Getting up close and personal with bands isn’t always easy these days. Huge enormo-domes (™ Spinal Tap) such as the 02 or festivals like Glastonbury mean you can often be left wondering if it is indeed the act you came to see on stage or just an elaborate, Stephen Hawkins-esque hologram.
At London’s celebrated Jazz Café however there are no such problems. Neatly hewn into the most intimate of spaces, (yet without feeling like sheep trapped in a pen), an audience can feel as if the act are among them – in tonight’s case, this is literally true, but more of that later.
Brooklyn-based, 8-piece ensemble, San Fermin are here to celebrate the release of their second album Jackrabbit and there’s a distinct party ambiance in this particular corner of north-west London. From the opening salvos of ‘Ladies Mary’ to the closing overs of their unique take on the Weezer classic ‘Buddy Holly’, Ellis Ludwig-Leone and his assorted cohorts throw everything they have, and more, into delivering a truly inimitable musical performance.
Individually, each member of Ludwig-Leone’s troupe is a sublime musician or singer with the floppy-haired maestro guiding his elegant hands over proceedings and his various keyboards. A self-effacing figure, the composer and band-leader hides half-shyly to one side of the stage while others take it in turn to shine under the spotlight.
Drummer Michael Hanf is a whirling dervish of a figure, cracking a furious pace, his arms often a windmill-like blur yet the beat never once dropped. Guitarist Tyler McDiarmid hides in the shadows, cool yet effective in his precision and solidity while singer and violinist Rebekah Durham offers subtle sweeps of her bow, occasionally shredding horse hair when the fury demands it.
The band’s latest single ‘Emily’ gets an early airing in the set and brings to the fore the peerless vocals of Allen Tate who is beginning to enjoy every sublime moment of the gig. Tate has the kind of deep, powerful voice so beloved by fans of The National’s Matt Berninger and also a stage presence that segues effortlessly between cool rock star and boyish cheekiness, cracking a smile when the audience’s rapturous cheers ring loud and true.
If there’s a standout moment mid-set then it has to be ‘Methuselah’ (there surely can’t be many songs written using the name of the oldest man in the Bible – possibly this is the only one?) Allen Tate uses his dead-pan, soulful delivery to full effect, painting a vivid canvas with lyrical imagery of lions on beaches, men in boats and dirty bouquets telling a tale of love and loss.
There’s no doubt that Ludwig-Leone’s compositions are ingenious, shrewd creations with arrangements designed to excite, thrill and energise any listening audience while at the same time contemplative and absorbing lyrics leave a satisfying taste in the mouth. This isn’t bombast for bombast sake, and the dynamism and drive the eight-piece deliver consistently throughout the set reflects the dedication of both musicianship and the hard yards put in on the road as an evolving, organic live band.
Lead vocalist Charlene Kaye embodies the spirit of the rock band, a stunning presence on stage, cut-glass crystal vocals that share space with Tate’s growl, never competing, always complementing. Where Tate prowls the stage, cool in tee shirt and jeans, Kaye adopts oblique shapes, struts confidently when playing her electric guitar and arches her back suggestively against trumpeter John Brandon.
Ah yes, San Fermin’s brass section, completed by bass saxophonist Stephen Chen, may not be playing the usual instruments that lead plaudits but undoubtedly the biggest and most raucous cheers of the night went to these two players. Not only does the trumpet and sax give a distinctive slant to the band’s music but the sheer vitality of their playing (metaphorically) blows all competitors out of the water.
When Brandon disappears into the crowd for his solo spot it is (a) unusual (one normally expects a singer or lead guitarist to perform such theatrics) and (b) rather amusing / annoying to find the beer glass collector amongst the throng, desperately trying to do his job while a fella is blowing a trumpet in his ear. These are the moments for which seeing a band near the start of a highly anticipated long and successful career that are both rare and wonderful.
If I have one fault (and it is a small one) then it’s that the single ‘Jackrabbit’ falls a little flat when heard live, which was disappointing given the anthemic qualities of the recorded version. Still, there’s time for a brief encore as Ludwig-Leone signals one more tune and the evening is wrapped up in pure satisfaction with the Weezer cover.
If San Fermin do ever end up at the 02 then with contentment and contemplation I’ll be able to recall the time at the Jazz Café when I was six inches away from a trumpet next to my ear and a beer collector treading on my foot. Happy days.
Downtown Records issued Jackrabbit on CD, LP and digitally in Europe April 27, 2015 via Sony RED.
Amsterdam, Holland – Bitterzoet – May 1st 2015
Hamburg, Germany – Prinzenbar – May 2nd 2015
Paris, France – La Maroquinerie – May 4th 2015
Brighton, England – Hope – May 5th 2015