By Katelyn Skye Bennett
It’s funny how we’re taught not to talk to strangers as kids but create so many connections through them later in life. Yet when music is involved, it makes sense. Sofar Sounds operates in 438 cities worldwide, according to the website. It has been in Chicago for the past five and a half years, according to Brandon Myers, the show lead at the Pilsen event on Friday, July 5. Through this platform, people around the world are connecting over their shared love of acoustic performances.
Sofar Sounds is more like a live music movement, a concept-driven “social experiment” as Myers said, rather than a money-making concert platform, though it does exist to help launch musicians into full-time work as artists. The format remains identical whether you’re in Madrid, the founding city of London, or here in Chicago, but the experience is always unique.
The location and details are always made available a day before the event, and the artists are kept secret until arrival. Thus, I approached a flat, concrete house with anticipation and entered a door labeled only by a taped paper sign to experience my first Sofar event — a very millennial one this time.
Jennifer Denali opened for the night, visiting Chicago from Brooklyn on her tour. She sang pared-down pop, including her hit, “Painkiller,” which tells part of her story. In keeping with the live, acoustic feel, she took only her guitarist in his Yankees hat rather than the full band. Sitting on a tall chair in front of millennials on throw rugs, the soulful singer swayed her head as she sang and perpetually ran her fingers through her long blonde hair, pulling away from her face until it fell back on the next line.
Jennifer also shared “Love,” which she said we were the first to hear. “It’s where I intend to go with my sound,” she said. The song was melancholy and included high runs. Her performance was a solid way to introduce the evening, assuring the audience of Sofar’s quality.
Next up was the group Vision in the Rhythm, a first-timer at Sofar Sounds. Composed primarily of college students, three brothers and a friend, the group put on a confusing and painful performance. The vocalist sang in nearly indiscernible English, which I came to realize was reggae. It was bizarre to watch a group of four white boys from the south Illinois suburbs playing a mix of reggae and folk that they say has a psychedelic feel if they use the full band. I didn’t know what they were trying to be, but it felt like appropriation.
I interviewed them briefly after the show, and bassist John Williams explained their sound, saying, “[Vocalist Pat Williams] loves old-time reggae… we put it together with an alternative sound we had, that my brother Mike and I had already.”
Honestly, the instruments were fine, and the Mike’s drums — a mix of djembe and bongos — were good. I could have zoned out to the instruments had there been no vocalist. However, Pat was present and had a large impact on their sound. While the members were friendly as people, the musical performance was one I could have easily gone without.
Wrapping up the night was internationally acclaimed R&B artist Matt B. He passed out his signature, free gel bracelets before the show, which I later discovered glow in the dark. Originally from Chicago, he’s made it in the Japanese scene and is working to do so in the US now.
His music was smooth, the kind that makes you want to close your eyes, sway, and let it wash over you. It was just Matt B, the keyboard player, and the audience that night, but his engaging stage presence made it clear that he was made for a much larger platform.
“I always love, love, love the crowd participation,” he said as he helped the audience sing along, his vest open to his smooth chest, locs falling in his eyes.
Matt B’s high voice worked well for his genre, and though he’s not MAJOR., his performance was definitely the best way Sofar Sounds could have ended the night. He brought all the feels with his love songs, singable oldies, and a sweet happy birthday to Maya in the front row.
Emilie Sarkissian, an ambassador for Sofar Sounds, defined it as “a community that creates intimate spaces for artists to share their music with people with no distractions.”
The respect Sarkissian alluded to was clear by the way people remained silent during performances, cleaned up after themselves, and mingled amiably between sets. The emcee continually thanked the volunteers, singers, and most of all, the host.
The evening took place largely due to the hospitality of Raghu Betina, a Pilsen resident who regularly hosts Sofar events in his loft. He opened the entire space as a venue, setting up a photo booth and offering free shots and drinks. Many guests on July 5 were first-timers enjoying the company and booze.
Over the din, he commented that Sofar has “grown tremendously” over the past couple years and does “a really great job of having an eclectic mix [of artists].” Raghu has enjoyed his experiences with Sofar and continues to open his home so the live music revolution can continue to bring like-minded people together here in Chicago.