October 8, 2007

Beirut brings out the brass and busts out brand new songs

Zach Condon, founder of indie rock band Beirut, has come a long way from home. When he took the stage at the Portage Theater Thursday night, anybody who knew his story would have been surprised to see the 22-year-old from Santa Fe, New Mexico, bellowing notes at the top of his lungs and commanding an eight-piece ensemble of horns, ukuleles, guitars, and drums.

Beirut quickly populated the stage after two solo opening acts and launched into their latest album’s second track, “Nantes.” Condon let the crowd know, by inserting random French conversation into his performance, that the music this time around is different—we are in France now.

Following up on his Balkan folk–inspired 2006 debut Gulag Orkestar, Condon is now touring in support of his second LP, The Flying Club Cup. The difference between the two is clear.

Muttering to himself (and apparently to a friend in the crowd) in French, Condon was ecstatic throughout the night, while maintaining his relaxed, almost sleepy manner of performing. His strong vibrato and flailing arms never failed to evoke emotion. Each time he and his band mates raised their trumpets to the microphone, the crowd members swayed back and forth in bliss, singing their hearts out.

That is, those who knew the words did.

Since the new album came out the day of the show, most of the crowd was far from familiar with the new material, and the near-drunken revelry typically seen and heard in his videos was more of a disembodied swaying of arms as the music numbed the crowd with comfort.

In addition, the venue was such that not even Beirut’s grand ensemble could engage the crowd the way their album does. Though the theater is beautiful, it has a stage taller than most of the crowd (I was facing a six-foot cement wall) and a ceiling that is nearly three stories high. Even Condon commented on the peculiarity of the place.

One could immediately see that a more intimate setting would have greatly enhanced the experience. Still, during the encore numbers “Gulag Orkestar” and “Postcards from Italy,” it felt like the audience was really a part of the music. The band sounded as tight as ever, nailing every sudden stop and swell of the horns like clockwork.

Though the drum and bass were a little soft throughout the show, its aura was saved by Condon’s steadfast vibrato that soared above everything in its way. The epic “Forks and Knives (La Fete)” remained ridiculously majestic onstage, while Heather Trost’s wailing violin at the end of “In the Mausoleum” truly deserved the ovation Condon asked the audience to give her.

Overall, Condon and company gave a solid performance that will surely attract new fans over the next year—even if they don’t play the right venues. Condon was one of the most popular new-kids-on-the-block of indie music in 2005, and it seems certain that he will make just as strong a showing this year.

For a collection of videos for the songs on “The Flying Club Cup,” visit For a free download of “Sunday Smile,” visit