Meditations on Music: Sofar Sounds Appleton Concert

Sofar Sounds is a worldwide organization that builds concerts upon community, mystery and the idea that music is of upmost importance. The concerts are hosted in intimate settings that the attendees do not know until the night before, and the artists performing are not revealed until the event.

On January 27, I, along with a healthy mix of Appletonians and Lawrentians, had the wonderful opportunity to experience the first Sofar concert in Appleton. The diverse lineup consisted of B. Lilly, Oh My Love and Nicholas the Transparent and was hosted by The Draw, an art gallery in Appleton.

Instead of beginning with the music, the experience began with the audience curiously flooding into the venue. Lawrentians clumped together, but as the night progressed, the gap between students and community members dissolved. What makes each Sofar unique is that people of all walks of life and musical backgrounds come and interact throughout the night. Everyone is there for the music, and because of this fact, conversation between strangers becomes natural and is welcomed.

Lawrence’s own B. Lilly—junior Bernard Lilly Jr.—was the opening act, singing and playing piano. With ease, he put himself out there, boldly vocalizing songs of love. His voice was rich with a touch of reverb, which filled the room resonantly. Stripped down just to the core of voice and simple piano backgrounds, B. Lilly captivated the audience with his honest, original compositions. The only non-original was his opener—a cover of a John Legend song, sharing that he loves to begin his performances by covering one of his particular heroes and sources of inspiration. With light grooves, relatable lyrics and a healthy amount of audience interaction, his set came to the end quickly, closing humbly with a song about self-doubt.

Keeping with the strong sense of community attached with Sofar, the breaks between acts were structured, encouraging interaction with other attendees. City Director, founder of Sofar Sounds Appleton and junior Arielle Kaye led the breaks based on her experiences from Sofars she has attended. The first, following B. Lilly, was to write on a Post-it note a band you enjoy. At the end of the night, everyone was invited to take any note not belonging to them for a new music suggestion. During the break before the final act, we were to make a secret handshake with a stranger. Both breaks were perfect transitions while the next musicians set up and distinguished Sofar from other concert experiences.

Next up was the electropop duo Oh My Love hailing from Madison. Featuring Hannah Luree on vocals and Christian Lisser on electronics, the music was as electrifying as it was heartfelt. One of my favorite aspects was the constant interplay between the two. It could have just as easily been Luree focusing on her singing and Lisser on his beats, but both showed signs of attentive listening to each other. Lisser was often mouthing the words Luree sang and meticulously manipulating her voice with effects while Luree danced to the instrumentals, frequently looking back at her counterpart. The two worked together well because they listened to each other, but also because their combined efforts of different musical voices came together in exciting ways. The electronics were very present and driving, but the vocals were more subdued, giving a nice push and pull throughout the set.

After the handshake break, Nicholas the Transparent, who played at Lawrence earlier this year, closed the night with a raging, spirited set of politically charged and personal songs. Guitarist Bill Grasley, whom Nicholas also plays with in rock trio The Traveling Suitcase, joined him. While their band has Nicholas on drums and vocals, his solo act has him outside of his comfort zone, playing guitar and singing. Exposed for the duration of the performance, Nicholas never held back, releasing guttural, pained screams over vigorously strummed acoustic guitar and more mellow electric. It is not often that a band’s lineup consists of two guitars and nothing else, but for this act, it really worked. Nicholas’ acoustic playing was much like a busker’s—raw and powerful while Grasley’s was washed with reverb and effects, aiming the sound towards the cosmos. Like their musical voices, their personas were different—the former often sharing his dark humor between songs and the latter being laidback, barely speaking. The types of relationships the two shared made for a memorable live show, to say the least.

I can do nothing but highly suggest going to a Sofar Sound performance. Preconceived notions were obliterated, and thanks to the secrecy communities were brought together. I was introduced to new music and I listened in an environment unique to that night. I cannot wait to experience Sofar again in a completely different way.