In a New York Magazine article dated August 2006, the writer indicated that Zach Condon’s first show in the Big Apple with his band, Beirut, was a “complete disaster.” His eBay-bought ukulele wouldn’t stay in tune, he fumbled with his trumpet, and his voice shook. “Onstage,” the writer stated, “Condon seemed like a boy pantomiming the music of grown ups.” It was a particularly harsh statement in an article that actually went on to praise Condon and his pan-European mix of musical styles. In hindsight, the slight was perhaps apropos; Condon was, after all, just 20 years old at the time.
A little less than three years on, Zach Condon is a boy no longer. Sure, he’s still only 23 years old, fresh faced, and full of worldly wonder, but his live shows now find him emulating, rather than pantomiming, the music of grown-ups. Here in French-speaking Brussels, he even has the audacity to pull out a Serge Gainsbourg cover (“La Javanaise”), which he serves up with an assured aplomb, adopting the role of chanteur and doing so enthusiastically if not expertly (“Maybe that was more for me than you,” he explains at the end of his slightly ragged and perhaps under-rehearsed interpretation). As opposed to their humble and inauspicious beginnings, Beirut’s live act is now a wondrous spectacle, one that mixes a certain sort of musical grandeur with a sense of wanton abandon. You can still imagine clanking drinks as the band plays in the background, but these days it’s more likely to be Beaujolais rather than PBR filling the glasses.
Despite this talk of maturity, Condon still appears to approach his songs with a wide-eyed musical naiveté; he just happens to do so in a more surefooted manner. Tonight, his ukulele stays in tune, his trumpet is either slung nonchalantly over his shoulders like a set of skis or under his arm like a baguette, and his vocals are confident and commanding. While this is probably due to Condon’s growth over the past three years, much of it, I suspect, can also be attributed to his revolving array of backing musicians. Since forming the group, Beirut has fluctuated and swelled from one to four to 10 people and has included, at times, Jeremy Barnes and Heather Trost of those other Balkan burglars, A Hawk and a Hacksaw. At this Brussels show, Beirut walks onstage as a six-piece band—accordion, double bass, drums, horns, keys, and ukulele—and as a front man Condon seems at ease and comfortable leading them through his songs.
Condon and his cohorts approach these songs like they’re playing musical Risk, not just invading countries, but soaking in their sounds—a little Balkan folk here, some gypsy instrumentation there, and a whole lot of reverence and heart holding it all together. Tonight we even get some of Condon’s more synth-based songs, including “The Concubine” from the recently released March of the Zapotec / Realpeople Holland, which manages to marry folk instrumentation with New Wave elements and Bryan Ferry style vocals. Despite being the band’s latest release, Zapotec only serves up three tunes out of a strong sixteen song set (including a wonderful “The Shrew”, which opens the show, and “My Night with the Prostitute from Marseille”, which helps close the concert on an upbeat, rhythm heavy high), giving credence to the critics who have called it the band’s weakest release thus far.
No matter where you stand on Zapotec, and its hodge-podge musical mix of styles and influences, the lack of songs aired from it only served to free up more time for Beirut’s signature songs—“Elephant Gun”, “Postcards from Italy”, and “A Sunday Smile”—which were all delivered by a band not only hitting its stride, but seemingly marching instep with the sold out crowd as well. Perhaps this band/fan connection had a lot to do with the way Beirut treat the people who come to their shows. Half way through the set, multi-instrumentalist Kelly Pratt stops the show to ask a security guard who had just confiscated a fans camera to give it back to her, chastising him for taking it in the first place. And for the band’s encore—after an intimate, solo performance of “The Penalty” from The Flying Club Cup, which Condon asks to perform with the house lights on—Beirut invite the audience on stage with them, no doubt incurring the wrath of the security guards once again.
Around 100 people make it onstage before the guards start blocking the obvious routes, and the show comes to a cacophonous and raucous ending via “My Night with the Prostitute from Marseille”, which segues into the traditional Balkan tune, “Siki Siki Baba”. Unfortunately, the ending is somewhat stunted due to the fact that the people onstage seem more interested in taking photos for their Facebook profile pictures than actually enjoying the music and the moment. Sure, some do dance, but most are looking for ways to get closer to Condon or have a photo taken with him in the background. The music eventually becomes ragged as more and more people infiltrate the central area where the musicians are playing and the final song eventually dissolves altogether rather than arriving at a triumphant ending.
While it seems like a slightly disappointing ending for a crowd that’s still baying for more as the house lights go up, the conclusion probably appeals to Condon. Back in 2006, in the same New York Magazine article mentioned in the first paragraph, Condon explained that the band’s name is a good analogy for his music. “I haven’t been to Beirut”, he said, “but I imagine it as this chic urban city surrounded by the ancient Muslim world. The place where things collide.” And as fans clamber off stage and the sounds of East and West, folk and electronic, old and new continue to clash in my head I couldn’t agree more.