The Symposium and L.A. Van Gogh At Sofar Sounds

By Lauren Ball

 Photos by C arlos James

Photos by Carlos James

It’s never entirely clear what you’re getting into with a Sofar Sounds session – a secret show that isn’t exactly a secret. In the case of my first experience with Sofar, I was whisked away into the darkened lobby of Wicker Park’s Den venue after bidding adieu to a group of confused friends outside because, naturally, it’s guest list only. Once inside, I called upon my instinctual solo show-going survival mechanisms and searched for the cornerstones one would typically find at a small concert – a merch table, the bathrooms, the stage where a largely ignored opener might be strumming along, and the bar for a good ol' consoling vodka soda.

Most of those vital show elements, however, were nowhere to be found. I attempted to shoot my friends outside a scared puppy-like glance, but the windows were obscured by large blackout curtains. Ah, of course. It’s a secret show, after all. I wandered over to the hushed bar where two men were talking in hurried whispers, a painted portrait of some general or another hanging above the two of them. Where was the typical underground show rowdiness? Where was the spilled beer and deafening amp feedback? Had I accidentally wandered into a secret society meeting?

While sipping my drink and pondering the sequence of events that had led me to a Freemason meeting, I heard applause from what seemed like the depths of the bar. A hidden show behind the bar? Unlikely, but worth a shot.

After a bartender kindly directed me out of the tequila closet, I finally discovered what I’d been haphazardly searching for in a backroom – a stage, a crowd, and the promise of music. Charlie from the Symposium had just taken the stage, and warmed the crowd out of their awkwardness with self-depreciating though endearing lines like “I hate most things I do, but this song’s a keeper.”

“Intimate” is how Sofar likes to characterize their sessions, and this much is true. Bearded men and teenage girls alike sat cross-legged on the floor in front of the stage as Charlie sang on ‘Tony Stark’, “Don’t wanna grow up old/Don’t wanna die alone with anybody else,” aided by nothing but a tiny amp. There was a sense that we weren’t strangers in a strange, shadowy backroom at all, but a group of friends in Charlie's living room. Throughout his set, Charlie continued to make jokes that lifted the mood, even criticizing his own set with semi-disgusting food metaphors like, “We wanna get to the meat and cheese and biscuit that’s been in the slow cooker for sixteen hours, man.”

After Charlie left the stage, the atmosphere was considerably sunnier. The crowd buzzed and laughed with each other, despite the fact that most seemed to have come alone. L.A. VanGogh arrived next with chants of “Don’t forget the G H!” A sharp divide from the prior solo guitar set, L.A. VanGogh’s smooth jazz sounds melded with an undeniable hip-hop influence. Though the audience bopped their heads along enthusiastically, VanGogh’s Digable Planets-esque performance would have been better suited to a summertime rooftop, or an environment where onlookers felt comfortable enough to move their bodies along to the band’s honey-like rhythms.