Brooklyn Boro

Barges and breweries: Sofar Sounds hosts secret concerts in Brooklyn’s most unique locations

April 29, 2019 Scott Enman
Sofar Sounds hosts intimate concerts in the living rooms of people’s apartments in more than 350 cities across the world. Photo by Sean McGlynn
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From the top of a ski jump in Norway to the highest floor of the Willis Tower in Chicago, concert series Sofar Sounds is redefining live music events with secret performances in offbeat locations.

What started as a group of friends hosting parties in their living rooms in London has grown into an international following with events in more than 350 cities.

Sofar’s intimate gigs are held in both residential and commercial settings, and Brooklyn’s unique urban makeup of waterfront warehouses, factories and industrial buildings provides extravagant, unconventional venues for the gatherings.

Frustrated with issues plaguing larger events — like deafening music and disruptive crowds on their cellphones — founder Rafe Offer set out to change the stigma surrounding concerts.

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“A big component of Sofar is discovering artists, but the other component is discovering places and discovering the city a little bit better,” Sofar New York City Director Stephanie Mitchell told the Brooklyn Eagle.

“These are spaces that people often don’t think they’re going to experience music in, and we really love to celebrate those moments where we’re able to work in really unique spaces.”

The series started in London in 2009, and began regularly hosting events in New York in 2011. Reminiscent of the rave scene where attendees don’t receive the party’s location until shortly before it begins, Sofar uses a similar model to keep their parties underground.

“It’s really like the secret sauce to Sofar,” Mitchell said. “It attracts people who are open and like to discover new things. They don’t know exactly what they’re getting into, but luckily we’ve been around long enough to have this good reputation of working with really talented musicians that people are going to enjoy.”

Sofar hosted an event in the Waterfront Barge Museum in Red Hook. Photo by Jack Tumen
Sofar hosted an event in the Waterfront Barge Museum in Red Hook. Photo by Jack Tumen

Attendees buy tickets not knowing what bands are playing or where it’s being held other than the general neighborhood. Many of the parties are BYOB and run only a few hours, allowing participants to save money and plan their evenings accordingly.

Events have been hosted in the Waterfront Barge Museum in Red Hook, the Brooklyn Historical Society’s Othmer Library and Kings County Distillery in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

“Brooklyn is massive,” Mitchell, a Williamsburg resident, said. “There’s just so many parts of Brooklyn that have yet to be explored by people that have lived in New York all their life. The borough in general is just so diverse in every pocket. The vastness and diversity of what Brooklyn has to offer works really, really well.”

Attendees can expect a diverse lineup of artists playing folk, jazz, pop, rap, spoken word or even an all-female mariachi band.

“The sky is the limit,” Mitchell said. “We’re lovers of all types of music and that’s reflective in every Sofar show that you go to.”

In addition to various genres of music, Sofar also asks the musicians to tone down their sound for a more close-knit environment with attendees often sitting on the floor directly in front of the band.

“It’s going to be in a much more intimate setting than the artists are used to,” Mitchell said. “We say to them, ‘Totally experiment with your setup. Try to strip back as much as you possibly can.’ Instead of bringing a full drum kit, maybe just bring a cajón.

“Some artists even just do percussion on a suitcase that they brought their merchandise in. It’s a very cool stripped back version of their music that is also quite unique compared to shows they might do elsewhere.”

A Sofar concert was held in the Brooklyn Historical Society's Othmer Library. Photo by Nick Ellsworth
A Sofar concert was held in the Brooklyn Historical Society’s Othmer Library. Photo by Nick Ellsworth

For the musicians, the unusual performance spaces force them to go outside their normal routines, often playing acoustic versions of songs.

“It teaches you to think on your feet a little bit more,” Sam Parrish of Luna Rose told the Eagle at a recent concert in Prospect Heights. “It challenges you to push your comfort zone with what really defines a stage.”

In between sets, Sofar’s host encourages attendees to interact with people they don’t not know, asking prompts like, “What was the first album you bought?”

Fun facts about each of the musicians are also shared. One singer at the Prospect Heights concert revealed that he enjoys cooking in the nude, while another musician said he likes to get his hair braided while drinking Tecate.

“Through the many Sofar Sounds shows I’ve done, one thing you can be sure of is that you are always guaranteed a friendly, listening and welcoming audience and the most inclusive and supportive atmosphere,” singer-songwriter Cerian, who played in Brooklyn, told the Eagle.

“I love the fact that I can go to a brand new city and, through Sofar, be able to share my music with a sold-out room of people who are the most respectful and friendly audience. The other acts are always brilliant as well, and I’ve made lots of connections with other artists who I’ve met playing Sofar.”

Follow reporter Scott Enman on Twitter.

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