San Fermin: Whatever Works

(Left to r) Michael Hanf, Stephen Chen, Charlene Kaye, Ellis Ludwig-Leone, Allen Tate, John Brandon, Tyler McDiarmid. Photo by Denny Remshaw

The most exciting show I witnessed at the 2015 South by Southwest Conference was San Fermin’s. The octet resembled a thousand other indie-rock bands from Brooklyn: black clothes on slender frames, a thumping pulse and coolly ironic vocals. But the set-up was odd — trumpet, tenor sax, fiddle, lead male singer, lead female singer and rock rhythm section — and the music kept shifting gears in ways that caught even the most jaded listener off-guard.

“The Count,” a song from the band’s 2013 debut album, began with Charlene Kaye, wearing a sleeveless back pantsuit, singing to herself in disillusionment: “If I don’t find my own true love, I don’t care, don’t care at all. I don’t bite on caramel lies.” The synthesizer and guitar behind were as chilly as her soprano, but her solitary musings were suddenly interrupted by the outside world bursting in on her in the form of noisy horns, strings and percussion playing a funk interlude.

And this interlude sounded as complicated and insistent as real life, thanks to the mesh of counterpointed melodies within the groove. The song’s narrator could try to hide out in her own apartment with the intricate minimalism of her melancholy melody, but the larger universe — and her own irrepressible desires — kept breaking through the barriers. By the time baritone saxophonist Stephen Chen and trumpeter John Brandon had climbed atop the flanking PA speakers to bark out their blaring horn parts, there was no denying the claims of the public sphere.... Sign In to Keep Reading

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