Sofar, So Good

Manny James was only into the second verse of “Dear America” when he took the mic from its stand, slid in front of bassist Corey Claiborne, and did a full bend at the waist. 

“Dear America/Can I spread my wings/All over this land?” he asked, arms flying upward with the lyrics. “Because if this is truly/The land of opportunity/Then where do I stand?”

His voice bloomed, filling the room with something sweet and raw. Just 22 miles away and one day earlier, Police Officer James Boulay had been cleared in the murder of Jayson Negron, and hundreds of activists were asking the same question. 

“Dear America/where’s your love for me? Why don’t you call me by name? See I don’t wanna die before I’m/Old and gray Old and gray/Don’t you want the same?”

Saturday night, Sofar Sounds returned to New Haven with James and Stephen Gritz King, local acts who rep the city in their music. In its first show of 2018, the event brought a near-capacity crowd to Bregamos Community Theater, attendees seated on large, threadbare rugs and folding chairs at the Erector Square venue. 

After choosing Bregamos to fit a larger audience than he’d originally expected, organizer Paul Bryant Hudson put community front and center for the evening—and watched as performers did the same. 

“It’s important that we’re in a constant state of paying homage to community,” he said. “In Connecticut, we’re in a fight with systems … and these cats are transcendent.” 

That call to community is at the heart of Sofar (Sounds From A Room), an international pop-up series active in 398 cities across the globe. Attendees RSVP without knowing where the show will be or who is performing, and get the address a day before the concert. Previous venues in New Haven have included Westville’s Lotta Studio, the Bradley Street Bicycle Co-Op, and a roaring campfire on Lyon Street.    

But Saturday, there was an urgency to Hudson’s remarks. Seated back-to-back, arm-in-arm and hand-in-hand, attendees looked around them, taking in a sea of faces that don’t always make it to any one New Haven gig. There were shades of black, brown, caramel and tan, olive and white. Freckled and unfreckled, pierced and unpierced, wrinkled and unwrinkled. Every one of them trained on Hudson as he kicked off the show with a slow, acoustic version of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song.” 

“How long shall they kill our prophets/While we stand aside and look?” he near-pleaded, something catching in his throat. Pete Greco strummed his guitar gently in the background. Hudson’s voice traveled up and tumbled down again. “Some say it's just a part of it/We’ve got to fulfill the book/Ooooooh.”

Audience members inched toward the front as James took the mic, a small band materializing behind him. “I could really use some good news,” he sang out, bouncing a little in place as he started the set. He meant it: he needed some good news, and so did everyone else in the room. James, who recently released his first album, said he had had a tough week. Off to the side, Hudson nodded along. As Jeremiah Fuller eased into the drums, a few friends in the crowd gave each other back rubs and small squeezes.

James was just getting started. He eased the audience into a sexy, hypnotic slow jam with “Comfortable,” getting some attendees to sing along by the middle of the song. Drunk on the smoldering, jammy loop (“If you feel that comfortable/You ain’t got go nowhere/You aint gotta go nowhere”), they swayed along, some of them loosening their necks and letting the song direct their spines and shoulders back and forth. 

Then he got serious. “I needed to talk about some issues that were affecting me,” he said. “Racism, bigotry, police brutality. Let’s make the world a better place.”

It was a timely introduction to “Dear America,” another track off his debut album “Church Street South.” On the album, the lyrics have a certain calm to them, sailing over piano and a thumping, throbbing beat. But live, James was all emotion, his voice sliding from a croon into a growl in just two or three words. Over guitar, bass and drums, his voice came through strong and distilled, no distractions threatening to edge it out. 

If James brought the tough questions—“Dear America” left some members of the audience in tears—King gave everyone time to laugh, and then jam, together. Taking the Bregamos stage close to 10 p.m., he jumped between smooth, exquisite stylings on the saxophone and synthy, funk-flecked experiments reminiscent of Drexciya and Daft Punk. 

Amidst a #MeToo-induced touchiness, King totally delighted and surprised with his “Still Gettin’ Ready,” a kind of anthem to the battle of the sexes as unexpected as it was funny (video above). With King scatting between verses, the song took on a life of its own, at once a mark of his willingness to get weird and the Pencilgrass follow-up that needed to happen. 

Yes,  the song seemed to say between the verses. We can still find a way to joke about sex and dating, because they are really fun sometimes. We’re just going to figure out how to have that conversation. 

With three songs to go, King brought the audience back in. Conducting nearly 100 people, his arm swayed up and back down again with the song’s five magic words: “Come and catch this vibe.”

As he melted back into his sax with Greco back on guitar, Fuller on drums and Dwelle Coore at the keyboard,  attendees saw where he was going. The melody dipped and swooped; it sailed over the group before grazing the backs of their necks and the front of their foreheads like satin. And then it hit a staccato bah buh buh buh buh, King directing the crowd with one arm for a moment. 

“Come and catch this viiiibbeeee,” they sang back. A new sound filled the room, a hundred voices not quite in unison, filled with the vibe they'd been tasked with catching. Exactly, it seemed, where they needed to be.