Originally published: The Stool Pigeon
Photography: Sebastien Dehesdin
It’s a wonder how Zach Condon’s Beirut has become so popular with the general public. With his music drenched in influences ranging from Mexican and Balkan folk to French chanson, it’s hardly the stuff that you’d think could strike a populist chord, let alone garner enough support to sell out Brixton Academy. But the band’s three-week tour of the UK — their first return to the isles since their biggest show supporting Arcade Fire during the summer — has seen Beirut’s esoteric sound greeted with open arms by those seduced by its strange tongues and alluring sentiment.
It’s precisely these qualities with which Condon embraces the audience right from the start, opening with ‘Scenic World’. “When I feel alive I try to imagine a careless life, a scenic world where the sunsets are all breathtaking,” he warbles, his vocal not so much sung into the mic as beyond it and onto some higher, idyllic plane illustrating a woozy nirvana. Buzzing like bees around a pint glass with excitement, the crowd offers a chorus of drunken grunts and groans as it sways in time.
Beirut’s third full-length album, The Rip Tide, has seen Condon return with a direct, more conclusive sound that still pulls at the thread of its quirky, brass-led predecessors. Its influences and outlines are more polished and absorbable, flirting with pop’s ease of attainability, yet maintaining all the nuances for which the band is famed. The likes of ‘Sante Fe’ and ‘East Harlem’ sit like snug compatriots alongside the far-flung references of ‘Postcards From Italy’, ‘Nantes’ and ‘My Night With The Prostitutes From Marseille’; Condon appearing more at ease on topics closer to home than the cryptic and perhaps fanciful world in which first crafted his career.
Although little is said between the songs, the music’s rhetoric is engaging enough in its own right. Not that Condon would have noted the whites of everyone’s wide eyes staring at him throughout: instead, he chooses to look down at his shoes, shoulders arched like a child being told that they’ve been misbehaving. Even so, the Santa Fe-born singer exerts a Pied Piper-like influence over band and audience alike, spearheading the clarion call of the brassier sections with his trumpet, and steering the vocal melodies and harmonies of the six-piece like a crooning David Byrne.
Touching renditions of ‘Goshen’ and ‘Carousels’ carry a raptured crowd into the encore. But as the band departs at the end of ‘The Gulag Orkestar’, and the lights go up, Zach remains with his ukulele in hand. His eyes coyly evaluate the room for a brief second before he clears his throat: “I’m not ready to leave you all just yet.” And with a soft thrum, ‘The Penalty’ begins, his vocal filling the auditorium and the glazed-eyes of all those in attendance.