Songs From An Old, Old Room: SoFar @ the Whiteman's Place
A couple weeks ago, about forty-five people packed into the front rooms of my friend Jenn’s pre-civil war home for a show. I confirmed that number and I think it might be the miracle of the century that we fit everyone in. The acoustics at Jenn’s place are perfect for non-electrified playing and soul-filled singing, whether belted or breathy. No matter how full the room gets, the high ceilings reverberate and rain melodies back down over your head. That aside, I don’t think you can walk through the door at the Whiteman’s house and not feel the history of generosity and care that is built into the walls of that place. In this setting, I saw three excellent acoustic sets from artists who don’t always perform in that mode: Abby Hamilton with her brother Zac as the home-town contingent, David Beckingham, and Bre Kennedy with her guitarist Matt Koziol.
An attentive audience will make special sacrifices in exchange for good music; they’ll give up elbow room, a chair, and comfortable ambient temperatures to lean in and hear what an artist has to share. Lexington SoFar audiences continue to prove themselves vigilant and generous, so we squeezed in. It got warm, folks got emotional. At different moments in all three sets, I looked around and caught a few eyes, moist with tears. What may have been the most significant aspect of this show was that each artist took on this vulnerability in such a comfortable way. Not all performers can handle the responsibility of performing for fifty pairs of eyes waiting expectantly for magic, but Abby+Zac, David, and Bre+Matt granted this gift to the SoFar audience with serious joy.
Abby Hamilton later mentioned to me that she didn’t have a lot of experience with such an intentional audience, but I couldn’t tell from watching her. She held those folks captive from her first song, “Satisfied,” to the last, “Afraid of the Dark.” “Satisfied” is one of my favorite songs right now (I mentioned it in my last review). It didn’t make it on Abby’s upcoming album, but I’m crossing my fingers that single will be recorded soon! It’s got a Springsteen-esque melody throughout, but with a little indie-rock flair in the bridge which Abby and Zac (her brother and electric guitar player) build up expertly. I was so impressed with Zac Hamilton’s electric playing at this acoustic show. For a player that can SHRED, Zac showed an incredibly tender side of his signature warm and groovy tone at a perfectly low volume that complimented Abby’s acoustic guitar. Abby’s most haunting song, “Afraid of the Dark,” left the audience so quiet, I think everyone must have been holding their breath (no way that many people packed in could breathe so quietly during allergy season). The chorus goes, “I had dreams about you dying, and it kills me…” Abby sings this arching melody that drifts up then falls back down at the end of the phrase, and she just lets it hang in the air as the meaning of the song sets in. My heart broke. Abby plays in bars in and out of town quite a bit, and is proving that she is a powerful force, no matter how loud or soft she plays. This ain’t no little girl singing sweetly about heartbreak in a sundress. She’s determined and tough, but gracious and genuine in her performances.
At SoFar, artists often play their most heartfelt and creative songs that work best in a quiet room rather than a busy cafe or bar. The trappings of a full band or electronic elements are stripped away and the audience is left only with the essentials: The lyrics, the voice, and the chord progressions.
David Beckingham has a serious countenance and was a bit more reserved than the other two artists, but was very kind and open-hearted in conversation before and after the show. David is Canadian, and you can hear strains of the great tradition that bore Mitchell, Young, and Cohen in his guitar picking. David sang in a very delicate and sensitive way, which imbued emotional dynamics into lyrics that felt comfortable and familiar. Descriptions of natural beauty, alienation, and concerns about love fill his songs. “Adi’s Song” and “Forest” are two standout examples. David’s reserved personality matches his veiled lyrics, but in one of his best moments of banter, after finishing the song “Forest” he joked, “...I don’t really want to be a tree,” poking fun at the singer-songwriter penchant for metaphor.
Bre Kennedy’s style really took me by surprise. She sings with a strong, breathy pop voice and slammed the acoustic guitar like a punk player. She and Matt harmonized beautifully together, and had great chemistry as a duo, watching each other while they played and smiling and just loving what the other was doing. A standout song is “Strings Attached.” Bre explained that she and Matt were prepping for a show in Evansville, IN, when Matt’s guitar tuning inspired Bre to start making up a new song. “I wanted to sing about my mom,” she told us, and the song just flowed out. Watching Bre, you can tell that she is absolutely in her element as she sings, that her reaction to life events is to write songs. Not every musician has the strength to sing so honestly about their true feelings and thoughts. Performing characters within story-songs and using metaphors are important tools for songwriters, but straightforward, heart on the sleeve lyrics like what Bre delivered cut right to the listener’s heart. It’s hard to resist that kind of openness and power. I can’t wait to see Bre and Matt perform live again!
The Whiteman’s space is an excellent house show venue with built-in ambience, but that alone didn’t make this SoFar show impactful.The Lexington SoFar team works hard to cultivate an experience that will grow an artist’s reach and provide a pleasant, enriching experience for the audience. This wasn’t my first SoFar show, and I’ve seen firsthand how the team’s effort and talent for event-hosting sets Lexington apart from other cities. Audience members are friendly to each other and attentive to artists. The artists are comfortable and play sets that show genuine inspiration and passion for live performance. As David Beckingham left the show, he told Jenn and I that he’d played several SoFar shows on his current solo tour, and that Lexington was his favorite because, in his words, “there’s a friendliness and warmth here that’s different…” I replied, “There’s more where that came from--please come back!”
I’m proud of my town, and I’m proud of my friends on the SoFar team who work hard to match good music with listeners who may not go out to loud bars to see shows, which make up the majority of the venues in Lexington. That is a pretty visible gap in the venue scene in this town, and the SoFar team (along with other folks) are doing the best they can to be a bridge. You can find out about the next SoFar show--always held in a secret, local location--here.
Elizabeth Varnado is a musician and writer living in Lexington, KY. She is a member of Lylak, the indie rock four-piece, and occasionally adds violin and vocals with other musical outfits in town. She is currently pursuing a PhD in ethnomusicology at the University of Kentucky, with research focusing on live music and music festivals.