Zach Condon and his merry band keep on getting better and better.
A lot has changed since Beirut’s infamous first concert in New York City in 2006, a show crippled by falling-out-of-tune instruments and general amateurishness. Seems like the group’s been just about constantly on the road since -- or when they’re not on the road they’re releasing new music, or short video clips of themselves in the back of cabs or on the streets of Paris, performing. This has, of course, only made them a stronger band. And when the time came to release some live material, they surely had plenty of shows to choose from. The concert from which this set is drawn sounds like it was a good one. Part of a couple of shows the band played in their home town earlier this year, it was reported to be a raucous and long (three hour-plus) show, a companion and warmup for a subsequent concert at the Brooklyn Academy of Music with a larger orchestra.
The selections presented on Live at the Music Hall of Williamsburg are, not surprisingly, skewed towards the newer and relatively less known material. Thanks to the internet we can check the actual setlist and immediate reactions from those who were there (not to mention the obligatory clips on YouTube). But there’s also a stream of most of the songs on the album in higher definition at Baeble Music, a site for live concert streams. We can easily gather from these primary sources that the show was a lively and spirited affair. (Nothing we can’t get from the songs themselves.)
When I first saw Beirut live, opening for Jens Lekman at Bowery Ballroom in 2006, the group relied on Zach Condon’s voice and the barrage of (occasionally skronky) horns to buoy their relatively thin performance experience. It worked just fine, and you wouldn’t complain unless you saw them again, the next year or later, when the group had polished its live versions of older material and perfected a geeky but enthusiastic performance style. The musicians in the group still struggle a little with more technical passages. Most of these ragged edges -- when Perrin Cloutier, the accordionist, can’t quite keep up with the pace in a tricky passage, or one or other of the brass players slips up on a note (as is inevitable in a concert built on exposed brass fanfares) -- are momentary things, charming in the setting of a music hall or theatre. But it’s right to clean them up for the CD, even if it robs it of a little of the live charm.
It has become clear that the group has, over the course of three years now playing together, grown into a close collaboration, easily able to adapt the music to the appropriate audience. The truth is, Condon’s music is well suited to performance by non-experts. And most of the material on Live at the Music Hall of Williamsburg is pretty similar to the recorded versions, significantly altering neither the basic structures, the tempi, nor the arrangements. Still, Condon’s singing is perhaps more immediate in this crisply recorded version of “Mimizan”, which appeared on this year’s outstanding Dark Was the Night compilation. And the full-band treatment of “My Night with the Prostitute from Marseilles”, which as a Realpeople song was previously just Condon plus synths, turns it into something as gorgeous and plangent as any Beirut track.
There are two songs you may not have heard before, too. "Cozak", an upbeat accordion jig, lies somewhere between Beirut's jaunty Mexican stuff and the Eastern European influence of Gulag Orkestar. "East Harlem", which opens the disc, is apparently a song Condon wrote when he was 17, though it stands up to the revisit as a swooning, classic folk song.
So in all, this is a handsome collection of mostly newer Beirut and Realpeople material. But when a Beirut song live is, when it comes down to it, pretty similar to a Beirut song recorded in the studio, it's difficult sometimes to find much of a compelling reason to rush out to listen to this. Then again, it's free in high definition here (and you can see the rapt, moist-eyed girls in the front row, too). Still, the music should be enough -- and it's clear Zach Condon and his merry band are getting better and better. Whichever country they head to next, I'm sure the results will be characteristically arresting.