In my usual line of work—food writing—the traditional measure of greatness is “that which merits the detour.” With music, it’s not how far we’ve traveled to get there, but rather how far the music can take us from where we are. Braving crowded cold or steamy hot rooms filled with debatably polite strangers, craning necks over heads taller than our own, just for the sake of a listen— the best music can help us escape from this place, or transform it into something far greater.
When it comes to settings, Sofar has the head start, as the venues tend to be naturally charmed, even at their most crowded. In this case, it was a walk-up Williamsburg apartment, complete with exposed brick, where fifty-or-so music lovers came together—seated, quiet, waiting on a listen.
First up was Afeefa & the Boy, an Orlando-based group stripped down to a singer/guitarist and percussionist. Afeefa emanated the vibe of a traveler—not for her shawl and harem pants, but for her drawling speech, the waxing and waning voice of a storyteller. Her affected pronunciation almost recalled Amy Winehouse, laid upon layers of a much simpler, guitar-based style. Andrew, her drummer, filled out the sound with a range of organic percussion, from mellow tribal beats to shakers and the reverb of a lone cymbal.
Next came Leif Vollebekk, a Montreal-based musician playing guitar and harmonica, backed by harmonium, percussion and upright bass. The quartet immediately distinguished itself from the usual singer-songwriter set-up with an improvisational structure that swelled slowly with abstract sound. It started low, with a few exploratory notes drifting in from the bass, as the scratch of a cymbal recalled the creak of an outdoor gate. Leif’s rough, unfinished timbre came in, coloring lyrics about the simplest moments or snippets of conversation, ending many of his phrases with a subtle lift, as if he was asking us to weigh them as questions. This was a band of exceptional note—one that creates on the spot, revisiting their repeated tunes with the fresh intentions of a first rendition.
Dawn Landes, a country-infused folk artist, brought us back from the break. Accompanied by a friend on the banjo, she played guitar as they harmonized in the iconic intervals of the genre. Yet it was in her last piece, a solo—“Bluebird”—that Dawn revealed her true appeal. Her fragile voice shudders at the end of each phrase with a striking vulnerability. When all other sound is pulled away, you notice the strength of her choices, and can better appreciate her raw talent.
Last, but not least, was Sofar veteran Anthony Hall. This pop singer and guitarist was on his seventh go-round and articulated the evening’s appeal for everyone. “No one here must have ADD—because no one is checking their phones, at all.” Whether testing the crowd with his controversial “Emotional” or bringing the show home with a cover of “No Diggity,” Anthony had the whole crowd laughing and harmonizing. In a borough where “pop” borders on a derogatory term, it was a refreshing reminder of the appeal of a simple, genuinely delivered song.