Sofar Sounds 1.20.18 // ft. Coastal Club, Jessie Smith, and La VanGogh


Looking around the living room of this cozy Champaign apartment, it looks more like a gathering of a highly eclectic group of friends than a concert. The only signs of what we’re about to watch are the microphone stands and guitar cases staged around the front of the room. Maybe also the strategically placed posters promoting ‘Sofar Sounds’ with a more convincing blatancy. However interesting the promotions can be within a living room, the arrival of our emcee, Tommy Ottolin, quickly grabs our scattered attention. Everyone scrambles to find a seat, be it the floor, the couch, or the kitchen counter. He welcomes us, going through the 3 big rules at Sofar (no phones, no talking during the performance, and remembering to look them up on Facebook) and announces the first act out of three for the night, who had all remained a mystery up till now. After a round of cheers from the audience, Coastal Club takes the stage: the quartet introduces themselves as Alex, Alex, Avery, and David, the last of whom brings up a synth, a drum pad, and a name that doesn’t begin with the letter “a”.

Champaign is the band’s latest stop on a Sofar tour that includes cities all over the Midwest: from Chicago to Lexington. Vocalist/guitarist Alex Hirlinger describes their act as four friends who are into performing pop-rock

with a surfer vibe.  Their first song Go starts with upbeat, energetic progressions from the bassist and guitarist, accompanied by rhythmic shakes of the tambourine. Go conjures up visions of road trips under a California sun, both with the optimistic, youthful, and flourishing lyrics sung by a voice perfectly suited for their genre, as well as with the dreamy synths that help tie it neatly together to form an intensely personable sound.

Throughout their set, the band members fill the breaks between songs by sending the audience up into laughter, creating an amicable climate that complemented their music well. Their last couple songs, Getting Married and Dreaming Of keep with their style of thoughtful, honest imagery, with lyrics like ‘dancing around the room’ and ‘let’s fade away together’, backed up by instrumentals perfectly harmonized to create their pleasurable performance. The end of their set is met with cheers and enthusiasm from the audience, hooked on Coastal Club’s infectious melodies.

The second act of the night veers us away from West Coast tunes and instead to the ‘swampy soul’ of the South with husband-wife duo Jessie Smith. The two hop up on stage armed only with an acoustic guitar and Jessie’s impassioned, mesmerizing voice. Everyone is immediately overcome with a sense of an awe as she speaks of her philosophy of ‘doing what you love, forget about the money, you’ll be happy anyway’. As her words give way to song, it is impossible to look away from the physicality of her performance – the claps of her hands and stomps of her feet reverberate around the room and she soon has everyone in the crowd clapping along with her.

Jessie Smith’s Southern roots shine through in the rousing anthem Been in the Storm, with honest, gritty lyrics that tell of God, pain, and the difficult path to redemption. The mix of country, jazz, and soul influences in her music act as powerful binaries rallying every member of the concert’s varied audio-profiles into appreciating her message of empowerment and spirituality. Her husband’s dusky, moody guitar lines accompany the deep sadness and emotion in her vocals well, the whole set resounds as an extremely connective performance that leaves us all fans of their unique brand of ‘swampy soul’.

Our night of musical exploration is wrapped up with a sultry performance by Chicago rapper LA VanGogh. A couple audience members sitting next to me get up to join him, embodying Sofar’s belief that everyone there is present to enjoy the music. VanGogh’s onstage presence is entertaining and conversational, a fact that he himself notes with ‘I should get into stand-up.’ He points out how, as with every act, the audience greets him with energy and enthusiasm, ready for his take on the up-and-coming Chicago music scene. The first song, Where Are You Now?, features VanGogh accompanied by two soulful vocalists, setting a mellow and moody sound for their act. He then abruptly breaks into a clever, original rap as varied and compelling as the members of the band backing him up, their synergy keeping with the groove of the night’s other acts.

LA VanGogh’s charisma shines through as he explores with vulnerability and thoughtfulness the thorniest of issues: mental health, student debt, addiction. His deft wordplay and fluid rhythm keep the audience rapt as he punctuates heavy emotional content with jokes on the audience, his bandmates, and most often, himself. His freewheeling style is apparent as he casually breaks into a sensual cover of Nelly’s club anthem Ride Wit Me, much to the crowd’s excitement as they chant along to the well-known verse ‘Hey, must be the money!’ Although it’s a combination 

that has us anxiously in suspense, there remain a general consistency and confidence in his act that makes it clear he and his motley group are each seasoned performers in their own right.

Upon talking to crowd members after the performances, longtime attendees agree that Champaign’s concert was a worthy addition to the canon of Sofar shows happening all over the world that night, 384 in total. I’m struck by how open-minded the concertgoers are while acknowledging that artists focusing on gritty bluegrass or Chicago-style rap may not be the first in their playlists, they can still appreciate a good performance when they see one. With no prior knowledge of who was going to be playing, they trusted the Sofar team to introduce them to three diverse, innovative acts that they couldn’t wait to hear more from—given the riotous applause at the end of the night, it looks like they delivered in full.


Photo credits: Austin Green


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