The comparison is inevitable. Highly orchestrated indie outfits with male-female lead vocals that really rely on a trio of harmonizers aren’t super common. As such, each review of San Fermin contains a mention of their more famous neighbors, the Dirty Projectors. To be fair, each group does have a Yale-grad writing a majority of the music behind the scenes (Dave Longstreth v. pianist/composer Ellis Ludwig-Leone here).
Close your eyes, however, and the distinction is immediate. As hard as describing San Fermin is, the music they create has an even higher degree of difficultly. The Dirty Projectors showcase incredibly complex, incredibly impressive singing—San Fermin’s entirety is a songwriter’s wet dream. Pick any track off the band’s self-titled debut and the high level of overall composition is immediately evident. Wind ensemble mainstays (bari sax and trumpet) blend with violin and support the rock band at heart, all lead by an alto, a Matt Berninger-esque baritone and supporting soprano harmonies. While it certainly rocks at times, the result is simply beautiful; music that seems meant for the most progressive of concert halls rather than a club.
So how on Earth do such rich soundscapes translate live? Apparently, it’s like the audience is sitting in on recording sessions (abbreviated of course, eight musicians instead of 20+). San Fermin took to Gasa Gasa and blew all in attendance away, somehow striking the perfect delicate balance between the crudeness of a great, intimate live show and the classical refinement of its recorded output.
The band went on for more than hour, largely pulling from its sole record. “Renaissance” showed the strength of Allen Tate’s vocals early on (it’s as if he organically pulls a crowd; it’s hard not to lean in and listen) right away, while fan-favorite “Sonsick” came mid-set and demonstrated the remarkable range and joy that Jess Wolfe provides in contrast.
“Parasites” was one of two new tracks unleashed on the audience, but it was a highlight. It shows the array of possibilities within Ludwig-Leone’s mind distilled into a single track—an eerie howling vocal starts, an off-beat guitar riff comfortable on any Bloc Party record comes after. Everyone joins in a dissonant jam next that sets off the rest: tempos change; melodies are past between instruments; bari sax, trumpet and violin trade solo sections like it’s some jazz fusion concert. It’s pure chaos kept together by one rock of drummer (Mike Hanf), yet each section seems to grab a sliver of audience until everyone in attendance is riveted and dying to see how it ends.
San Fermin is a young band and Ludwig-Leone a young composer. Who knows if they’ll be able to keep up this torrid output going forward, but “Parasites” (along with another new one called “Woman in Red”) hint that the group’s best may be on the horizon. Still, there’s a level of sophistication here most young bands don’t have, and more impressively there’s a level of polish on the performance. It’s easy to see why San Fermin left 2013 as one of the most overlooked acts and SXSW 2014 among the buzziest. Their nights of playing for maybe a 100 at venues like Gasa Gasa are limited, take advantage while you can. You’ll remember telling your friends about the days when these guys still closed with a cover (The Strokes’ “Heart in a Cage” if you have to ask).
A band to “like” if you could: Eskimoses is a local bluegrass-infused rock outfit, and they offered everything you could want from an opener. The music was tight and, as evidenced from the only bit of media they currently have online, it’s been refined again and again to get this point. For instance, the night’s version of “Make it Through” ditched the constant communal vocals in favor of allowing the Eskimoses’ lead singer (Alex?) to lead, limiting the shouty, optimistic sing-a-long bits to the chorus. That’s a young band maturing in its songwriting.
Eskimoses’ set was short as were their songs (in that early Tokyo Police Club way, where it’s an asset), and the band kept things up-tempo throughout to establish a solid level of communal energy. The crowd response wasn’t merely from people happy to be there, however. The night’s other opener, Paper Bisons, evidently just celebrated 311 day and folks chattered through the band’s familiar and forgettable brand of 90s reggae-pop. (Of course that band has merch and Facebook/Bandcamp/etc.) Eskimoses earned its overall admiration. Alex flashed glimpses of Colin Meloy both in the tenor of his voice and the offbeat nature of his between songs banter (including an admission that a song he wrote about relationships now reminds him of impotence). The easiest current comparison is a lighter—in sound and content—Mount Moriah, though the latter is more refined at the moment. That’s not a knock; Eskimoses is a young band worth paying attention to around NOLA (next up on 4/1 at Circle Bar). It’s just that most would look a little undercooked when sharing a stage with San Fermin.
Sadly, that’s all the information you’re likely to find on Eskimoses at this point. The band admitted midset that not only is there no merch, they’re not even set up yet on Twitter/Bandcamp/Facebook/your social media outlet of choice. A search gets you the memorable Looney Tunes clip (here’s the obvious cover idea) and an Urban Dictionary definition. Eskimoses, if you ever Google yourself, you’re better than that—grab whatever line from above you’d like and plant an online flag somewhere so would-be fans can find you.