San Fermin Concert Review (SXSW 2015)

May 4, 2015

The following is a review of a concert that occurred at the SXSW Music Festival. The review was an assignment from a Fuller Theological Seminary class that studies the relationship between theology and popular music, with a focus on the live experience. For more information on the class, including how to join us next year, click here.

In an effort to create fresh music, many bands resort to blending diverse, seemingly incongruous genres. The results have been varied, to say the least. You can end up with an iffy surf rock-disco hybrid, much like an unnamed Michigan band that performed early on the first official day of South by Southwest in Austin, or you can end with something elegantly catchy, which is what Brooklyn-based San Fermin have managed to achieve by mixing their proclivities for classical and pop music. Songwriter Ellis Ludwig-Leone graduated from Yale with a degree in music composition, working under composer Nico Muhly, known for his work with Grizzly Bear and Sufjan Stevens, on several film scores and operas. Ludwig-Leone decided toward the end of his college career to infuse that classical background with pop music, and the results are the technically brilliant and infectiously catchy tunes of San Fermin.

The eight-piece ensemble, including a baritone saxophone, a trumpet, a violinist, and a male and female vocal lead to go along with more typical rock band instruments, began their official SXSW performances at Hype Machine’s Hype Hotel in what looks like a converted hangar. The band filled the space brilliantly and swiftly with a quick 40-minute set of tunes old and new drawn from their 2013 self-titled release and their upcoming album, Jackrabbit, which hits stores April 21st. The arrangements were predictably intricate, and the band’s performance was tight — as my friend at the show said after, “That was technically brilliant!”

Highlights included “Sonsick,” arguably the band’s catchiest tune and clearly the one the crowd most readily recalled. It’s back-and-forth between the female lead Charlene Kaye and the horn section in the chorus along with the epic flourishes both vocally and instrumentally left the audience with their jaws dropped until the baritone saxophone blasted the guitar line of the Strokes’ “Heart in A Cage,” which they closed the set with. The Punch Brothers are known for covering the same song, but San Fermin were better equipped to capture the song’s panicky, high-volume temper.

San Fermin were a tough act to follow, and their live performance was able to capture the energy and technical intricacy that made their first album so great. A group of highly skilled musicians who like pop music makes for a great combination — much more palpable than surf rock-disco.

BRANDON HOOK. Brandon hopes to see where God is speaking and working in all of life: in nature, movies, music, people—specifically what Jesus calls “the least of these” in Matthew 25—himself, and even politics, which he still has a lot to learn about. Brandon found this passion for the intersection between faith and culture at Azusa Pacific University and continues to foster it as he pursues a Masters of Arts in Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. Though he has spent considerable time in California, Brandon is not originally from the Golden State. He hails from Wauwatosa, Wisconsin. Among many other things, he loves his family, friends, photography, seasons, and nostalgic movies that try to pin down the elusive concept of home.

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