Sofar ( Sounds ), so great. | Jake Hill + Skinny Bones + Hillary Reynolds Band

Skinny Bones @ SoFar Boston
Photos by Boston Concert Photography

Last week, I was lucky enough to be invited to the latest incarnation of the house show movement here in Boston — SoFar Sounds: Boston.

At what I believe is the latest addition to the 75-city Sofar Sounds network, you’ll come across some of the things you’d normally expect to find at a house show: local bands, a random assortment of beer, and a crowd that are both music fans and people interested in being part of something exclusive.

You’ll also find things you don’t always find at a house show that changes location. Things like pretty stellar production (from sound to stage), possibly some free beer, and a crowd whom — before they show up for the show — have no idea who they’re going to see.

Yep, you heard right. You’re heading out to see a show, you’re bringing a few of your favorite adult beverages, you’ll drop ten bucks at the door (it’s actually a free show, but there’s a suggested donation of ten dollars for the artists, so of course you’ll hand over ten bucks — amiright?) and you have ZERO idea who you’re actually going to see.

What makes it work?

Why are people crowding into a space to see bands when they have no idea who they’re going to see? Why not just hit a local bar and pay a cover charge?

We’ve seen this work on a larger scale, of course. Look no further than New England’s own Newport Folk Festival, who have already sold a good chunk of tickets to the weekend’s festivities before they announce a single act. I think we can chalk that one up to pure trust in the curators of the event and the fact that the festival itself has a storied history and location that can’t be replicated. You’re pretty much a lock for a great time with that combo.

How does a relatively new group of musical hosts pull that off, even on a small scale? Well, let’s back it up a few steps.

How does it work?

To attend a Sofar event, first you have to know that it exists. Check! You nailed that part.

Next, you have to submit your information to be added to the list of people waiting to be invited. Building the anticipation starts here. Exclusivity draws people in. The possibility of being included as part of something not everyone gets invited to speaks to that quiet part in all of us that wants to be the first to know about something. The part of us that wants to bring the next cool thing to our friends.

If you make the cut and get invited, you’ll be sent an email with the date of the next event and you’ll need to respond to let the organizers know you’ll be able to make it. If you can’t, your invite will be sent back into the pool for the next eager musical omnivore.

What you won’t be sent in that first communication is the exact location of the event. Keeping the location a secret can certainly have it’s advantages, as we’ve seen a rise of crackdowns on house shows that move beyond a single person with an acoustic guitar over the past few years. It also helps to mitigate the early spread of word of the show to people who may try to crash the event.

Then you wait.

A few days before the show, you’ll receive another email with the time and location of the show. This is when they’ll also impress upon you that these shows are for people to go and hear new and great artists, not for people to hear each other talk. A solid reminder when you’re not dealing with a personally curated crowd.

When you finally navigate your way to the makeshift venue, you’re most likely in for a nice surprise. The Sofar crew — who are aiming to put on a show a month — know what they’re doing. Proper set dressing, an actual lighting crew and manually controlled light show, good equipment and just the right amount of “Welcome to the club, we’re glad you’re here.” There’s an air of being part of something special when you walk which makes it easy to strike up conversation and make connections, even if you’ve ventured out alone, as I did.

And you actually get to hear some music as well.

It works.

On this evening, Jake Hill, Skinny Bones, and Hillary Reynolds Band all took to the stage for us. None of those names rang a bell for me, and at first that made me a bit flustered. I mean it’s not like I keep my head in the sand and the radio on. I’m actively searching out bands on the regular. After I got over myself, I found, ummm… myself enjoying each one of the bands and what they brought to their performances.

Jake Hill’s working-man style and song about a Steve-Fucking-Earle obsessed friend kicked things off in a particularly good way. I firmly believe know that not everyone who asked “Who’s Steve Earle?” after Jake’s set was being sarcastic, but hey, I was one of the older folks in the crowd.

Skinny Bones’ looping, angst-ridden electrofolk (I didn’t make that one up) brought an entirely new energy to the room. Close enough to things that I like to make me pay attention, different enough to keep my eyes and ears locked on them, trying to figure out their intentions.

Hillary Reynolds and her crew added yet another different spin to the evening. No doubt the most polished of the acts, this collection of Berklee alum brought a high level of pop-Americana (I may have made that one up) songwriting and musicianship to a small garage-ish, woodshed/treehouse in Jamaica Plain.

OK, to recap:

I signed up for a secret show.
I had no idea who was playing.
I knew no one attending.
I enjoyed each band.
I made friends.
I recommend the entire experience.

So it seems that the combo of things SoFar has going for it — exclusivity, good musical curation and attention to detail — works as well. Here’s hoping that tradition carries on for a long time.