Some of my first live music memories are of seeing shows in basements, attics, and living rooms. These were dingy, dirty affairs, with oodles of teenage crusty punks (and their dogs, always their dogs) crammed into too-small spaces listening to too-loud bands. Bands from Milwaukee, Kenosha, and West Bend. Kids from god knows where. There would be half-empty kegs in the kitchen, store-bought drugs in the bathroom, and ill-advised humping in someone’s bedroom. Occasionally, I would actually listen to and enjoy the music. It was kind of great.
Fast-forward a few decades, and the time-honored tradition of crummy basement/attic/living room shows lives on in undisclosed houses across the city. But there’s also a new breed of house show, one that’s clean, orderly, pre-packaged, corporate-sanctioned, and hashtag-friendly. That would be Sofar Sounds, the increasingly popular live music series that plops four artists in someone’s house and has them play four or five stripped-down songs. The hook is that the location of the show is kept secret until the day before, and the lineup of the bands isn’t disclosed until the day of. Folks RSVP via the Sofar website and hope for the best. The series began in London, England in 2009, and has since spread to more than 80 cities worldwide. The Milwaukee chapter launched in July of 2014.
Like many people close to my age and temperament, I scoffed when Sofar landed in Milwaukee. Wait a minute…a show…in a house! How novel! How innovative! How disruptive! What will they possibly think of next? The avalanche of fawning press and incessant social media noise only made things worse. At best, Sofar seemed to be an organization run by a bunch of clueless but well-meaning music fans thinking they had stumbled upon the Next Big Thing; at worst, it was a cynical attempt to package and commodify an already-existing phenomenon. I mocked. I stewed. I shook my damn head.
But let’s be honest: being upset over inconsequential bullshit like the integrity of a house show series gets old. Really old. So last night, I decided to check out Sofar’s latest Milwaukee offering. I learned of its semi-secret existence over the weekend at Locust Street Festival, from a friend-who-shall-not-be-named and his girlfriend who would be hosting the show. “Chris Porterfield is playing,” my friend said. “I’ll be there,” I replied.
A few things struck me as I arrived at the show (including my friend’s apartment, which was awesome). One was the amount of gear strewn about the place. A mixing board, multiple PA speakers, nice microphones. This clearly wouldn’t be a “just set up your shit in the living room and play” kind of thing. Likewise, a small army of photographers and videographers wielding equipment more expensive than my car milled about the ever-growing crowd. That crowd, as expected, was young and almost entirely unfamiliar to me. It was the kind of crowd where you could overhear a dude lightly hitting on a girl by saying, “I don’t mean to brag, but I volunteer for 88Nine. I have free Summerfest tickets!” and not be surprised. My friend-who-shall-not-be-named and his girlfriend, to their credit, seemed unfazed that 50 strangers were roaming around their house and backyard. The thought of hosting something similar in my apartment briefly caused me to break out in hives.
On to the bands. Milwaukee’s Airo Kwil and The New Seven would be playing first, followed by Chicago-by-way-of-Wisconsin-Dells outfit Simpleton & Cityfolk. Porterfield would be headlining. Well, not really headlining. As show time rolled around, an organizer addressed the crowd. Thank you for coming. Please stay for all four bands. There are no openers or headliners. Please don’t talk or socialize during the sets. Turn your phones off. Buy some stuff at the merch table. Have fun. Be present.
And that was that. The concert series I had long rolled my eyes at turned out to be simple, straightforward, and, lo and behold, all about the music. And that music was great: Airo Kwil sounded like a bittersweet version of Eminem, especially during the excellent “Don’t Look Back In The Summertime;” The New Seven’s woozy folk came across clear as a bell on songs like “Run In Circles” and “Old Vincent;” and Simpleton & Cityfolk made a strong case for their soaring country-folk, not to mention their show later in the evening at Bremen Café.
As for Porterfield, well, what can I say? Best to let him talk: “So this is a pretty cool party,” the Field Report frontman said as he took his place in front of the huddled crowd. “Thanks for rolling the dice.” With his Bucks hat hung on an acoustic guitar case, Porterfield launched into “Home (Leave The Lights On),” “Michelle,” and “Summons”—the latter featuring the crowd chiming in with some ethereal “oh, oh, oh”s. For his last song, Porterfield asked for a request. My friend-who-shall-not-be-named (okay, it was Kurt Raether) requested “Fergus Falls.” Porterfield obliged. It was amazing.
(In case you’re unaware, or have perhaps forgotten, Chris Porterfield is a monumental talent. The fact that he can be seen at small clubs, coffee shops, and living rooms across the city is one of the most ridiculously wonderful things about our local music scene. Do not take him for granted.)
And then it was over. The crowd applauded and dispersed. I got to see four groups play in a living room, and, more importantly, a bunch of people who would likely never encounter said groups got to see them up close and personal. It was clean and orderly—and yes, pre-packaged, corporate-sanctioned, and hashtag-friendly—but so what? Everyone was attentive and gracious. Everyone was present. No one was passed out in a bathroom, and no one brought their dog. I loved it. Branded or not, it was nice to hear some music for a change.