Onward CMJ Soldiers: Courtney Barnett, San Fermin Command Manhattan

San Ferman live

New York – CMJ Music Marathon marches sleeplessly on in Gotham, and on Wednesday hit what was possibly the extravaganza’s pinnacle performance. Event organizers had preempted the Webster Hall concert with caution, a sort of this-night-will-be-packed-so-don’t-expect-entrance-is-a-given kind of mentality. And though they said it couldn’t be done, CMJ badge holders turned out in droves to watch Courtney Barnett and San Fermin put a cherry on an already marvelous week of indie music.

Though our small party was denied access for much of Barnett’s set, we infiltrated the venue right in time to catch her last two tracks. Serendipitously, we walked into the spot mid “Avant Gardner,” Barnett’s breakout track and arguably her most infectious cut to date. The band closed on “History Eraser,” which set the crowded room aflame with howls of appreciation.  (Ed., HERE’s a review of one of the Australian singer-songwriter’s concerts earlier this year.)

Preposterously, many in attendance stepped out when Courtney Barnett exited the stage. But the venue still boasted an at-capacity crew as more concertgoers cycled in to witness the night’s headlining act, Brooklyn’s own San Fermin.

This is a band that, recorded, is downbeat yet surprising and seduces listeners with calmly calculated cadence. But in person San Fermin soars to extraordinarily explosive peaks. In a way, seeing the band live feels like an unexpected confrontation with a misplaced first impression. Imagine if what you took to be the reverence of The National turned out to house the vigor of Dirty Projectors and you’ll glean a hit of this act in person. On stage, San Fermin is anything but unassuming, and Wednesday night’s performance confirmed with undulating force that this group is destined for greatness.

San Fermin at large is Allen Tate, Charlene Kaye, Rebekah Durham, John Brandon, Stephen Chen, Tyler McDiarmid and Michael Hanf, fronted by the illustrious Ellis Ludwig-Leone. Ludwig-Leone, a Yale University graduate with a degree in composition, leads this motley crew with unwavering charisma and a guiding artistic vision that’s grounded in attitudinal baroque pop. To date, the band has delivered one LP, and their debut, self-titled album surfaced via Downtown Records in 2013.  When San Fermin first saw the light of day, NPR dubbed the effort “one of the year’s most surprising, ambitious, evocative and moving records,” and that accolade is not misplaced.

Taking the stage a hair before 11pm, the 8-strong band maintained a fantastical and unlikely amount of energetic luster for a full hour. After powering through several much-loved cuts off their debut album, San Fermin exposed the audience to a cascade of unreleased, gold-plated tracks.

“Hello New York! We’re San Fermin and we’re from Brooklyn,” Ludwig-Leone greeted his audience. “It’s so good to be here with you tonight at Webster Hall. We’ve got a brand new song for you, it’s going to be on our next album and it’s called ‘Emily.’”

It’s rare that a band can woo audiences with unfamiliar work, but San Fermin pulled it off with unrelenting success. Two songs to be on the watch for are “The Woods” and “Philosopher.” “The Woods” is particularly stunning, like a high voltage manifesto penned by a naturalist, and swerves this group’s sound down the electronic pop experimentalism of Trails and Ways.

But the night’s performance of choice was San Fermin’s live rendition of “Sonsick.” This song crams an impossible amount of heart into a breakout track, and is as emotionally weighty as it is infectious. ”It’s like a panic attack disguised as a birthday party,” Ludwig-Leone is quoted, via his label, of the song. ”I realized that the most intense moments are the ones in which conflicting emotional worlds exist inside you, equally, at once.”

That’s enlightened thinking cleverly disguised behind brass instruments, and belies what sets this act apart. San Fermin is a band that’s both talented and in tune with the most confounding parts of making art. Give San Fermin a listen and they’ll win your affections as rapidly as they get you reflecting.

San Fermin will be on tour with Courtney Barnett until early November, hit FUN FUN FUN FEST in Austin and carry on across the U.S. with Mikhael Paskalev until early March.
Liz Rowley

Liz Rowley

Born in Mexico and raised in Toronto, Jerusalem and Chicago by a pair of journalists, Liz comes to BestNewBands.com with an inherited love of writing. After discovering a niche for herself in music journalism and radio while at Bates College in Maine, she always keeps a running playlist of new music to soundtrack her place in the world. Liz is passionate about helping dedicated, talented musicians gain the exposure they deserve. A recent transplant to Brooklyn from Hawaii, she is plagued by an incurable case of wanderlust and cursed with an affinity for old maps and old things like typewriters and vintage books. She adores photography and running and is very good with plants. Having come of age in Chicago, Wilco speaks to her soul. If she could be anything, she would be a cat in a Murakami novel.
Liz Rowley