After receiving a very special email two days beforehand, I braved the night time journey on Brisbane’s train lines to a small coffee shop in Albion: Stalled Espresso. A secret gig was afoot, put on by worldwide paradigm changers, Sofar Sounds. Fellow Mind the Music contributor Ben Lynskey agreed to tag along, with only a few hours notice. Despite fearing Albion’s poorly lit back streets, we spotted a small gathered crowd listening to a band performing sound check: unmistakably The Vernons.
The location was absurdly comical. Stalled Espresso is nestled in between Queensland Vehicle Centre and Comet Automotive on an unremarkable street. Yet a couple of dozen people were here, about to watch three of Queensland’s best, two of whom had walked away with People’s Choice Awards just two days previous. This is the beauty of Sofar Sounds. You register for a gig, knowing only the date. You don’t know who you’ll see, and the location is emailed to you a few days before. It can be anywhere, even people’s living rooms. And these are the calibre of artists you can get.
It’s this secrecy which paradoxically creates an open space between the audience and performers. There was no staging, no bouncers. There were kids getting excited in the front row of dumpy box seats only an arms length away from the performers.
A friend once told me that surviving the acoustic treatment is the measure of a well written song. The Vernons sound wonderful with their complete outfit and as soon as they launched into their acoustic opener, I knew they could pull it off. Jonny Nyst’s voice soared through the small venue and captivated every single attendee. No one moved, save one boy who air strummed his opinion.
The warm acoustic guitars were easily distinguishable. The different colours and gentle rhythms defined The Vernons’ set, providing a platform for Jonny to put a soulful spin to the lyrics – ‘oohs’ and elongated words. It was a contrast to his quiet, shy manner of speaking, both aspects of him winning everyone over. The band took the risk of covering The Beatles but ‘Come Together’ was perfect for their style. Happily they finished with the newest single ‘Standing in Line’, which lost none of its popular appeal for being acoustic. Check it out.
Jeremy Neale, who beat Bernard Fanning for “Most Popular Male” at the QMAs, brought some electric guitar to the cool evening. He was playing solo, which is a shame because his saxophone player would have had a field day here. But Jeremy is a huge talent in his own right; and his humour comes out as fast as his strumming.
Unfortunately, one of Jeremy’s guitar strings snapped two songs in (he later admitted that he only recently bought that guitar and had not changed the strings yet), and the evening became unplugged once again. In a way, it was cool to hear his songs on the acoustic, especially as a solo artist. Having the option of having him restart ‘A Love Affair to Keep You There’ due to string breakage was a no-brainer for the enthusiastic attendees. As was the answer to Jeremy’s “Do I have one song left or two?” Jeremy’s wonderful set certainly resonated with the unlucky in love, with a couple of lyrically comical, but poignant songs directed at his ex. Whom he assures us with typical awkwardness, is not named Ramona.
The Jungle Giants had been hanging back all night, watching and applauding their contemporaries. They wasted no time in performing a set heavily featuring newer songs from their soon to be released album. I feared for Keelan’s back as he hunched over a cajon drum in replacement of his usual kit. Unlike The Vernons, The Jungle Giants were silent, leaving it to Sam Hales to interact with the audience. An unplugged set did nothing to dampen his usual cheekiness. After the rendition of ‘I Am What You Want Me To Be‘ ended with a fade out, Sam’s only comment reflected his relief that they’d managed to pull it off.
The vocals were as great as always, with Sam throwing his voice around the octaves. The set was far too short for a true appreciation of the talent, as it had been with The Vernons and Jeremy Neale. How wonderful though to experience craving more from each and every act that plays. A beautiful ending saw the band leave Sam to perform the heartfelt ‘Devil’s in the Detail’ to raucous applause.
Sofar Sounds unexpectedly brought me as close as I’ll ever come to sharing a room with some amazing artists. There was nothing stopping anyone from going up and saying hello, and it’s the best atmosphere for a gig. Try it, at least once in your life.