Sofar Boston Brings Secret Concerts to Local Living Rooms
Last night, 50-some people gathered on the second floor of an apartment building on Penniman Road in Allston, mingling in a spacious loft decorated with Christmas lights and fall foliage.
Promptly at 8:30, the music began. Four acts played over the next three hours—Vinnie Ferra (accompanied by a full band, including a violinist and a cellist), Friendly People (whose barefoot singer sipped on wine and engaged in witty banter with the crowd between songs), Isis Lune (with jazz-inspired vocal stylings from lead singer Ella Joy Meir), and Gene Shinozaki and Max Jackson (a duo consisting of a beatboxer and a didgeridoo player—enough said). The Christmas lights flickered to every beat—engineered by the emcee in the corner—and the crowd loved every minute of it.
But this wasn’t just another Allston house show. This was the inaugural event for Sofar Boston, a local branch of the global brand Sofar Sounds that curates secret, intimate pop-up gigs in living rooms throughout nearly 40 cities around the globe.
The exact location of each Sofar Sounds show isn’t revealed until a few days before—that’s come to be expected of secret events. But here’s the real catch: attendees don’t know who’s performing until they show up.
“It’s a discovery thing—a completely different experience and not something traditional,” said Dean Davis, one of the coordinators of Sofar Boston. “It’s taking a chance to really listen to something you might not regularly listen to.”
Getting a crowd to really listen to the music is the basis of the movement. It takes its name from the 1969 Leonard Cohen album Songs from a Room and began four years ago in London, where cofounders David Alexander and Rafe Offer were growing frustrated with traditional venues.
“[They] went to a show and heard people clinking glasses and such, and basically everything was louder than the group was,” said Davis. “So what they did was create [Sofar Sounds], where you have people really listening to you and generating feelings for the music that you’ve crafted.”
Before the music started last night, the emcee announced a few ground rules: don’t talk, don’t use your phone (unless for Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram), and stay for the whole night—all with the common goal of maximizing respect for each performer.
“It’s not at a bar and it’s not a house party either—not a house party at all,” said Mark Schafer, another Boston coordinator. “It’s in someone’s living room and it’s an intimate experience where people are just sitting and listening to music.”
To keep the focus on the music, each of the three or four sets at each show lasts only around 25 minutes.
“It’s just a handful of songs. Even if you’re not into one of the bands, it’s short and tight so that you don’t have people fidgeting in their seats for two hours,” said Schafer. “It keeps people on their toes.”
All of the performers are approved by the global network, comprising of people working for record labels and promoters, as well as other influencers in the music industry.
“It’s not like we found someone on the street—although we may have—and told them to play a show,” said Davis. “These are groups that people want to see—the future tastemakers of the independent music scene.”
Sofar Sounds alumni include rising names like Bastille, James Vincent McMorrow, DeVotchKa, and—get this—Robert Pattinson, who played a gig in London in 2010.
Since 2009, Sofar Sounds has expanded into cities spanning five continents. After hearing about an event in Costa Rica from a friend and attending another one in New York City, Davis was determined to bring the movement to Boston. He reached out to Offer, who connected him with Schafer and Eric Shea, another local music enthusiast. Together, the three of them started building the movement in Boston this past July.
Everything—from finding a venue to recruiting artists, to getting a big crowd, to hiring a production company (Murdock Manor) for lighting, audio, and stage setup and design, and a film crew (Livewire Productions) to shoot videos, which are posted online a few weeks after each show—was accomplished through word of mouth.
“We just look for friends of friends and talk to them and ask them to be part of this global movement. When you say that, people are interested,” said Davis. “It’s a movement, and the only way we can continue moving forward is by talking to people and making them believe in the same thing we believe in.”
The Boston coordinators were pleased to find that the audience demand was overwhelming, with the guest list for the first show filling up rather quickly.
“What grabs people’s attention about it is that even though it’s mostly word of mouth, the idea that it’s so secret and exclusive—people love that,” said Shea. “That’s all the more reason for them to tell their friends about it afterwards and tell them to check out the next one.”
The guest list for each show is carefully curated, with the coordinators keeping track of attendees and making sure that people who don’t get into one show have a bigger chance of getting into the next one.
With planning for the second showcase the weekend of November 7 already underway, Davis, Schafer, and Shea hope to host a Sofar Boston show every one or two months going forward.
And while the first one took place in Allston—a haven for DIY shows and therefore the top choice to host the brand’s inauguration in Boston—it doesn’t mean that all future ones will. The coordinators hope to expand into living rooms small and large in neighborhoods throughout Boston. (“E-mail us if you have a townhouse. A mansion would be good, too. How about the top of the Pru?” joked Shea.)
“We’re looking to expand as big as possible and continue this movement because it’s definitely something people should know about,” said Davis. “It’s already started to help the independent music scene and it’s popping up in cities everywhere. It’s a continuous, growing thing.”
Admission to the Sofar Boston shows is free, but a $10 donation is suggested to help pay the musicians and the production and film crews. For a chance to attend future events, sign up for the mailing list at sofarsounds.com. To volunteer to host a gig, e-mail the coordinators directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.