San Fermin at DC9

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San Fermin
This rad photo was not taken by the author. Photo credit to the band.

Although San Fermin is often described as falling under the incredibly vague and often misleading genre “baroque-pop”, their sound is much more expansive than the narrow scope encapsulated by the phrase. Flowing through their album Thursday night, San Fermin put on an almost operatic performance as they lead the crowd through their concept album (eponymously named San Fermin), which follows a melodramatic male character and an aloof female character through discussions of their relationship, hitting both notes of wistfulness and freneticism. Written by contemporary classical composer, Ellis Ludwig-Leone, the album utilizes his background to tell a lush musical story of the insecurities faced in relationships while the live performance is an ultimately cathartic experience. Starting with “Renaissance!”, ethereal female vocals gave way to lead male vocalist, Allen Tate’s, almost deadpan style of baritone. The intensity of the instruments behind his solid voice enraptured the crowd, who soon loosened up with the transition into “Crueler Kind”, which had all of the energy of a jam session hinted at in the album and was delivered brilliantly live. The bellowed notes and blares of the brass section were in heavy contrast to the tender strings and vocals-dominated sound of the following “Cassanova”. The crowd easily recognized “Sonsick”, one of their most popular songs, and the rawness behind lead female vocalist, Rae Cassidy’s, portrayal of the female character resonated with the audience, her high notes acting as pinnacles for the emotions, all of it wondrously rich and emphasized by Stephen and Brandon’s respective saxophone and trumpet.

My personal favorite, “Methuselah”, was beautiful and sweet—the perfect wistful lullaby. However, the violinist took more liberties with her tempo when she had the melody and I would have liked a push back from the vocalists to create more tension underlying the melancholy feeling. “Torero” presented a contrast between the vocalists and brass’ melody and violinst Rebekah’s different melody, creating more unease in this song about youth. “The Count’s” refrain of “I can’t fall asleep in your arms” was haunting and the powerful percussion and brass driven piece, blues notes, and dissonance added to the heart-stopping melody. An a capella start to “Bar” transitioned us into the strong song with a sweeter start and after the sentimental “Oh Darling”, they closed their set with “Daedaleus’” regal trumpet and almost overwhelming collage of melody lines before a sudden drop-off in sound to thundering applause. Amidst shouts of “Encore!” and “One more song!”, they started The Strokes’ “Heart in a Cage” with the saxophone taking the lead instrumental melody in their wilder and looser interpretation of the song, leaving the audience in a relaxed atmosphere.

Despite touring with a seven-piece band, a drastic decrease from the 23 musicians who had recorded the album, the music was able to keep its full and commanding atmosphere. This was limiting in some aspects, the most obvious being the absence of the interludes present in the album (I would have loved to hear “At Night, True Love”) that showcase Ludwig-Leone’s background as a contemporary classical composer. Although limited by the size of the touring band, the mood set by their music was truly spell-binding. Cassidy’s emotional voice, emphasized by its almost R&B timbre and fullness, gives the live performance an additional layer of depth and the story more shape by pulling back the female character’s veil of cynicism to show her vulnerability. Their ability to pull off the rich orchestration of the album in live performances, an indication of Ludwig-Leone’s strengths as a composer and the musicians’ skills, has shed any doubts I had about the band elevating their concept album to new emotional heights.

Of all the different clichés and comparisons ascribed to San Fermin, there’s only one that you need to keep in mind—they’re truly a band for anyone. There’s a universality to the topics touched upon in the album—desperation, grandiose passion, the postmodern obsession with the pastoral romance—and an accessibility to the classically-influenced music that satisfies everyone from geeks like me who grew up classically trained to casual shower singers who just want to belt out “Sonsick” horrifically off-key (as I often do). The album evokes primal emotions in a cathartic way, carrying you alongside the struggles and experiences of the characters to deliver you to an ending that is real and raw—neither cartoonishly happy nor unrelentingly depressing but rather a place where you can gain insight about your own journey—something quite rare. Additional Information: San Fermin is currently streaming on NME and is available for purchase. After the theft of almost $30,000 worth in instruments and equipment, they have also set up a pledge account that allows you to pledge towards personalized items and experiences with a part of its proceeds going towards charity, Musicians On Call.

–Si Chen

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