These days, the Milwaukee duo SistaStrings performs on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” and “Saturday Night Live,” among other high-profile appearances. But just a few years back, the violin- and cello-playing sisters Monique and Chauntee Ross performed in the living room of a home on the East Side.
That magic was made by the Milwaukee chapter of the international Sofar Sounds (as in, Songs From a Room).
Sofar stages secret pop-up concerts that, in Milwaukee, cost about $20. You don’t know the venue until a day and a half before the show; and the three musical acts aren’t revealed until just before they step up to the microphone. Each performer usually plays three or four songs. For music fans willing to take risks, Sofar Milwaukee shows – in a backyard, or BYOB in an art gallery with no seating – are full of surprises and charm.
As Sofar Milwaukee approaches its 10-year anniversary, the organization has set its sights higher. The show locations and performers are still kept secret. But the organizers are putting on more shows – aiming for once a week, rather than every four to six weeks – and holding some of the shows in larger, conventional venues, complete with chairs and bar service.
Will Sofar lose its charm?
“It’s hard to stay small and continue to make money and cater to everyone who might want to be involved,” says Allison Emm, founder of Wisconsin Music Ventures, a Wauwatosa-based organization that supports independent musicians. “I think it’s great that they have grown and I know that there’s a lot of great momentum behind them.”
Sofar Milwaukee still offers shows in unconventional places. Venues in 2023 included The Fringe MKE, an office coworking space in Riverwest. But it has also stopped by traditional venues like the theater at Saint Kate – The Arts Hotel Downtown.
Sam Brunelli, who took over leadership of Sofar Milwaukee in September 2022, believes he can strike a balance. He aims to continue the secret aspect of the shows while making Sofar known to a wider audience. This will allow Sofar to help a larger number of local and newer touring bands along the way.
“Most people I know don’t know what Sofar is,” says Brunelli, a member of the local rock band Wire and Nail. “That’s why I think there’s so much room for growth.”