On April 7, as the first ever Sofar Sounds concert in Charleston approached, Owen Brown — the man responsible for bringing Sofar to Charleston — wasn’t sure what to expect. “We were nervous as to how many people would show up,” he says.
Brown and his team were hoping for a hundred, but as the crowd settled in and the first act, Faline, was taking the stage, the room was packed with almost 150 concertgoers.
“Getting this many people out was nothing I expected,” says Brown. “I’m blown away by the fact that there are 150 people that came out to support a brand-new company in Charleston. To receive this much support is unreal.”
Brown lives in New York City now, but he grew up in Charleston, attending Wando High School. He emceed this inaugural event last Friday, and when he asked the crowd how many of them had attended a Sofar show before, a sparse few raised their hands.
For those unfamiliar with it, Sofar Sounds is a global phenomenon, hosting shows in over more than 330 cities and on every continent except Antarctica. Each city has a Sofar leader and volunteers that contact musicians, procure venues and organize the events.
Musical acts apply online and are chosen by the local Sofar team, curated so that each show is diverse. But one of the unique aspects of Sofar Sounds: None of the concertgoers know who’s performing until they arrive at the venue.
Speaking of venues, each show has a different location, but they’re always held at private residences or studios and announced the day before the concert.
The inaugural Charleston show was at photographer Sully Sullivan’s studio. “We knew we had a great place for the first show,” says Brown. “Sully has been such an amazing host.”
For Sullivan, getting ensconced in the music scene is nothing new. He’s had concerts at his studio before, but his affiliation with music goes well beyond playing occasional concert host. “I grew up in the music scene,” he says. “Joel (Hamilton) and I grew up together and that’s originally how I started doing photography, on tour with him, 13 or 14 years ago.
"So when (Sofar) contacted me, I was kind of like, ‘I don’t know you and I don’t know who’s playing.’ But as soon as they said Joel, I said, ‘absolutely.’”
Yes, Joel Hamilton (aka Mechanical River) was one of the acts at the inaugural concert, along with Faline and Brave Baby. Each act subtly adapted their performance to comply with Sofar’s concept.
Part of their modus operandi is to create listening-room concerts, quiet shows for a completely attentive audience. And the sets are short—give or take 20 minutes apiece.
So Faline’s set was more or less like their other concerts, complete with poignant lyrics and soulful singing, only perhaps a little more subdued and obviously shorter.
The same could be said for Brave Baby. Similar to their other shows, only they steered clear of their rockiest tunes.
As for Mechanical River, Hamilton took the stage with his acoustic guitar and was backed by a string trio, consisting of violin, viola and cello.
It was the kind of concert that could never exist within the confines of a crowded bar or rock venue. The listening-room atmosphere was essential. “I think it brings a new appreciation for music,” says concertgoer Dulcie Hanham-Gross. “I know the experience of being at a bar and people are talking and texting and all that stuff. I think (Sofar) opens a lot of doors that aren’t open yet.”
Talking and texting are prohibited during Sofar Sounds’ concerts. There are, however, 15-minute set breaks between each act so people can socialize, meet new faces, or just get their smart phone fix.
Outside of Sullivan’s studio, folks sipped brews and congregated around a fire pit. All generations were represented. There was the requisite amount of 20-somethings and 30-somethings. But there also were some grayhairs, some moms handing out sandwiches, and even a baby.
Like all Sofar shows, the event was BYOB, no food or beverages are provided and all ages are welcome.
That being said, tickets are limited. These are small venues with low capacities. So those who want to attend need to apply online, and the earlier the better.
As of now, the Charleston Sofar shows will be happening on a monthly basis. The next two are already fully planned, next month’s featuring two touring acts and a local one.
Says Sofar volunteer Austin Poisson, “We want to support our local artists but we also want to give regional acts a chance and allow international acts to come through and share their music with our city.”
That’s part of Sofar’s agenda, building a global community of musicians. But, as with most things, it all starts locally. Says Brown, “The whole point is to help local artists and I think that based on what I’ve seen tonight in Charleston, we’ve accomplished that goal.”
And he already has feedback from the musicians who participated to back that claim up. “It’s amazing hearing the biggest musicians in Charleston, like Joel (Hamilton) say, ‘That is the most attentive audience I’ve ever had in Charleston,’ and that’s what he just said to me. So when you hear things like that and you realize that you’re actually doing something that’s unique in Charleston, that’s when you realize that you’ve made a positive contribution.”