Vanessa Davis and Jenny Drake knew they were going to a concert Feb. 10. But they didn’t know where it was going to be until the day before the show, and they didn’t know who was playing until … well … they played.
And they loved that.
“It makes it more special,” said Drake, 42, who is from Lawrenceburg.
Davis, 34, said, “It feels exclusive.”
Davis and Drake were part of the nearly 80-person crowd packed into Bicycle Face, a new bike shop, bar and coffee shop at the corner of Short Street and Elm Tree Lane that was making its debut as a concert venue that rainy Saturday night.
It was the second show by SoFar Sounds Lexington, a nine-year-old concept with more than 400 locations around the world.
Like Davis and Drake experienced, concertgoers buy tickets not knowing where the show will be or who’s playing. Just the time and date. They day before the show, ticketholders get an email or other correspondence telling them where the show will be, and they find out who’s playing when they get there.
SoFar, an acronym for “songs from a room,” started in London in 2009 when three guys got annoyed at a concert where they said the music couldn’t be heard over chatter, and many in the audience seemed more interested in their cell phones thanthe band. So they started a series of intimate concerts that grew and spread around Europe and eventually made it to the United States.
SoFar’s website, sofarsounds.com, claims 402 locations, including most major North American cities and smaller towns like Appleton, Wisc., and Fort Collins, Colo. Some big cities such as New York and Chicago have more than one SoFar operation.
SoFar Lexington founder Samantha Howard found out about SoFar as a musician in Ryvoli, her duo with Jenn Whiteman, which played SoFar concerts in Nashville and San Antonio, Texas.
“It was magical,” Howard recalled. “People were so attentive, which was not something we had experienced before, playing bars. Our favorite part was interacting with people in the audience, before and after we played.”
She decided to bring that experience to Lexington.
The Lexington team is made up of five volunteers. Each show is at a different location, usually not a place that regularly functions as a concert venue. Three artists play a half-dozen or so songs, and no one is designated as a headliner – the idea being they don’t want people to just show up for the “main” act.
While the Lexington team is open to considering local artists, it wants to concentrate on people who don’t play around town much or, ideally, are new to the area.
“It makes it less special if it’s someone you may have heard last week down the block,” says volunteer Mark Walz. “We want SoFar to be a place to discover new music.”
It’s a formula that works for the February concert’s middle act, Cincinnati-based Coastal Club, that has also played SoFar concerts in Chicago and Champaign, Ill.
“I love everything about what SoFar does,” Coastal Club vocalist and guitarist Alex Hirlinger said. “It allows an element of surprise and no preconceptions. We’ve played on sets with artists of all kinds of genres, and it keeps listeners engaged.”
It would seem SoFar removes a key advantage of touring from artists: being able to get your name out in the market before the show through concert listings, posters and the like, that might prompt people to look you up, even if they don’t come to the show.
But artists at February’s concert say that loss is more than made up for by the advantage of playing to a packed, attentive house.
“In the aftermath of the SoFar Lexington show, my social media interaction went up a lot more than it has after any advertised show I played,” said McKenzie Lockhart, who made her SoFar debut with the February Lexington show.
Hirlinger said Coastal Club members noticed more streams of their music on Spotify from markets they played SoFar shows in, and adds, “after we play a SoFar show, we find we have more of a audience interested in seeing us the next time we come through.”
SoFar also had an audience of locals interested in it when the concept came to Lexington.
Terry and Karen Newland of Lexington went to a SoFar show when visiting their daughter in Dallas, and were thrilled when they saw a flier for the initial Lexington SoFar show while on a Christmas pub crawl.
“We love the feel and the atmosphere,” Terry Newland said. Karen Newland added, “It’s nice to go to a place where the music is the star.”
The caught the initial show in January at Cha Cha’s hair salon on South Upper Street, as did Qaaim Stainback, 25, who immediately started inviting friends to sign up for future shows.
“He texted me and said, ‘You’ve got to sign up for this,’” his friend, Rachel Williamson said after watching the opening set by Urban Tropic of Columbus, Ohio.
Stainback said of the first show, “It was really cool at Cha Cha’s. You don’t normally see yourself going there for a concert, but it was really cozy, and the program lent itself to the environment.”
Many shows are BYOB, as they are often not is regular food-service environments either. But at the February show, fans were asked to leave the bottles at home as Bicycle Face is a bar, and Ellos Tacos was serving up food.
SoFar organizers say they will give folks a general idea of where a show will be, so if it is going to be somewhere a ticket applicant can’t get to, they know not to apply. But they definitely want the word to spread and more people to check out SoFar, like Davis and Drake.
“A friend tagged me with it on Facebook and I read the description and said, ‘This sounds awesome,’” Davis said. “To be in a place where you can hear the band and see the artists close up like this, it’s too good to pass up.”
If you go
When: The next concert will be at 7:30 p.m. March 10.
Where: The location will not be disclosed until the day before the performance, and only to ticketholders, and artists will be announced at the show.