Originally published in Beatroute Magazine, Vancouver
On a rainy Tuesday evening, the suburbs of the industrial East are quiet and empty. It’s dark, it’s cold; it’s winter in Vancouver. But down a deserted side street, tucked away between warehouses and old abandoned office blocks, light from an open door is spilling onto the road. There is warmth, laughter and the unmistakable sound of music.
To a passerby, perhaps this is just another house party. But what they have inadvertently stumbled across is something very different. There is a music movement taking place in Vancouver that is steadily growing out of the backstreets and living rooms of its residents.
Sofar Sounds is a monthly event that showcases local bands in a secret, intimate venue. Selective, elusive and shrouded in mystery, the location and lineup remain unknown to the attendees until the day of the event. One simply shows up with a box of beers and a willingness to listen. The goal? To strip gigs back to what they should be all about: the music.
Adam Caddell and Catherine Hodgson have been involved with Sofar Sounds since it started in Vancouver last July. They are dedicated to fostering a unique experience between the artist and the audience. “Artists perform to an audience who are so engaged you can hear a pin drop,” says Adam. “And this creates a sort of magical atmosphere, where the musician can literally see how their music resonates on the faces of the crowd.”
Entering a Sofar gig feels like this, there is an unspoken level of respect established amongst the attendees. The secrecy of the event creates such a heightened sense of anticipation it is impossible not to be enthralled when the first band takes to the stage. “My favorite part of the night is when the first artist begins their set. I look to the audience and slowly see the crowd make this sort of ‘woah’ face. Like dominos, they begin falling in love with the artist,” says Adam.
And the lineup is not just secret for audience members. Performers also have no idea who they will be playing alongside on the night. “Often there are artists of entirely different genres and they may have never even thought of sharing the same stage,” says Catherine. “So it’s super rewarding to see them appreciate that opportunity meet each other and connect.”
The Sofar phenomenon isn’t limited to Vancity. In fact, Sofar takes place every week in 86 cities, across 37 countries in the world, from Sydney, Australia to its birthplace in the heart of London. The onus is on creating a tight knit, supportive community around local music, the kind of environment where no one is talking or texting, the sound is clear and there isn’t some tall guy blocking your view.
It is a grass roots organization in every aspect, as Volunteers like Adam and Catherine organize, market, film, photograph and record the performances for nothing more than a donation at the door (all of which is divided amongst the performing bands). The desire is to provide a show that is unadultered by all the bullshit tied up with running a commercial venue, which is why the location of these gigs can be anything from an apartment living room to makeshift art studio.
“We’ve definitely had gigs in some tight spaces,” says Catherine. “But the most unique was probably last November when we hosted at Decentral, the Bitcoin headquarters here in Vancouver. It was such a special space with tons of history in those walls.”
As word is getting out, the guest list is growing. And since Sofar cannot meet this growing demand, there is now competition to RSVP to these increasingly coveted gigs in the most imaginative way possible. “People started catching on that we actually read every RSVP response made online,” says Catherine. “We’ve had poems and songs, or clicked on the excel cell only to have it pop out to reveal a 1000 word response. It’s one of the best parts of the job.”
My personal Sofar experience was something special. Friends were forged over beers as the bands intermingled with the crowd. Like a house party, there was no distinction between ‘crowd’ and ‘crew’, the hierarchy just wasn’t there. Sitting cross legged on rugs on the floor, over 30 attendees then watched silently and reverently as local acts Sam Tudor, Mesa Luna, JP Maurice and Carmanah each delivered an unplugged, stripped back set. There was banter, laughter, speeches and even a rousing dance session at the end. But it was the comment whispered to me by a friend that seems to really capture the feeling of the night.
“This is the first time I’ve ever really listened to music.”
And that simple remark seems to capture the entire point of Sofar Sounds. Rather than going out to watch a band, Sofar offers us the unique opportunity for us to stay in and actually listen to one. And that’s something worth RSVP’ing for.
Visit www.sofarsounds.com/vancouver to sign up to attend the next Sofar Vancouver event, which will take place in a secret location on the 12th of December. All funds raised at the door will be donated to The Canadian Council for Refugees. For more information visit www.canadahelps.org/en/pages/sofar-for-syria