Wonderful and intimate venues are closer than you think
A rainy night in Islington. Seven-thirty sharp. Ten strangers press themselves nervously into the small lift in a nondescript block of flats. On the fourth floor, a white door greets them, emblazoned with some esoteric acronym. Behind it, raves a carnival of sound.
Sofar, or “Songs From A Room” was started in London in 2008 after founders Rafe and Rocky agreed they were fed-up with lackluster gigs in noisy pubs that didn’t allow the capitol’s lesser-known musicians to really shine. “They wanted something more intimate, more fun, and more affordable,” says Emma, and looking around Tom’s tiny sitting room, that has certainly been achieved. There are about 60 people crowded into the little flat, two sofas, and two chairs in a corner for the performers. Thank goodness there’s a balcony for fresh air. That’ll be Tom in the sock feet. He’s emptied out his fridge and is offering it to people who’ve just arrived to chill their BYOB drinks. Jo, who has snagged a coveted couch spot, doesn’t need fridge space – she’s got a thermos at her heels and a steaming mug of mint tea in her hands. She is the picture of coziness, and looks at home despite never stepping foot in this flat before. As she sips she explains, “I’ve been to a couple of these [Sofar events] and it’s always a good night. We don’t know any of the performers, we just came along for the surprise.”
That surprise is Sofar’s currency. Information is kept to a minimum. Gigs are advertised on their website, with a date and a borough. If you’re savvy, you’ll figure out that the little icon in the top left of the date denotes what kind of venue it will be – either a private house or some sort of public space. These can be warehouses, empty theatres, old office blocks, cafes, etc. You register interest online and if you’ve made it in time (they sell out fast), you are invited to buy a ticket, paying only what you can afford. The details of the night and address are revealed just twenty-four hours before. Now, Sofar Sounds operates secret, quirky gigs every day in 261 cities and counting. Tonight the dazzling Rose Betts tops the bill, supported by two members of indie band Longfellow, and soulful solo act Westerman.
It may be informal, but the entertainment is first class. Each of tonight’s bands have public profiles on Spotify, Soundcloud, and have EPs (Extended Plays) available for purchase on iTunes. You really get the sense that you are in on the ground floor of something big. And yes, you may be quite literally on the floor, hugging your knees to make room for other audience members, plus Rose and her keyboard, bassist, drummer, cellist and violinist (wow), but, though the heat is stifling, the atmosphere is delightfully free.
The artists hang out before and after, chatting with audience members and watching the other acts play. In fact, one of Sofar’s few rules is that guests arrive at the beginning of the evening, watch each short set and leave before 22.30; this means neighbours can’t complain about late-night noise, there isn’t any awkward shuffling during performances, and it’s the perfect event to kick-start a long evening of fun.
A small hen-do makes up part of the crowd; the MC’s commends them on their “tasteful” choice of entertainment for the night. It’s this sense of relaxed community that keeps drawing Rose Betts, a Sofar Sounds veteran, back, despite her growing popularity.
“Sofar gigs are amazing, the nights we play are always without fail some of the loveliest, warmest receptions we get, and it's totally down to the ethos of Sofar as no one knows us or our music on those nights. The respect the audience gives the performer is so wonderful, and it means we return it tenfold, everyone has a better night and, it might sound cheesy, but people come away connected.”
She’s right. The evening is perfectly paced. Sixty people in a hot, low-ceilinged room sounds like a recipe for chaos, but the audience is respectful, attentive, and unhurried. Rose agrees. “In London particularly, there is so much rush and need for certainty. Sofar gigs slow time down, strip life back to the simplest form of just sharing experiences with other people, no cushy chairs or fancy lighting, or clanking bar in the corner. It's a timeless event, the same thing was happening 300 years ago I reckon, only people wore different clothes and smelled worse! We're surrounded by so many screens and buttons and short cuts and escapes, but we still all just want the same thing; to be happy and to be connected,” she observes wisely from her own decidedly old-fashioned black velvet frock (“charity shop,” she winks).
She sings out the final phrase in her thumping encore, Changing Days, then tells us we have one more song to sing. “It’s Lisa’s birthday, everyone!” One of the Sofar volunteers (most of the crew are volunteers) stands up bashfully as Rose leads the crowd in a melodic rendition of Happy Birthday. Tom gets a knife and some plates for the cake (by this time he’s not the only one in socks – even Rose proudly sports her holey-footed tights). The cake is small, and melting, a little like the flat, but Lisa offers everyone a piece. It’s clear why people like Tom are happy to volunteer their spaces, to fill their homes, studios, with live music and local people – to play host to a moment.