SCENE: LIVE FROM A WEEQUAHIC LIVING ROOM, IT’S SATURDAY NIGHT!
Published July 2, 2017 | Andaiye Taylor
Arguably one of the best live shows in Newark in June took place in an unlikely venue: a neighborhood living room.
Sofar Sounds, the world-spanning concert series, debuted in Newark in late June. It provided an intimate concert experience for about 35 music lovers at a private home in the city’s Weequahic section.
The music series’ story began eight years ago when a pair of friends launched it in London back in 2009. Dissatisfied with their concert experiences at the time, they invited musician friends to play an intimate show for a handful of guests at their home.
The concept has since gone global, with more than 350 host cities and hundreds of concerts each month. One June 24th, Newark became one of the latest locales to host a SoFar Sounds experience.
Luck of the draw
Sofar concerts are deliberately small and intimate affairs–it’s one way the shows’ organizers ensure that music is the centerpiece of the experience. Unless you’re lucky enough to receive a promotional code that lets you reserve your ticket right away, landing a spot at a Sofar show requires entering a lottery online and waiting to hear back about whether you’ve been selected.
If you receive a confirmation, which begins happening two weeks before showtime, you can purchase a ticket for yourself and up to two plus-ones. Ticket for the debut Newark Sofar Sounds show cost $15 apiece.
Besides your ticket status, there are two other elements of suspense with Sofar shows: the venue, often but not always someone’s home, is revealed the day before the show. The artists themselves are revealed when you’re there.
Songs from a room
We received our ticket confirmation about 30 hours before showtime, about an hour after I applied. We only had to wait a short time for the location to be revealed as well, since we applied for tickets fairly late. The show would take place in Newark’s Weequahic section, at the home of Elliott James.
James formerly operated Downtown Newark’s Key Club, where he focused on cultivating a music scene in Newark in part by forming and deepening relationships with some of the leading lights of R&B. He brought 98.7 Kiss FM into the fold for R&B open mics and talent search competitions, and attracted a who’s who of R&B and hip-hop luminaries to the venue as both performers and patrons. In 2013, James added a digital element to the mix with Sessions @ 58, which streamed live acoustic performances
James told me in an email that he wanted to, “Expose greater Newark area artists to the world via the global Sofar Sounds platform and network.” It only made sense that James (who is also son of Newark’s former mayor) would become Lead Ambassador for the Newark iteration of Sofar Sounds, and then host the first show himself.
About a half hour before showtime, as our Uber turned onto James’ block, it was immediately clear which home was the show venue. Elliot’s house glowed from the inside out with alternating red, green and blue lights. We exchanged greetings with a handful of people lounging on the front lawn who, in their attractiveness and trendiness, looked straight out of a Pitchfork article. We later found they were among the night’s performers.
We walked inside to a smattering of attendees already seated and mingling, and smooth R&B playing from a high-quality sound system. We’d brought along a bulky sweatshirt that we intended to use as a seat cushion based on the guidance in the event confirmation, but James had set up seating in his home: folding chairs in the living room and high stools in the dining room. By the time the performances began, the staircase leading to his second floor became a seating option as well.
James greeted us warmly and gave us a quick tour, pausing to review the food he’d bought for his guests: pans of meatballs, chicken wings, and chicken sausage. We’d also brought along scotch in an airtight canister emblazoned with the logo of a company I used to work for.
I got the bright idea to take a panorama of the room before the show got underway. I looked down at my cell phone clock. It was 8:59, and the show was supposed to start at 9 p.m. “Maybe I’ll have some leeway,” I thought. I hadn’t fully straightened my knees to stand up when James stepped to the mic to greet his guests, call the show to order and introduce its host. It was 9 p.m. sharp.
Host Lenny Harold, clad in ripped jeans and a bright white tunic, took the stage and welcomed the crowd. Harold was the evening’s host and occasionally freelanced as a hypeman for the three performing acts, but he kicked off the show with a rousing performance of his own. Listening to his voice, I was reminded a bit of Chauncey from Blackstreet, which makes sense given that he has joined the newest iteration of the group.
The first act, Mannywellz, traveled in from Washington, D.C. to perform. He had in tow a looper that he used to create beats and layer his vocals in realtime. I’d seen artists loop music live before, but was no less impressed as he beat boxed, harmonized with himself, and mixed his songs, including “Wrong Place,” live.
Next up was Whitney Jackson. She was a little nervous because her bassist hadn’t shown up that night, but if I hadn’t known anything about the snafu, I would’ve thought her entire performance was purposeful. She warmed up the crowd with a song we all knew, Jill Scott’s “The Way,” to which many of us sang along. She strummed a series of simple chords to back her next song, “5 a.m.”
“This isn’t how it sounds on the record,” she told us. The impromptu unplugged version sounded studio quality to me.
I snuck off to get a second helping of meatballs after Jackson performed the final two songs in her four-song set and missed the introduction to the next and final act, Nicholas Ryan Gant, which included a guitarist and two background singers. They also performed a four-song set including the songs “Can We Just Try It,” and “Chance,” and Gant’s standout falsetto voice sounded fantastic.
Living the dream
Early on in the night, I snuck a few texts to friends and family, including my mother, a live music fanatic, to let them know that they had to apply for tickets for Sofar Sounds Newark’s July and August shows.
Sofar Sounds’ founders were going for a compelling high-lo mix of top music quality, talent, and performances in a stripped down, unplugged, casual and familial atmosphere that centers the music above all. That was idea. And in practice, Sofar Sounds Newark nailed it.
Here’s how I think about the experience: in 2011 I was lucky enough to see Prince at Madison Square Garden. I had a great floor seat for an incomparable show, and I was grateful for that. But I was always jealous of the people who got to see him perform at First Avenue nightclub, the small Minneapolis venue where he filmed Purple Rain. I’ve seen Maxwell at a number of concert halls and arenas all around the New York metropolitan area, but I would have traded in a couple of those shows for one spot at his 1996 MTV…Unplugged taping.
That is, something about seeing amazing performers in a small venue feels like the height of experiential luxury. That is how the debut of SoFar Newark felt. The artists and performances were incredible, the audience was enthusiastic, supportive and unpretentious, and the intimate setting heightened it all.
SoFar Sounds returns to Newark on July 29th and August 12th. Apply for tickets for both shows online at sofarsounds.com/newark-nj. Selected attendees begin receiving invites to purchase tickets two weeks before each show, and are allowed to bring up to two additional guests (who must also pay for tickets). The venue is announced the day prior to the show.
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