Last Thursday evening, an audience of about 50 gathered for an event at Lotta Studio in Westville. They had all asked for invitations a few weeks before, without knowing where they were supposed to go. They were all accepted. Just a couple days before, they were told to arrive at Lotta Studio between 7:30 and 8 p.m., and they did.
“I’m excited,” said musician Dylan McDonnell, who had come as an audience member, “because I have no idea what’s going to happen.” Neither did anyone else in the crowd.
It was all part of the shtick of Sofar Sounds, an international network of intimate concerts that began in London in 2010 and recently opened a branch in New Haven under the eye of R&B singer, songwriter, and keys player Paul Bryant Hudson, who had gamely spread the word about the event and encouraged people to get invitations. Sure enough, Hudson was there when the audience arrived. He and fellow musician, guitarist Pete Greco, were making last-minute adjustments to the PA system Greco had set up. Two keyboards and a guitar amp were already in place. There was no bass, and there were no drums.
Raven Blake, the evening’s MC, welcomed everyone to the first ever Sofar in New Haven to loud applause. She then asked that everyone put phones and cameras away (including this sheepish reporter). She asked that everyone stay quiet during the performances, and to stay to the end, through all three sets. And she explained why the audience still didn’t know who it was they had come to see.
“We want to create an equal playing field for all artists,” Blake said, “those who are well known and those who are up and coming.”
She then ceded the stage to Hudson himself. “What’s up, guys?” he said amiably. “I am going to be the sacrificial lamb and play the first set.”
He and Greco began with a soulful rendition of “Redemption Song” that showed what was possible for popular music when the audience was quiet — the chances to play with dynamics, with subtle changes in tone and texture. It let the performance be more emotional, and it hit that much harder.
It also let Hudson feel a little more free with his between-song banter, especially as he moved into his own material.
“I was a banker, and I had no space to earn and create, and it was frustrating to be in that space,” he said. “Society was not designed to work for us,” he said of artists generally. “Comparable to the black man, we don’t fit…. Do y’all know who John Henry is?”
“Steel drivin’ man,” someone in the audience said.
“Yeah, bro,” Hudson said with a smile. He then related the story of John Henry (“myth was, he was born with a hammer in his hand”), who led a team of workers building rail lines and raced against a mechanized steel drill to dig a tunnel through a mountain to try to save his team’s jobs. He beat the drill, but the race killed him. “His sacrifice was their survival,” Hudson said.
So Hudson thought of John Henry in his own relationship to his grandparents. His song was a way of “reflecting on what my grandparents had done for me to make my artistry possible, to make my being here possible.” Sure enough, the song, which Hudson played solo at the keyboard, singing into a microphone his voice barely needed in that quiet room, turned the silence in the room into reverence.
Following Hudson were The And’s, a touring band from Aiken, S.C. “Man, it is really hard to follow you up,” said vocalist and guitarist Slayton Johnson of Hudson. But follow up The And’s did, with a set of breezy originals and covers that kept the audience smiling. If the And’s needed any proof that the crowd was paying attention, they got it with every shout-out to a soul lyric slipped in the middle of a song, or shout-back when needed. That back-and-forth between band and crowd reached its peak with an unannounced slacker rendition of Kool and the Gang’s “Get Down On It.”
How you gonna do it if you really don’t want to dance? By standing on the wall?” Johnson crooned.
“Get your back up off the wall!” the audience shouted back, unannounced. Johnson literally took a step back. When they switched to TLC’s “No Scrubs,” the audience sang along.
“You guys are in the right damn city this week,” Hudson said at the end of the And’s set.
Up next was Laney Lynx, from Rhode Island by way of Brooklyn. Backed only by Anthony Greco (Pete’s brother) on guitar, Lynx danced and sang her way through a set of poppy originals laced with covers (like Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car”), her vocals switching easily from breathy falsetto to full-throated yell, while Greco managed to cover bass lines, rhythm, and solos. At the beginning of the night, MC Blake had told the crowd to stay to the end. With Lynx on stage, it did.
“I really enjoy looking at this room,” Hudson had said at the end of his set. “I wanted this room to look like New Haven — I wanted this to be something that we could be in together.”
Hudson got what he wanted. He and Sofar Sounds New Haven have already scheduled the next show for May 26 and have plans to do one a month. The idea is to move the concert to a different neighborhood every time, and cover the whole city — just like Hudson said, bringing everyone together.
To attend the next Sofar New Haven show on May 26, click here. Details of specific time and place are given out a day or two before the show.