At 7:30 p.m. on Feb. 28, concert-goers began ordering hard cider from the bar, settling on the floor with blankets and pillows they brought from home and turning off their phones in preparation for a trio of mystery performers. In the lantern-lit cidery with no stage, no microphone and no spotlight, a Sofar Sounds volunteer welcomed each of the three young local artists: Jeremy Ferrara, Ian Michael Lindsay and Pacific Trio, all of whom played songs from unreleased albums and EPs.
Sofar Sounds operates in 429 cities around the world and has been delivering sweet tunes to show-goers in intimate settings for almost 10 years, but you have probably never heard of it. This start-up depends on word-of-mouth for its advertising, is run primarily by volunteers and centers its business model on secrecy.
The gig at Reverend Nat’s Cidery and Taproom in northeast Portland on February 28 was organized by Sofar Portland’s only full-time employee, Director Christina Klinge.
Sofar began in London when Co-founder Rafe Offer, a dedicated concert-goer, found himself getting frustrated with sound systems that failed to do the artists justice and crowds that were more interested in documenting the event on their phone than experiencing it in real time.
Offer decided to propose a new kind of concert modeled after a house show. Volunteer hosts provide their bars, storefronts, offices, backyards, roofs, living rooms, kitchens and even bedrooms. For each event, three performers either apply or are sought out and then are given equal stage time and perform without microphones. Attendees then enter into a lottery for a date and general area where they’d like to see a show but are not told the precise location until the day before nor who will be performing until they arrive.
Klinge described how one downside of a music industry that continues to grow less reliant on record labels is that it is difficult for artists to find their crowd. Klinge and other Sofar employees put an emphasis on scouting out self-releasing musicians, so they can introduce them to new audiences.
“I think Sofar really helps in this new music industry, which is oversaturated because so many amazing artists are on SoundCloud and Bandcamp self-releasing albums now,” she said. “It can be hard to find that one artist that you end up connecting with so much because you don’t even know they’re there.”
Before the show started, I had the pleasure of grabbing pizza with two-thirds of Pacific Trio, and the other artists casually mingled with members of the audience.
“In most gigs, you don’t get to see artists as people and interact with them on a personal level, but at Sofar gigs you can walk up to them and talk and it’s no big deal,” Klinge said. “I think that it’s a really special thing that we’re able to do.”
Jeremy Ferrara, an indie-folk singer and guitarist from San Francisco, opened up the event with his bright voice and lyrics centered on love and vulnerability. He performed three emotionally charged songs, “Sing Until I Die,” “This Trouble” and a single that will be coming out soon.
With a dynamic approach to his folksy guitar riffs and a subtly raspy timbre to his voice, Oregon native Ian Michael Lindsay followed, performing soulful songs from his new album, “idee fixe,” as well as his single “Mexico” and a captivating cover of Tom Petty’s “Yer So Bad.” He said that his main inspirations are Bob Dylan and D’Angelo, which likely contributes to his skill in crossing genres.
The final act, Pacific Trio, consists of three Whitman College graduates who began singing together in an a cappella group and officially became a band a year and a half ago. Eve Goldman, Chloé Serkissian and Molly Evered achieved a perfect three-part harmony in every song they performed, accompanied by Serkissian’s mahogany Gibson L4 electric guitar. Although each member of the trio writes songs completely on their own, they come together with a delightfully cohesive sound reminiscent of indie-folk duo First Aid Kit. They performed songs from their new EP and a folk cover of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” that blew The Civil Wars’ version out of the water.
Compared to other gigs they have played, all of the performers agreed that Sofar concerts offer a uniquely tranquil atmosphere in which the audience and musicians can connect more intimately over an unplugged, relaxed experience.
“The audience that comes to Sofar come in without any expectations at all,” Serkissian said. “They buy tickets and they don’t care who is going to be performing, which shows a very open-minded interest. As performers, that’s really cool that people are paying to come see you even though they don’t know who you are.”
The artists also noted how Sofar’s model eases the strain of getting gigs.
“It’s a really great way for us not to always feel the pressure to bring our own friends out, because there are bars that will be like, ‘well, we don’t know if you’re going to bring in people, so we don’t know if we should book you,’ but with Sofar there’s no pressure,” Goldman said.
While Sofar is not yet turning a profit, Klinge said that the company inspires investors, grows each year and continues to attract dedicated creative types through word-of-mouth. It’s an amazing opportunity for those interested in event planning or performing to get their foot in the door, and for music lovers to expose themselves to local artists without all of the frills and distractions of conventional concerts.