paintings decorate the walls, umbrellas hang upside down from the ceiling as creative light fixtures and potted palm trees feature heavily at ground level. Couches, crates and beanbags are scattered around the stage and guests have taken advantage of every available seat, some choosing to relax on the strategically placed Afghan rugs that hide the concrete beneath. Looking closer though, the aluminum insulation and chicken wire stretching across the sloped, 2-story ceiling serve as quick reminders that this is an industrial warehouse, not a new bar in King’s Cross. The venue, a large one for the organization, seems at capacity. Fifty-odd people chat amongst themselves sipping on BYO beer and wine.
First up is London transplant Dominic Youdan, a guitarist with a firm footing in modern folk music. From his first note the audience is spellbound, falling silent the second he takes the stage. This sort of audience attentiveness is what separates a Sofar evening from pub gigs – the intimacy, the appreciation and the openness. It’s rare, and though a dream come true for artists, it can also be a bit daunting. The affable Youdan is visibly impressed by the attention, but if thrown at first he recovers quickly, relaxing into a comfortable set of his emotionally charged melodies proving himself worthy of the crowd’s concentration.
Canberra native Guyy Lilleyman and his 12-string acoustic are up next. With an army of pedals at his feet Lilleyman forges a uniquely Australian brand of blues-infused country. Vast, barren, surreal landscapes haunt his musical interludes and one cannot help but imagine his music as the film score for a Nick Cave movie. Lilleyman’s voice is grounded in the earth just like his guitar and lends itself to the moody ballads of folklore. Lilleyman is charming, yet introspective. In moments of intensity, he allows his thick curly brown hair to veil his face. At other times, he flashes his broad and earnest smile.
Smaal Cats, a Sydney based four-piece, set up next. The stage is only large enough for their drummer, so the rest of the band is forced into the audience; as it turns out that’s exactly where they belong. To say that these guys are fun is an understatement. Seagulls, the band’s opener, is loud, joyful, full of heart, rough around the edges and with a heavy blues guitar – somewhere between The Cold War Kids and The Kooks. Charlie Graden on vocals is a show all on his own though; he quivers to every beat, thrashes around manically and puts pretty much all that he has into the lyrics. It’s not just a strong sense of rhythm and a heavy dose of soul that make Smaal Cats, it’s their boundless energy that brings it home for the crowd. After their planned set, they say goodnight and hastily start to pack up; the drummer Brad Landy deconstructs his cymbal. But before they can get too far the audience demands more and after some reassembly they deliver. Everybody leaps to their feet and needless to say, some manic, senseless dancing ensues. After two more songs, Brad was finally able to put his cymbal away – the night had come to an end.