Sofar New Haven, a local gathering of the international series Sofar Sounds, will be celebrating its first anniversary this April. According to Paul Bryant Hudson, lead ambassador and founder of this chapter, the first show of 2018 this past Saturday night was “their biggest one yet.”
Built on a foundation of small intimate gatherings, the show has been gaining in popularity and interest. So Husdon decided to let in more people than usual this time. “I’m a community guy,” he said. “I just want people to come together.”
And come together they did, for a lineup consisting of two local acts unbeknownst to the audience beforehand in a local space only revealed a couple of days before the show via email. The premise is simple: those interested sign up through the Sofar website for tickets and are then contacted and told where and what time to be at the show about two days before. The rest unfolds when you get there.
This night’s show was held at Bregamos Community Theater on Blatchley Avenue. The New Haven-based acts were Manny James and Stephen Gritz King, both supported by musicians brought together especially for this event. The large crowd folded into the space steadily. People took to their chairs or sat on the carpets on the floor in front of the stage, some also with blankets they had brought themselves
The event began with the evening’s MC, Raven Blake, welcoming everyone including the “awesome local artists we’re really proud of.” She offered up some house rules, especially for first timers, including “being mindful.”
“Respect the space,” she said. When she asked how many people had never been to a Sofar before, a sizable portion of the people in the room held up their hands (including this reporter). She then introduced Hudson, “our city leader,” who she said would open with a song.
Leading with a passionate version of “Redemption Song,” backed only by Jeremiah Fuller on piano and Peter Greco on guitar, Hudson asked that the audience remember the people being oppressed in the state of Connecticut as well as their family and friends. After an overwhelming response of gratitude from the audience, Hudson introduced the first act of the evening, the “transcendent” Manny James.
James took to the stage with a backup band consisting of Fuller on drums, Greco on guitar and Corey Claiborne on bass. Playing songs from his most recent release, Church Street South, as well as covers that included the Marvin Gaye classic “What’s Going On,” James mesmerized the crowd enough to keep nearly everyone off their phones and swaying and singing along to his soulful sounds. With a voice reminiscent of Gaye at his smoothest (and sometimes grittiest) with a good dose of D’Angelo-esque spice and sweetness thrown into the mix, James conveyed each song with a steady seasoning of his musical influences but also in a style that was uniquely and deliciously his own. The audience ate up every morsel of it, whether he asked them to clap along or sing along, or when he sat down in the front row on the floor with a couple of audience members. When each band member played their solo, James gave them the love they deserved and encouraged the audience to do so as well. Selections ranged from the sexy and suggestive “Comfortable” to the “very personal” song “She is Love,” which James wrote about his wife (who he shouted out in the audience).
James’s final number — a piece he noted was “important” for him to write to “get stuff off his chest” about “bigotry and racism” — came with a request to the audience to “make the world a better place.” That song, “Dear America,” ended a highly personal set that brought tears to this reporter’s eyes, and brought community and consciousness to a loud and loving reception.
Community continued to be a part of the proceedings even as the show took a break between acts. Blake encouraged audience members to “connect with your neighbors and talk to each other because you’re going to be seeing each other at all of these shows.” It was easy to do, as many in the room had already made connections or were seeking them out. This reporter discussed writing with not only fellow local reporters Lucy Gellman and Tom Breen, but also first-time attendees Eric Carroll and Julia Ballek from Milford, who had heard about Sofar from a friend who had attended in NYC (Hudson noted later on that much of the interest in and promotion of the series comes from “word of mouth.”
Stephen Gritz King took to the stage as the second act, playing his own music with Fuller again on drums, Greco on guitar, and Dwelle Coore on keyboard. Alternating between saxophone and vocals — “I’m not a singer but y’all gonna hear me sing today,” he joked — King led a highly interactive set that included clapping and singalongs with the audience.
Whether giving the crowd a line to sing back to him, including “you gotta spread your wings but just don’t fly away” from his last number, “Please Don’t” — or barely having to encourage a sizable number of audience members to sing along to his cover of “On and On” by Eryka Badu — King’s short but stunning set of covers and originals (he has released two original songs on Soundcloud that very day) was received with joy and admiration from the room as well as James and Hudson, who sang along alternatively from the side of the stage on more than one number. For someone who kept noting that he was not a singer, King was often reminiscent of Donny Hathaway and appeared to be having a great time vocalizing.
When the set was over, Hudson once again thanked all the performers, Blake (“Raven is like all of our aunties” he said with a big grin), as well as the audience.
“This is beautiful,” he said, and promised more in the year to come for this monthly show, though it cannot be revealed what he has planned because, as noted earlier, those are the rules. At a Sofar show, you just have to sign up and take a chance on being as stunned and elated as I was being a part of this deeply soulful and spirited gathering of singers, musicians, friends, and fans of music. Carroll and Ballek also told me after the show that they’d had “a lot of fun” and they would “definitely be back.”
Everyone who had played that evening returned to the stage for one final number. What song did they sing? “Come Together” by the Beatles, of course.
Click here to learn about Sofar and see when the next show in New Haven is coming up.