On a recent Thursday, 40 people are packed into the living room of a Museum District home. The crowd is mostly young and fairly diverse. Some lounge on mismatched couches, while others sit on the hardwood floor, chatting and sipping on bring-your-own beer and wine. The hosts are an artist couple named Megan and Davis and their willowy sphynx cat, and tonight’s concert is solely acoustic, with the “stage” just a simple corner by the fireplace, next to an exposed, glowing upright piano backed by a neon sign of blinking lips.
For many in the audience, this is their first Sofar experience. The pop-up concert series brings intimate live music shows to unusual venues, and is rapidly growing a presence in Houston. Ever since its launch in London in 2009, Sofar chapters have taken root in over 400 cities around the world, and in places like New York, Seattle, and LA, there’s a Sofar show happening almost every night.
Part of the appeal is the exclusive feel. To apply for a show, you’re entered into a lottery on the site up to five days before; if you’re lucky, you’ll be notified via email that you can purchase tickets. One day before the show, you’ll get an email with the address of the secret venue. It could be a coffee shop, a parking garage, someone’s living room, an art gallery, an empty office space, or a rooftop. Sofar’s recent Earth Day show was outside at Fincas Tres Robles, a chic urban farm in the East End.
Who’s performing? You won’t find out until you get there. Each show features a lineup of both local talent and touring artists, carefully curated by the team. There are no headliners and no closers, and attendees are asked to stay from beginning to end. Tonight, the audience will be treated to the soulful, pulsating lyrics of DEM, a roots reggae quintet from Galveston, the folk singer-songwriter Nicollette Good, and Hayden Jones, who layers gypsy jazz, swing, and blues melodies with a sprinkling of harmonica and tin whistle. An emcee sets the house rules before the show, and requests that no one talk or use their cellphone during the sets, except for a quick snap for social. “We ask that you give the artists your undivided attention,” he says.
“There are very few experiences around town like this,” notes Jeff Paxton, the current city lead in Houston. “If people know who's performing, sometimes they develop this idea that they will or won’t like it, but here, they’re in for whatever happens. It’s a way to discover new music you would have never encountered before.”
As a musician himself, Paxton first stumbled across Sofar while seeking out new venues to perform. He was frustrated with the two types of live music in Houston. It’s either shows in bars—where people were glued to their phones or not paying attention—or traditional venues like House of Blues, where artists had to sell their own tickets. After joining the volunteer-run organization, he took over as city lead more than a year ago.
“People definitely want to be a part of live music events in this city, especially smaller settings that aren’t just energy and noise, where you can really focus on the quality of song. It's just they don't know where to go,” he says. “And I would put Houston's best artists up against the best artists in literally any city in the country, but unlike Nashville or L.A. or New York, they don’t have the same opportunities to play. There's been a need both for so long from both the audience’s and artist’s standpoint, and Sofar just came at the right time.”
The team is adding more shows to keep up with the growing demand, ramping up from one or two shows a month back in February to four or five now. “Sofar Global wants us to head in the direction of about 12–15 shows a month, and given the fact that we've sold out every single show this year, there’s definitely the demand for tickets.” The biggest challenge for the future is finding more venues, and Paxton encourages people and businesses to submit online if they’re interested in hosting a Sofar event, as they’re always on the lookout for new spaces.
Tonight’s show is more intimate—Sofar shows can range from 40 to 150 people—and this one feels less like a party and more like a family gathering. “When you’re playing in a room this small, it’s a little nerve-wracking because everything is under a microscope,” says Nicollette Good. “But it’s my favorite kind of audience. It’s just me and my guitar; I can tell stories and be personal.”
That night she presents an aching collection of songs from her Americana, folk-tinged record; in the darkening room, you can hear both the rawness and lilting ease in her voice, and we lean forward, hanging onto every word. “This is one of the coolest things happening in Houston,” Good says, looking around halfway through her set. “This is community.”
You can enter the Sofar lottery at sofarshows.com/houston.