all photos: Shauna Alexander, all words: Josh Stewart
As far as I can remember this might have been the coldest night possible to head out to Wolf Trap’s indoor venue The Barns to hear a Brooklyn based San Fermin with opener White Hinterland. In case you aren’t familiar, The Barns at Wolf Trap (National Park System!) are made up of two barns (surprise) that are more than 200 years old. Because of this, the venue provides both an incredible experience aesthetically, with large weathered wooden beams everywhere, as well as a great sound that is controlled yet packs a punch. Usually the venue hosts a different crowd with musicals, opera, Edwin McCain, etc. So, I was very excited to see San Fermin outside of the usual haunts in the District.
White Hinterland is Casey Dienel — and I don’t know if was The Barns unique atmosphere or Dienel’s charm — but despite being a solo act, Dienel captivated the crowd and the sounds of White Hinterland were well suited to warm the crowd up for the main performance.
During some technical trouble with the drum (which were quickly overcome) Dienel, in a telling moment, described how she thrived as a solo artist in a world where short attention spans, and heavy competition can prove difficult for a one woman show.
“I like to think best part of being a solo artist is being an agent of chaos. When else besides being a solo artist can you do that… besides when you are a child?”
I am not sure there is answer to that, but the looping sounds with the Dienel’s vocals were a nice addition to the evening.
The bar is set high for San Fermin’s performance as you are hoping for a spectacle, a performance that captivates and perhaps takes you to places you have never been. With their own brand of “save the world” indie San Fermin does something unique. Despite striking similarities in tone and in style to bands like the Dirty Projectors — led by the young but talented Ellis Ludwig-Leone — this band is ambitious.
With San Fermin’s blend of art rock and chamber pop, I have to admit I was skeptical of the type of performance the band would put together, but as they played songs from their self-titled record I began to see how much this band was striving to be great. Taking bold choices with tempo, eerie vocal harmonies and in the case of this performance, 13 people on stage which included the Invoke String Quartet, trombone, violin, drums, guitar, two singers, keys, trumpet, and baritone sax. I will say, there is in fact a fine a line between something akin to Sufjan Stevens or The Polyphonic Spree and the more art-rock sounds of the Dirty Projectors — which is space that San Fermin occupies nicely.
The band also played several tracks from the their soon to be released sophomore album Jack Rabbit. In fact the band played a lot of songs from the new record including “Ladies Mary”, “Philosopher” and “Jack Rabbit”. From the album’s namesake “Jack Rabbit” was the song the really pulled the crowd in and energized the band.
The show changed at the point, with principal singers Allen Tate and Charlene Kaye volleying back and forth — building chemistry with both the crowd and the rest of the band.
The guy and girl give and take was quite compelling as Tate’s baritone, crooning style rested well with Kaye’s performative and sometimes dramatic vocal styles. This was also evident when the band played “Methuselah”, which has a natural sing along and that campfire-strum along guitar. The strings ached behind the paired vocals and it was a powerful moment in the show.
Though the down moments during the show felt like a wake — it was a really good wake and at times it felt like the second line at a New Orleans parade.
After the band played the crowd pleasing “Sonsick” the band hit a high point of energy that was maintained throughout the rest of the show. We were watching, not just a group of people standing there waiting for validation, but a good performance rarely seen in indie music today.
The audience was able to experience each unique sound the band had to offer as Ludwig-Leone allowed for each member to showcase their talent, with solos or bright moments.
And that is just how the show ended. With Ludwig-Leone and company surprising the crowd with a distinctly San Fermin-ized version of “Heart in Cage” by The Strokes.
To read more on San Fermin check out BYT’s previous interview here and stay tuned for San Fermin’s sophomore album Jack Rabbit out on April 21.