San Fermin are an “it” band. I mean “it” in the way that Arcade Fire were the “it” band in 2004: lots of musicians onstage, just the right amount of media buzz, and a fresh spin on pop-rock. Accessibly fresh — fresh enough to sound distinguishable from the herd — but not disorienting to hordes of listeners. You could call it challenging, or you could call it soothing, depending on what your music-tolerance threshold tends to be. Behold the new Arcade Fire: They are San Fermin.
To be honest, I went to this show to see the opening act, White Hinterland, a/k/a Casey Dienel, a singer-songwriter, one-woman band, and all-around quirky character. Appearing in a hot-pink pantsuit she bought on eBay — she said she thought it would be what Lydia from Beetlejuice would wear if she wanted to “look more femme” — Dienel played a set of mostly new material, including tunes from 2014’s Baby and a new one she’d never played for anyone before.
Watching her perform is like being invited into a child’s imaginary playland, complete with imaginary friends. “This is my band,” she explained with a grand gesture to her rig of electronic instruments. She introduced the audience to her “drummer,” Steve (a drum machine), her “backup singers” Sue and Ruby (vocal loop gadgets), and her “keyboardist,” Ruth (a synthesizer). Her stage banter is off-kilter, as are the strange worlds of sound she conjures via fairy-like vocals floating above beats and synths. A classically trained pianist and singer (once a student at the New England Conservatory of Music), Dienel seems to take pleasure in inventing her own rules of songcraft — and breaking them as soon as they’ve been established in a theme or melody. Her compositions are like sandcastles, built and knocked down and rebuilt again, then washed away to make space for the next creation.
If Dienel is a one-woman symphony, San Fermin are quite literally a symphony under the direction of one man. That man is Ellis Ludwig-Leone, a young composer with a résumé boasting a degree in classical music from Yale. On Thursday night the Brooklyn band, normally an eight-piece, was joined by the Metropolis Ensemble, bringing the total number of musicians onstage at the Music Hall of Williamsburg to a hefty thirteen. This collective comprised Ludwig-Leone on keys, two singers (Charlene Kaye and Allen Tate), two violinists, a violist, a cellist, two trombone players, a saxophonist, a trumpeter, a drummer, and a guitarist. There were also blinking light bulbs atop glowing poles and some nifty neon backlights. Needless to say, it was a very full stage.
Frankly, despite the talent onstage, I was prepared not to like San Fermin. I don’t really do “hip.” But they managed to win me over.
It’s clear that the members of this band are deeply invested in delivering Ludwig-Leone’s music. With the exception of some of the Metropolis folks, they’ve all memorized the scores and perform without sheet music. (That the work was scored in the first place adds a level of cred to the endeavor.) They’re tightly rehearsed and exude a pleasantly calm energy. While there’s evident passion driving this behemoth, the musicians are able to relax into the songs with a cool confidence. You get the feeling that you’re in good hands, being led “down the rabbit hole” (to take a cue from one lyric) by professional guides who know and love what they’re doing.
Although their self-titled debut from 2013 was a concept album, San Fermin proved on Thursday that those songs could meld well with selections from their newest release, Jackrabbit, out this week. Ludwig-Leone has handily sidestepped the pitfall of a sophomore slump by mining material he wrote prior to the first album for the second, with some new songs threaded in. His music is understatedly theatrical (how’s that for a paradox?), recalling Jason Robert Brown at times, skewed Woody Allen film scores at others, and Lou Reed’s The Bells. But make no mistake: This is pop music. They’ve sold out the Music Hall on Friday night probably because they’re so easy to digest.
I was happily surprised by the natural momentum of the set, which peaked about three-fourths of the way through with “Parasite” and “Sonsick,” the audience assisting with vocals on the latter. I have only a handful of small complaints. One, I sometimes wished the songs themselves had a more dramatic arc, more buildup, climax, and resolution; often they hovered around the same emotional frequency for too long. Second, I wish that the verse melody of the new album’s title track did not remind me so much of “I Believe in a Thing Called Love” by the Darkness, because now that’s stuck in my head. And finally, I wasn’t fully on board with the arrangement of Weezer’s “Buddy Holly” that was the encore. It felt weirdly squished by all the instruments and out of place at the end of a set of original music.
But I suppose if you’re the new “it” band, you have some latitude to do whatever you want.
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