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San Fermin @ Whelan’s, Dublin


Fresh off the release of sophomore album Jackrabbit, Brooklyn-based San Fermin returns to Dublin exactly one year after their debut performance in Ireland. Largely the brainchild of composer and lyricist Ellis Ludwig-Leone, a composition major from Yale University, San Fermin’s style plays to a variety of influence ranging folk, jazz, and pop, with an element of high refinement in each musical mannerism. The eight-piece ensemble, including two men on brass and an electric violinist, excites in a way that is hard to categorize. Ellis’ lyrics mystify the abstract while painting a visceral picture of emotion, yet the robust vocals of a male and female lead prove they’re not the soft-sung tone of indie-folk. Nor are they the devilish delights of an underground speak-easy, though sax and trumpet stoke the band’s fire. Rather, San Fermin is a full-bodied sound that swells and collapses in bold rhythms of sophisticated swing which makes this rag-tag crew of talented musicians impossible to ignore. Their unique blend is what made debut eponymous album the grand entrance it was. What’s interesting this time round is watching how they deal with trial runs in style from album to album, and perhaps more importantly, changes in band membership.

One major strength of the evening’s performance was that the group wasn’t overzealous in brandishing songs from the new album, with Ellis and mates striking a well-grounded balance of selections from both works in an evenly scattered set. Jackrabbit‘s experimental tunes sing to new explorations craved by the band’s eclectic brilliance. Further, they arrive at a much anticipated moment following more than a year of hitting the road. A noticeable problem onstage, however, was the lack of ease the band had in performing the new tracks live, probably a result of their heavy presence in the live circuit where they’ve honed incomparable energy on earlier, iconic numbers. Moreover, the egalitarian nature of Ellis’ creativity almost abounds to excess on this second composition, making for a show-and-tell style of performance, each musician taking a turn at furnishing various highlights of the fresh numbers. Eager pushing of band members to center stage proved an awkward coupling with these stylistic choices, as well.  Meanwhile, the shoddy sound tech of Whelan’s didn’t work wonders for the band’s richly orchestral pieces. Longer halls like Grand Social or Workman’s would easily have yielded much stronger acoustics to the backing-vocal and rhythm-guitar lines that were often cut off at the knees by the truncated pit of the Camden Street bar.

However, the sheer talent of each band member and their finesse as a collective make for the most enthralling aspect of their live act, and the numbers they’ve made standards still command force as great and effectively used showstoppers. The alluring folk hymn ‘Methuselah’ found a familiar echo of lyrics from a quietly enraptured house.  Frontman Allen Tate’s sultry bass vocals ring redolent of the rich and powerful chops of Johnny Cash. Finding his June Carter in leading lady Charlene Kaye is something the band is still learning to master, however, with a year to the their history since original songstress Rae Cassidy’s departure. Kaye’s vocals boast ample strength on challenging numbers like ‘Sonsick’ and ‘Crueler Kind’.  Her stage presence, however, is still navigating a comfortable position within the rest of the musical jamboree which Cassidy tamed with subdued prowess. Noteworthy, too, was the band’s cheeky, jazz-infused rendition of Weezer’s ‘Buddy Holly’ in encore.

The many layers of San Fermin’s sound make them a delectable feast for the ears. There is a sonic genius tying their skills together in a style that is bold, daring, and yet refreshingly self-tempered. Watching them grow as they move through their jam-packed tour and festival season will prove an exciting development for fans to witness in an act already laced with exciting intricacies. Joe Madsen