Melissa Fernandez and Becca Sparkman have arrived knowing what to expect. The co-workers, friends and live-music lovers just don’t know exactly who to expect.
They are among the 100-plus attendees who’ve paid $18 to attend a semi-secret Sofar Sounds live-music performance.
Sofar is an acronym for Songs From A Room. Founders sought to create intimate music events where the focus was solely on the musicians, with as few distractions as possible.
These underground concerts are not new. The global company got its start in London in 2009. It was operating in close to 400 cities before the pandemic shut everything down.
As COVID cases and restrictions fade in 2022, Sofar is ramping back up with a renewed fervor.
How it works:
Go to the Sofar Sounds website and pick a show based on its location, date and time. You choose the general neighborhood, but are in the dark about the exact venue or artists.
Reserve a spot. Attendance is limited. Some locations are residential. Others are in commercial areas.
A day before the show date, look for an email that reveals the address. The email also gives specifics about food, beverage and seating.
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I show up at the sterile main entrance to the Union-Tribune high-rise building. A friendly security guard lets guests into the lobby and directs us to take an elevator to the third floor.
We Work is a co-working brand that manages and rents out office space on five floors in the building. The Outdoor Patio is accessed through a kitchen/cafeteria area.
Outside, on the east end of the breezy patio, caterer San Diego Lifestyle Management is selling bacon-wrapped hot dogs, cauliflower nuggets and other snacks.
You can purchase soft drinks—but as noted in the Sofar email, this concert is BYOB. Most shows allow attendees to bring their own alcohol, and are "4/20-friendly."
Fernandez and Sparkman have been to one other Sofar show. That one was held in a tiny hat shop in Oceanside. They sat on the floor, elbow-to-elbow with fellow concert goers.
Tonight, they arrived early and score We Work's chaise lounge chairs. They bring Nova Easy Kombucha. And blankets to fend off the night air.
Other attendees sit on the floor on blankets. Some bring foldable beach chairs, and drink glasses of wine carried in by the bottle.
Everybody’s facing a low-slung stage set up on the West side of the patio, which is illuminated by white string lights. Symphony Towers is the backdrop. From a distance on the skyline, the historic El Cortez sign blinks on and off.
“This is such a chill vibe,” says Fernandez, smiling broadly. “It’s great that you can bring drinks. You never know what to expect, but it always seems to be just like a friendly party. With music.”
Sofar’s lead organizer in San Diego has the precise personality you’d expect of someone throwing organized-but-friendly music parties.
Prior to the concert, I meet Neha Gandhi for coffee at J & Tony’s Cured Meats and Negroni Warehouse in East Village. Her enthusiasm is infectious. You can’t fake joie de vivre. Hers goes to 11 and rarely dips below that maximum level.
“My whole ethos in life is creating moments of joy,” she says, beaming. “Creating that joy through live performance is the best way to do it. There’s something special about being in a crowd of 50 people that’s clapping, singing, laughing and dancing together. The artists are there, looking the crowd right in the eyes.”
Gandhi has been Sofar’s San Diego point person since November 2021. Previously, she worked in corporate public relations on the East Coast.
“A large PR company wasn’t my jam,” Gandhi says. “I didn’t get the same fulfillment seeing clients get press, versus seeing a Sofar audience member walk away with a ‘Wow, once-in-a-lifetime experience.’ I’ll take the moments of joy.”
In her lead capacity, Neha oversees a part-time staff of about 15. Most are musicians or people connected to the music industry in some way. All share a love of live events.
Gandhi and her team vet locations and acts that want to play on a Sofar stage. At the start of 2022, the company was offering a couple shows a month. Now, check the website and you’ll find a dozen options for May and June (with more in the works).
Curating venues and artists keep Gandhi busy.
“Our guests trust us to find interesting venues,” she says. “We work with businesses looking to bring in new customers and are also excited about live music performance.”
“There are a couple ways we curate artists,” Gandhi says. “We have a directory of people already within the community. Some artists tour doing Sofar shows in multiple cities. We try to focus on local artists. And we also have an online application link for artists interested in doing their first show.”
Generally, a Sofar show includes three artists. Each performs a 20-minute set, with 10-minute breaks in between.
Sofar artists mingle with the crowd before and after shows. First up at We Work is Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter Artemis Orion.
Before her set, Orion tells me this is her first Sofar show, and she’s excited for the opportunity. She’s a solo act accompanied only by her own guitar-playing. Her voice is ethereal, clear, layered. Onstage between songs, she explains that her music comes from self-exploration. Her lyrics paint dreamy landscapes.
Before his turn on stage, Alfred Nomad tells me he’s done two previous Sofar shows, including stints in L.A. and London.
Any difference in people’s reaction to these shows in the United States and the United Kingdom?
“No, not really,” he says. “People are people wherever you go, and it turns out there are people who just like new music wherever you go.”
Accompanied by a keyboardist, Nomad performs a series of raps with a unifying positive message of mental health and self-care. He’s funny, personable and upbeat while displaying a range of emotion in songs like “Suffer in Silence” and Everything Will Be Alright.”
Hickson and iterations of Moonshine Soul are mainstays on the Sofar directory. In an unscripted encore, Hickson brings Nomad back onstage for a stirring, impromptu rap with the band.
Sofar’s Gandhi is excited about the shows coming this summer and beyond.
“I have new shows coming in El Cajon, Oceanside and down in Imperial Beach,” she says. “Literally, we’ll cover all of San Diego."
Except for the COVID break, Sofar has been operating in San Diego since 2015. Sheepishly, I ask Gandhi if I just wasn’t cool enough to have heard about it until now.
“It is super-secret,” she says. “You get plugged into the community either by knowing an artist, or the artist posting about it. Or, the host location might send it out to all of their Instagram followers.”
The shows are purposely designed to be small.
We're usually doing about 50 to 100 people in a space,” Gandhi says. “It's meant to be limited. Once we start getting past the 150-to-200 mark, that sense of intimacy disappears.”
There isn't an expectation with Sofar that you're coming to a fancy, high-production show, she adds.
“It’s a very sweet and intimate moment with an artist you don't know—but all of a sudden you're invested in them,” Gandhi says. “The investment happens from both ends, for fans and artists. Fans have the opportunity to meet artists and say, ‘Where are you from? What do you do? Where are you playing next?’ That's pretty cool to me.”
It can, indeed, be a moment of joy. SDSun