Zach Condon is, with apologies to Winston Churchill, an enigma wrapped in a sports jacket holding a trumpet. How can someone so young make music that sounds so old? How can someone born in the USA write such quintessentially European songs? And, perhaps our most pressing concern: how can someone so very wasted bring a sprawling band of eight musicians into such a unified whole?
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before it came to that, Pikelet was mid-way through her set, intent on taking retro to its logical conclusion with what sounded like a medieval mash-up. While many seemed to be truly enjoying it, I found it tedious: vaguely pleasant, meandering tunes are not my idea of fun. Nonetheless, Pikelet set the scene for the Gypsy-band march through Old Europe that was still to come.
At the appointed hour, Beirut spilled from the wings onto the stage—and kept spilling. Viola player followed ukulele man, who followed a three-part brass section, who followed the bassist and so on, until all eight crowded the Manning Bar stage. Before a single note was played, Condon was swigging from a shiny metal hipflask containing God-knows-what, setting the tone for his between-song banter for the rest of the night. Notwithstanding his dependence on the flask, when Condon brought his arm down conductor style and the band launched into its trademark Balkan swagger, a more glorious sound could hardly have graced our ears.
Condon has a voice that could melt the skinny jeans off an indie-girl, or even an indie-guy. (It’s 2008, after all.) He’s the kind of Lothario whom an imaginative indie-girl or guy might dream about meeting in a small village café while backpacking through a largely undiscovered corner of Eastern Europe. After dinner he might take her/him back to his tent, set amidst fields of dandelions, and sing mysteriously stirring songs filled with longing and picturesque landscapes, all the while downing a bottle or six of the local red.
Clumsily jerked out of that rose-covered fantasy, Condon spent most of the night doing his very best impression of a truant high school student on a permanently drunken vacation. I suppose that’s not too far from the truth. In fact, with his slightly dishevelled appearance and generally staggering demeanour, he reminded me of Dylan Moran’s dipsomaniac bookshop owner, Bernard Black, from the British comedy show Black Books. He muttered many a non sequitur and frequently ran his hands manically through his Sideshow Bob hair. At one point he hit the floor and disappeared from sight for an extended period; I worried that we had reached a premature end to the night. A few concerned moments later, he bounded to his feet and was ready to, um, rock? Jig? Barn dance? Although I later spoke to several people who said they were disappointed by how bombed Condon appeared to be, he managed to keep it together enough to sing beautifully—we were in no danger of witnessing his attempt to burp the Lithuanian national anthem.
So what, if anything, does Beirut’s popularity mean for American music? There is a sense of fin de siècle in the band’s music, as though it is prophesying the death of an era in which American music for the most part shunned external influences, or at least refused to wear them so openly on its sleeve. Even the most experimental American music has sounded geographically definite: at their most wilfully obtuse, you can never mistake Sonic Youth for anything other than a New York band. Beirut’s music, in contrast, deliberately locates itself in a broadly European otherworld, and in so doing, seemingly rejects the limitations of the band’s native musical heritage.
Such thoughts kept running through my mind as the heady exoticism of “Prenzlauer Berg” and “Postcards from Italy” washed over me. Any extraneous philosophising was quickly banished when, at the command of the now almost blotto Condon, the band threw themselves into a viola-and-glockenspiel-led ramble through “Scenic World” that was nothing short of breathtaking. It is the two recorded versions of this song that most ably demonstrate the Beirut effect, the Gulag Orkestar version coming on all Magnetic Fields-ish and self-consciously lo-fi, while the Lon Gisland take is unabashedly brazen in its lush production, with accordion and trumpets at full brawl. No guesses as to which version Beirut brought to life tonight.
I found myself rooted to the floor throughout the entire show, unable to walk away from the spectacle unfolding before me. Not even the call of the conveniently empty bar could lure me from my vantage point, so determined had I become to last the whole distance with the band and their drunken maestro. When asked to “tell us a story,” Condon excused himself by mumbling something about jetlag. “Yeah, it’s the jetlag,” some sardonic wit from the crowd shot back. But seeing him up there, producing something that was so unique, so wonderfully other, I found it in my heart to forgive him for drowning his nerves with a little too much liquid courage.