by Andrew DeThomas
It was a sunny evening as people found their way through downtown Austin to a secretly disclosed location just off the bustling Congress Ave. Up on the 14th floor those arriving found themselves in an unlikely venue. WeWork, a modern startup incubator, had been repurposed; desks and chairs had been moved aside to accommodate a small stage area and sitting room for guests. The scene was relaxed as everyone found a floor seat and enjoyed free beer, courtesy of event sponsor Lone Star. This was not to be confused with a comfortable in-office happy hour; this was a secret Sofar Sounds showcase.
This is the type of environment cultivated by the Sofar Sounds concert series. Intimate venues playing host to local and traveling talent as small groups of guests offer their full attention to what is going on. It is this distinctive formula that has seen Sofar Sounds emerge as a boon to the local music scene in more than 265 cities around the world. As the effort grows, teams in each city continue to brainstorm ways to fulfill the Sofar mission: Bring the magic back to live music.
The Austin Sofar team puts on two to three shows each month. For such a covert affair, the process to attend a show is actually quite simple: Go online to sofarsounds.com and look at your city’s calendar. You will see the dates of the upcoming shows and the neighborhoods they will take place in. You can either buy a ticket ($20) for a guaranteed spot or you can apply to be randomly selected to attend (any amount of payment is accepted for this option). The exact location and start time are revealed to the attendees the day before the show. You find out the artist lineup when you arrive on site. This process puts focus on the experience instead of any particular artists.
Sofar Sounds has had a presence in Austin for many years. It went through some growing pains and organizational restructuring, much like the city of Austin itself. However, it continues to grow and build momentum thanks to the support and enthusiasm of the fans. As is tradition, Steven Cantu (City Leader for Sofar Austin) polled the crowd to see who the newcomers were to the showcase experience. About half of the crowd raised their hand, signaling a strong presence of showcase veterans.
The allure of the shows becomes clear, simply by observing the connection between the artists and the audience. Caroline Sharp, a 25-year-old music lover and three-time Sofar attendee, enjoys discovering new local artists in an exciting way. “This is my favorite way to find new music and new bands in Austin, there’s nothing else like it,” she explained.
Cameron Ornelas, a 28-year-old hi-tech sales executive, has been to many Sofar shows. Much of what he enjoys is the mystery of the process and the simplicity of the shows. “Check this out, I love showin’ up not knowin’ what I’m gonna get. I like the rawness and the energy that every artist brings. It’s the most original way you’re gonna hear music these days.”
The mystery surrounding the showcases does not always excite people though. Not everyone is willing to spend money on an event with so many question marks. What if you don’t like the venue or the bands in the lineup? Sofar goers (Sofarians) have to attend each concert with an open mind, especially considering the way the Austin team structures their lineups. According to Zach Goldman, Artist Liason for Sofar Austin, “Our showcases feature artists that play all genres of music. With the amount of talent we have in Austin, it’s been a fun challenge deciding which artists to put together in our lineups.”
The lineup at WeWork was no exception. The concert kicked off with local electropop powerhouse The Wild Now. Lead singer Taylor Baker opened the set by telling the fans, “You know I actually work in this office every day, so it feels very weird to be up here singing for everyone.” After inciting some laughter, the band got to work and lured in the audience with dreamy vocals and up-tempo melodies. The Wild Now have played four Sofar shows across the country and when asked why they keep participating in the concert series, Drew Walker, lead guitarist, replied, “The silence and attention of the audience makes the music worth playing. This is how we earn and meet our serious fans.”
Next came hyped local group MCG. This five-piece band is known for their exciting dream pop-infused garage rock. The light and pleasurable vibes of their music were met with the memorable vocals of lead singer Mariclaire Gamble, causing much of the audience to sway in rhythm. After their set, MCG drummer Drew Silverman emphasized the intimacy of the performances, saying “These showcases have sort of a VH1 Storyteller vibe to them. It’s a cool place to be heard and share your work.”
Then came Darja, a young and very talented singer/songwriter originally from Serbia. Darja’s set was gentler and noticeably unhurried. Performing all original works, she punctuated her songs with explanations of her song titles and pleasant commentary on the direction of her pieces. The crowd was remarkably silent as they appreciated her raw vocal talent and clean piano compositions.
Finishing out the night was mega-popular Austin-based hip hop ensemble, Magna Carda. Kicking off their set lead vocalist Megz Kelli asked the crowd if they were ready to vibe out and invited everyone to “Keep doin what you’re doin’ on this chilled out Thursday night.” Playing with their signature jazz-tinged flow, the group absorbed the room’s attention.
With her typical energy and confidence, Megz performed the final song standing amongst the noticeably excited crowd of seated onlookers. Set to perform at Austin City Limits Music Festival this October, this group is used to selling out large venues around town and playing for large crowds. The Sofar concert was quite a change of pace, which prompted drummer Mike “Brotha Mike” Gonzalez, to comment, “This whole thing was so smooth and I really enjoy the laid back vibes. It’s so hard to play when you’re being rushed and that didn’t happen here so I liked this whole set up”
You can check out Sofar Sounds’ calendar at their site and the next show will be this Saturday, August 27th.
Andrew DeThomas is a concert photographer and writer based out of Austin, TX who is also starting his own creative development company.