29 Oct 2011: Stubbs BBQ Austin, TX
It is a gorgeous fall evening in Austin and the crowd is chanting for Zach Condon. The founder and lead singer of Beirut is in Austin for the second time in a few months span, making up for a four year long absence, and it is evident that he was missed. Standing on the balcony and looking across the audience, I realize just before the set begins that it is the Saturday before Halloween and the University of Texas kids are properly attired. There are pirates, mermaids, and Indian chiefs chain smoking and sipping beers patiently waiting for the lights to dim but the accordion player with his curly fro and sheepish shuffle gets the most attention, shyly waiving to the audience’s cat calls and cheers each time he crosses the stage.
Doubling as a barbecue restaurant and music venue, Stubbs is a sort of Austin institution. I know plenty of people who make a sport of complaining about the sound and setup of the venue but for me it is ideal: large enough to not feel crowded and intimate to feel like you are part of a small performance.
When Condon and company finally take the stage, the volume at Stubbs turns up louder than I have ever heard it. The band all dress virtually identically—untucked button downs, dark slacks and boots with messed mops or perfectly carved out side parts. It wouldn’t be a stretch of the imagination to place these guys on Bedford St. working as baristas or book store clerks but as soon as they take hold of their respective instruments, the inclination to asses the hipster stereotype becomes an afterthought as their talents take front and center.
The band opens up with “Concubine”—an ideal way to kick things off-as the song is a slow builder mixing in sparse xylophone and a simple kick drum. The ukulele and trumpets carry “Elephant Gun” through the swaying crowd and the first true crowd pleaser of the evening comes in “Postcards From Italy”.
This is the song that introduced me to Beirut back in 2006 off his acclaimed debut, Gulag Orkestar and one that certainly plays to the strengths of the band and showcases what makes them so adored to his fans. The baby faced Condon’s voice perfectly accentuates the pop/Balkan gypsy melodies that dominate the band’s sound and I cannot imagine another voice or leading man fronting Beirut.
Condon’s stage presence is restrained, yet his earnestness shines through as bright as this evening’s stage lights. As he sings into his microphone, he tilts his head to the side with a slight smile on his lips. This reaction isn’t meant to be cute—he seems truly amused in the best possible way. Satisfied with the feelings he expresses in the words he sings and content that he has touched so many people with this unique sound in the modern indie landscape. Throughout different parts of the set, he breaks away from the microphone and leans over, snapping his fingers like a doo-wop singer, listening to his bandmates with the keen ear of a conductor, engrossed in the moment like a fan of the band rather than its leading man. From a distance I can make out the French horns he has tattooed on each of his wrists and I struggle to come up with another band using ukulele, horns, glockenspiel and the tuba before an entranced group of twenty something year olds.
The only thing distracting everyone from Condon’s effortless and sublime vocals are the talents of his backing band. The band is incredibly tight and they nimbly navigate through several extended improve jams throughout the set. “You all know this one,” Condon assures before busting out fan favorite “Nantes” to a crowd ready to sing every word with him and “East Harlem” off of this past summer’s, The Rip Tide.
The band comes out for an encore and eases into a blistering rendition of the opener and title track of his aforementioned debut. “Gulag Orkestar” is as ominous as Condon’s musical soul gets—part Eastern European dance hall, part Mexican silent film gunslinger showdown—and the crowd eats it up. The horns notes punch through the October sky and I can’t imagine a better way for a band to exit (or enter) a stage. Alas they play a couple more tunes, leaving the set just shy of 75 minutes and the crowd hoping that another four years doesn’t go by before this prodigal son returns.