Among rows of flats that all look the same, there is the door numbered 47. On entering, I hear loud chattering among almost a hundred people present in the living room. An American in a bowler hat pleads: “Please guys, no talking. God, I feel like a teacher.” Rafe Offer, co-founder of Songs from a Room, known as Sofar, hopes to get the evening’s proceedings started.
Soon enough, the babble dies down. Offer thanks the host of the evening and introduces the first artist, Kilburn-based indie folk band Ligers.
Sofar started in 2009, hoping to bring musicians back to the place where they played their first song – the living room. There’s an element of exclusivity in that shows happen once every month at a location that remains undisclosed till two days before the gig.
James Steel, vocalist of Whitechapel’s alternative blues band the Brute Chorus is performing for the second time. “It’s nerve-racking. We’re used to performing in clubs to energetic audiences,” he says.
Another part of the mystery Sofar keeps safely guarded till the show starts are the artists performing. “Part of the reason we do this is because people at gigs want to know who plays and then they go only for one or two of the bands. Or they come late, or leave early, or talk during the other bands’ performance. The problem with that I think is it’s not respectful,” Offer says.
“So by not telling people, they have to trust our ability to put on a good show. They have to come for the whole night and listen to all the music.”
Indeed, the no-noise policy ensures that anyone who even sneezes, coughs or opens a beer does so being completely aware and cautious. The other, more obvious upside is that shows have never received any complaints from neighbours, Offer tells me. “It’s also because we end by 10:30 pm.” There have never been concerns over health and safety despite the fairly large turnout.
The resultant atmosphere of a Sofar show can be summed up as intense and emotional. A band can channel the collective energy in the room for a clap-along, or they can perform music that needs nothing else but the audience’s rapt attention.
The music and the experience are magical. “We think that it’s magic when people obey the rules. The bands love it. They never play when it’s so quiet. We tell the bands to try to play unplugged, or at least as stripped down as possible,” Offer says.
Sofar has to choose the right music and the right audience. After sending out invitations through a mailing list, about 500 people respond wishing to attend. Offer sits down with his colleagues and they choose about 90. “People who come – some of them – can really help the performers’ career. They begin following the bands on Facebook, buy their music, and even get them gigs. Sometimes they (bands) get bookings at festivals or big shows based on just playing here,” Offer explains.
The Brute Chorus are perfect examples of that. During their set, Steel announces that they will be performing at the South by Southwest, one of the largest music festivals in the United States.
Completely self-funded, Sofar covers the costs of filming and broadcasting shows through contributions attendees make. Offer jokes that the reason why he wears a hat is not just “because it looks good” but so that he can pass it around later on. Offer thanks every person heading out after the gig. The atmosphere is very social and very warm.
Part of the warmth is caused by the fact that there are too many people inside the same room. As one band finishes its set, people take a breather outside – some for a smoke, others because it becomes too stuffy after a while. Sofar may not be for claustrophobics, but it certainly is the best place to discover new music with friends and strangers alike.
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