For anyone who has ever been stuck with horrible seats or waited in line at a ticket office only to be turned away, it can be agreed upon – good live music can be hard to find.
Fortunately, a solution to this problem can be found in downtown Davis. Friday at 10 p.m. begins the spring and summer live music season at Sophia’s Thai Kitchen, located at 129 E St. On the bill for opening night is San Francisco-based western swing group Lady A and her Heel Draggers as well as the townies Mad Cow String Band.
When Sophia’s first opened in 2001, co-owner Kevin Wan said hosting live music was never far from his plans for the business. However, due to logistics and other matters of running a new business, the concert series did not get its start until about two years ago. Last year, Wan and Michael Leahy, a Davis resident and DJ at KDVS 90.3 FM, presented Sophia’s “Cool As Folk” live music series (named after Leahy’s radio show). The series invited acts like Minnesota-based folk band Cataldo as well as the Dodos, who toured with Frenchkiss labelmates Akron/Family and performed at the South by Southwest Music Festival.
“There are so few places [in Davis] for people to go see live music,” said Wan, who is also a UC Davis alumnus. “It’s a special thing that the season is only six months – so the quality is really high. Everything is quite deliberate and well thought out.”
From April to October, Sophia’s patio becomes an outdoor stage, and this season’s calendar promises a scope of artists from the surf pop sound of San Francisco-based band the Boticellis and nostalgic Americana from the New York-based Salt and Samovar, to the experimental Latin group Diego’s Umbrella (who performed at the Red Gorilla Music Festival, a sub-festival of SXSW).
“One thing that helps make it work is that we’re really excited about it,” Leahy said. “Booking music is a challenge, and it takes a lot of dedication. We want to help foster the scene.”
For many bands, Sophia’s has become a standard stop on their tour bill, and many of them set to play are repeat acts that want to come back, Leahy said. Portland-based folk artist Ian McFeron, who will perform at Sophia’s on May 16, said that Davis was one of his favorite towns on his tour. It will be McFeron’s fourth time performing at Sophia’s.
“It’s a college music scene, but the college students that we have connected with there have been more than just the ‘party crowd’ – I feel like they’re more cued into music,” McFeron said. “From the first time we played there, I just felt like the people got it, and they were kind and embracing. I felt that we made fast friends there, people that we look forward to go back and see.”
Though Wan admitted that the space was small, many of the performers returning to Sophia’s said their favorite part about playing there was the sense of intimacy that could only be found in a venue of that size.
“You get more of that living room vibe when you’re connecting directly and intimately with the audience,” McFeron said. “The audience has that same energy that you’re putting out.”
Alex Roth, guitarist and vocalist of Mad Cow String Band, said it was the casual, laidback atmosphere of Sophia’s that made it ideal as both a performer and an audience member.
“As a musician, you’re right there,” Roth said. “You’re not way on the stage – it’s close and intimate.”
Shelley Short, a Portland-based folk artist who played at Sophia’s last year, agreed.
“You get to talk to people, you get to hang out with them,” said Short, who will perform May 3 along with Tyler Ramsey and The Dimes.
Though admittance for the shows is only 21 and up, the accepting spirit of Sophia’s also extends to the underage crowd. Unique to Sophia’s is Balcony B, a balcony that overlooks the courtyard area, where those under 21 can also enjoy the music. Whereas most other places would be quick to throw out these underage visitors, Wan said that Balcony B is part of the Sophia’s culture.
“It adds to [Sophia’s],” Leahy said. “If anything, those people are actually there for the music.”
Sophia’s concert season will kick off Friday at 10 p.m. at the restaurant, located at 129 E St. For more information and a calendar of upcoming shows, visit sophiasthaikitchen.com.
RACHEL FILIPINAS can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.