Concert Reviews

Photos: Inside Sofar Sounds' Latest Secret Show with Natalie Tate, Q Bala and Strawberry Runners

For the past two years Sofar Sounds Denver has hosted shows at secret locations throughout the metropolitan area. Whether a house, a back yard or an automotive garage (all past locations for Denver shows), Sofar has organized and internationalized the DIY-show format and its intimacy by providing an infrastructure and booking team whose aim is to match music fans with a non-traditional venue and well-curated musical projects.

Since beginning in London by concert fans who were nonplussed by crowds largely ignoring even remarkable performances by opening acts, Sofar has expanded and formed chapters in more than two hundred cities worldwide. The individual shows, however, don't make the audience feel as though it's part of a vast network; you just feel like you showed up to a private event. Technically it's a secret show since the location isn't announced until the day before and the acts are not identified except on a sign once you enter the venue. But when we showed up to the Denver Open Media Foundation, it didn't feel like you were going to some clandestine gathering. The people checking the guest list were friendly and welcoming. The show proper took place in Studio A at Denver Open Media where there is a stage, and honestly it had the vibe of walking into the back hallways of a college campus — not forbidding, just with an air of tradition and respectability.

The show trod the line between organic and organized: Attendees brought their own drinks, and there were complimentary cookies. Band merch was set up near the back. The emcee May was professional but also informal enough to not make it seem like you were at some kind of corporate event, despite the Sofar branding on video screens behind the artists.

Each of the three acts for the evening performed four songs. Every act was fairly different in terms of gear and set-up and so there was some delay between sets.The biggest criticism on the sound was the lack of volume for vocals for listeners who weren't closest to the stage.

Natalie Tate opened the night with Jeff Porter of Inner Oceans on electronic percussion and Chimney Choir's Kevin Larkin on synth. Tate's songwriting and imaginative lyrics alone would make her a compelling musician but she is also able to channel passion into her subtle vocal delivery. Her unsullied connection between heart and performance shone with her quiet, self-deprecating humor conveying a warmth and authenticity that Porter and Larkin accented and amplified. Tate seems to provide glimpses into intimate corners of her psyche that resonate within the listener. In this hushed space within the limits of a short set, that sense of intimacy was even more acute.

During the entire performance there was no chit-chat. But between sets there was plenty of talking among people either meeting up with friends, the Sofar community or perhaps  having met that night, as introductions between strangers were encouraged by May between sets. The atmosphere was social rather than strict, but no artist got less than the respect and attention than they deserved.

Qbala (pronounced “cue ball-uh”) is a rapper from Fort Collins that took the middle slot. She seemed to indicate that she was relatively new to this and finding her way. Her rapping, however, was exceptionally confident and informed by humor, even when dealing with weighty subjects about race and sexual identity and navigating those personal struggles and the nuances thereof. You couldn't really help but like her and the audience was won over. It isn't the first time hip hop has been a part of Sofar Sounds Denver but on the same bill with the likes of Tate and Strawberry Runners, it was a booking that stood out.

Strawberry Runners closed out the night with its sweet, delicate pop songs that contain lyrics of unlikely darkness and intensity. That strain of indie pop is not unlike the contrast one sees in bands like Belle and Sebastian, Beulah and Apples in Stereo. Perhaps it is better to compare Strawberry Runners to a stripped-down Red Pony Clock with a female singer whose words (like Gabe Saucedo's lyrical wizardry) can really strike you hard.

At the end of the night it seemed like those two-and-a-half hours had come to a close quickly with no time for a lull in a band's set. Even your favorite band can sometimes play for too long or a show can move too slow. This setting and presentation felt short and previous, like you were hanging out with friends and acquaintances at an informal gathering with music chosen by people with decent taste. What made the whole thing special was how its presentation and focus engendered an appreciation for the nature of the music experience, something few bars or more commercial establishments are able to fully create.

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Tom Murphy is a writer, visual artist and musician from Aurora, Colorado. He was a prolific music writer for Westword and a documenter of the Denver music scene.