The last time I went to a concert it was too loud, tall people stood in front of me the whole time, and canned beers cost $15. While there's a time and place for every experience, and there can be something wonderful about being crammed in one place with thousands of fans and watching your favorite act through a giant LED stage display, sometimes you want a cozier, more intimate setting.
I've been meaning to check out a Sofar Sounds concert for years, but was never quite sure what to expect, which is entirely by design. Based on the premise of hosting secret concerts in unique venues, Sofar promises a serendipitous and intimate concert-going experience.
The room set up:
Looking online I found 13 upcoming concerts in the Boston area in September alone, each concert identified only by its neighborhood, whether the hosting space is commercial or residential (all shows in Boston in September are currently listed as being in commercial venues), and, occasionally, an additional marker to note to distinguish the event as a rooftop show, at an outdoor patio, or in art gallery space. Sofar's website emphasizes their roots in a pass-the-hat type of performance, prioritizing fostering connection between artists and audience and ensuring equitable earnings for performers (who earn roughly 70 percent of the net profits from each show).
I selected a show in Davis Square and at 8:10 a.m. the day before, the address of the concert was revealed to me as the Sofar Boston Headquarters, noting that there would be mostly floor seating and that you could bring your own alcohol and small snacks.
The vibe was corporate speakeasy as I arrived at office headquarters when the time came. A cheerful woman standing inside a bright white hallway greeted us, dressed in a very trendy all-black outfit. "Names?" she beamed, and checked us off the list.
Right around the time the doors were opening, I received another email in my inbox introducing the lineup: Wyn Doran (performing as Wyn and the White Light), Radha, and Old Tom & the Lookouts (tonight, just Tom performing). The email also gave photos, bios, and blurbs about each and a way to follow each of them.
I discovered this email only after I got home, as by that time, I had already stepped into the concert venue and was preoccupied with oohing and awwing the setup. The contrast to the drab, bland office hallway was stark. Southwestern-style blankets and pillows were strewn across the floor. The room was washed in a warm yellow light cast by string lights, and gave the impression of a stylish urban apartment going on a glamping trip. Retro magazines, houseplants, and record players decorated the space, which exuded a cozy and inviting energy, enhanced by the soul and funk music playing in the background. Half of the room served as an active office area, where a few individuals still seemed to be working, a scene that brought to mind NPR's Tiny Desk concerts. There were about 18 cushions and blankets alongside chairs and standing room options. Around 40 people ended up showing up, which I thought was an impressive turnout for a Tuesday night, especially considering the frequency of events hosted throughout the week in Boston.
First up was Wyn Doran, performing with Lucia Jean on bass as Wyn and the White Light. They introduced their style as "soul rock," and explained that they were also selling soul rocks at the front door - literal rocks you could buy to support them (you choose the one that speaks to your soul, get it?). They gave off an appreciatively New England witchy vibe, offering tarot readings over Instagram and announcing an upcoming equinox party celebration show. "There will be therapeutic screams," they promised, beginning their set.
Jean's bass growled out deep, steadying tones, over which Doran's powerful vocals rose shuddering with passion and edged with grit. Her voice was occasionally electronically distorted so that she sang in harmony with herself, and the contrast between the high, wavering vocals and the depth of the bass made the whole performance feel electrified. Their passionate vocals reminded me of 4 Non Blondes, their tight harmonies reminded me of Lucius, and their witchy, magical vibe added a third element that was entirely their own.
There was something therapeutic about their performance, which was delivered in purest form during their song "How the West Was Won," in which they asked for audience participation in a screaming call and response. "There's a lot to scream about and once you start the gates just sort of open," they encouraged the audience from the stage.
For their last song, they flipped the room. Positioned behind the audience, Doran strummed a ukulele while Jean added her mesmerizing harmonies to present an acoustic rendition of Amy Winehouse's "Back to Black." This alone would have been worth the price of admission and achieved what I was hoping to experience that night: an intimate performance that enveloped the audience in a hushed, trance-like state. The passionate and almost sacred aura was so profound that I hesitated to even lift my camera and break the spell with a photo.
Next was a 10-minute break, during which the host urged us to speak to one another about our favorite karaoke songs. Doran and Jean sat in the cushions beside me, and when the 10 minutes were over the host called out to the room for everyone's favorite songs (notables included "Complicated" by Avril Lavinge, "Superbass" by Nikki Minaj, "If I Ain't Got You" by Alicia Keys, "Mockingbird" by Eminem; thankfully we didn't also have to sing).
Radha performing on keyboard:
Radha took the stage next. The host introduced her music and where people could find her, and also noted that she was in a viral TikTok last summer (which I think I remember seeing at the time) of her singing "All of You" by John Legend in Quincy Market as John Legend himself walked by and stopped to watch. (This was met with cheers, clapping, and surprised cries of "that was you!" from the audience).
Singing in an unplugged R&B style, Radha's soulful vocals were so smooth they seemed seamless. Her wandering, rich melodies were passionate and meditative, rising above her solo piano. She played original songs as well as a cover of Anna Nalick's "Breathe," all of which seemed perfectly suited for the space.
Old Tom and the Lookouts:
Last, Old Tom and the Lookouts took the stage (“today he's just Tom and we get to be the lookouts," the host quipped as lead singer Alex Calabrese took the stage alone).
“Well I'm going to sing you a bunch of sad songs," Calabrese proclaimed, matter-of-factly. While many of his lyrics seemed to be about mental health and being vulnerable, his poppy folk-style guitar playing kept the mood upbeat and earnest.
“We're not going to do a lot of screaming, but we're going to do a lot of apologizing," he announced at the start of "Hey Edna," which included a call and response line "I'm sorry, Edna." Like the other performers, he ended with a cover: "Long December" by the Counting Crows.
All in all, the night delivered exactly what I hoped it would. It provided a platform to spotlight artists in a unique, intimate setting, and offered the chance to experience a show up close surrounded by a small, supportive crowd. While I was disappointed not to have gone to a Sofar shows in a residential space, I was impressed by their headquarters and will definitely check out some of their other venues in the area. I also appreciated that the night showcased local talent. As they introduced themselves, the artists also spoke of where else in Boston they would be playing next, allowing the night to unveil more than just the musicians in the room, but also the broader Boston music community.
Wyn and the White Light, Radha, and Old Tom and the Lookouts performing at the Boston Sofar Sounds Headquarters:
Review from the Independent Review Crew.