Saturday, December 3, 2011

Erica Rivera Reviews Beirut At First Avenue

Zach Condon of Beirut

Beirut took the stage before a sold-out crowd at First Avenue on Fri. night.
For those not yet on the Beirut bandwagon (just wait, you will be), it may come as a surprise that frontman Zach Condon hails from Santa Fe, where his primary musical influences were Mexican. It wasn’t until a European escapade with his brother that Condon was exposed to the riches of world music.

When Beirut began in earnest, it was not unlike many modern outfits, consisting of Condon, recording solo, in his bedroom. Times have changed and Beirut is now a Brooklyn-based, critically acclaimed six piece that is taking the indie music biz by storm.

First Avenue’s stage decoration hinted at the old world romanticism on deck with red and white bulbs strung overhead. Touches like this made it easy to see how Condon’s former, more humble life (including a job screening foreign films at an independent theater) has been incorporated into Beirut’s vibe.

The band was met with eager applause when they emerged. The crowd had clearly memorized the lyrics to many of the 14-song set list, a mark of dedication since Condon, whose weary-beyond-his-25-years baritone, has a tendency to emphasize projection rather than enunciation.

The instruments outnumbered the musicians with an accordion, trumpets, tuba, trombone, French horn, drums, upright bass and bass guitar all getting air time during the 90 minutes of almost non-stop music. Though Condon himself never picked up a guitar, he certainly had his hands full as he alternated between playing ukulele and trumpet.


The audience at First Avenue basked in the performance as trumpets dueled, Condon crooned and his supporting musicians sweated through their button-down shirts. The venue, at elbow-to-elbow capacity, swelled with the ripe, lush melodies of Beirut’s hard-to-pin-down mix of Eastern European orchestration, ‘80s rock and gypsy folk sounds.

While Condon seemed completely comfortable and confident in the spotlight during the songs, he did not venture much into small talk between the tunes. The most he uttered was, “You’re allowed to sing along. It’s dark. No one can see you.”

And sing along they did. The mood in the mainroom was downright celebratory, with audience members dancing, kissing and clinking beer bottles to the band’s soundtrack. One felt transported to another place and time, and for a split second, could even imagine standing under an open sky in an unknown land, awaiting the arrival of a valiant warrior on a stallion. A younger, more female audience might have swooned.

That said, what’s so charming about a band like Beirut is that there’s no gimmick attached; it’s just authentic, unpretentious artistry. Think Mumford & Sons, before the Grammys got to them, and more instrumentally diverse.

Songs played were primarily from the band’s latest release, “The Rip Tide,” but tunes from previous albums “Gulag Orkestar” (2006) and “The Flying Club Cup” (2007) were also featured. Condon has said that much of his music was inspired by youthful dreams of traveling the world; now, after years on tour with Beirut, one wonders if life is imitating art or the other way around? It’s unclear, but with a sound so all-consuming, who cares?

As the final song in the set list came to a close, it was clear the audience wasn’t ready to go home. “If they don’t play another song,” a man in the crowd said, “There’s going to be a riot!”

After several minutes of thunderous applause, Condon returned to the stage and played a ukulele solo. When the band joined him for three additional songs, fans were met with a spectacular blast of horns. Condon was visibly moved by the audience’s response and it seemed as though he would’ve played all night if he could.

Zach Condon of Beirut

As concert-goers filed out into the frigid streets of downtown, it was clear they were under the influence of a sonic afterglow. Beirut’s evocation of restlessness and wanderlust is a feeling that Minnesotans on the brink of winter hibernation can relate to.

Published on Metromix Twin Cities in Dec. 2011