all words: Philip Runco
all photos: Franz Mahr (afterparty snaps coming right up)
Zach Condon gives off a certain cocksureness.
The Beirut frontman walked out on to the Black Cat stage on Tuesday in a confident gait, the sleeves of his oxford casually rolled up. His auburn hair flopped across his forehead, but would be repeatedly slicked back throughout the night; coolly, with a je ne sais quoi that belied the fact that it was copious sweat temporarily holding the locks in place. When he sang, his head would playfully tilt from one side to the other, the rest of his body animated with a suave pep.
In other words, if Condon was surprised that Beirut would sell out a mid-week Black Cat show in a matter of minutes – at 30 bucks a pop, no less – after a relatively quiet past four years, then he isn’t showing it. In fact, he displays the kind of swagger that makes you forget that a warbling croon and penchant for Balkan folk music might not be the most conventional recipe for broad, sustained popularity.
Yet, logic to the contrary, Beirut’s fanbase seems to grow with kinetic self-propulsion.
And the band has attracted a fervent following from the start. My prior evening with the group was its DC debut in the summer of 2006, when its buzz was already such that a line of hundreds – most of whom were turned away – gathered in hopes of packing into the small, poorly ventilated basement that was The Warehouse Next Door. The show that night was all high-flying adrenaline, Condon leading the charge of his gulag orkestar in shambling bombast and bounding off the edge of stage, trumpet blaring.
Five years later, Beirut is still one of the hottest tickets in town, but the band’s dynamic has changed. It’s grown deliberate and measured. Condon is no longer so eager for the audience’s affection. Instead, he allows songs to patiently unfurl, meandering their way to swelling payoffs.
The streamlined approach is due in part to band’s latest incarnation, which finds them whittled down to a lean six-piece. There was still plenty of brass to go around, and accordion and keyboards flushed songs with old world romanticism, but notably absent were the strings that colored much the band’s elegant second LP, The Flying Cup Club. The set skipped over the album’s songs that most prominently featured Owen Pallett’s arrangements (“La Banlieu”, “In the Mausoleum”); a shame, as they’re some of the band’s most compelling entries.
Beirut was sure to visit its fan favorites though: “A Postcard to Italy”, “Elephant Gun”, “Scenic World”, “Nantes”, and “A Sunday Smile”. All were greeted upon their first few notes, alerting any newcomers to their elevated status in the Beirut cannon and the impending sing-along. Like much of the night’s music, the performances were spot-on and efficient, if not especially moving. Beirut has mastered recreating the warmth and texture of its recordings, but for a band that made its name on euphoric live shows, it would have been nice to hear them swing more for the fences.
The story of the night, however, was the band’s forthcoming LP, The Rip Tide. The band spotlighted four songs from the album – first single “East Harlem,” its b-side “Goshen”, “Santa Fe”, and “Vagabond” – and if they’re reflective of the rest of the album, it’s going to be a doozy. “Santa Fe”, “East Harlem,” and “Vagabond” immediately stand out as the jauntiest things in the catalogue, driven by the kind of steady rhythm section that the band has typically eschewed.
There’s a deeper change at play here though: these songs had a sense of identity that has previously escaped Beirut. Whereas the band has proven adept at shoehorning its melodies and arrangements into the conventions of other countries’ folk traditions, these songs feel like the first time those influences have been fully digested and parsed in the service of making something that feels wholly Beirut’s. (There’s new comfortableness with open space here as well, as could be heard most evidently on the stately balled “Goshen” – Condon’s one turn on piano.)
Where this shift came from is anyone’s guess, but it couldn’t be more welcome. While perfectly pleasant, the band’s 2009 March of the Zapotec EP – from which the Black Cat audience was treated to “The Shrew” and “The Akara” – had sent up all kinds of red flags. After expanding its aesthetic from the Balkans to more refined, traditionally Eastern European instrumentation on The Flying Cup Club in 2007, the band decamped to Mexico and interpolated – or, for cynically minded, co-opted – another region’s cultural exoticisms. What was next? Brazil? New Orleans? Ghana?
It’s sounding like that’s not a question we’ll need to answer, at least for now.
Not that we’re unappreciative of Beirut’s more deferential origins: the band ended its five-song encore with the rousing stomp of “The Gulag Orkestar”, reminding the crowd how it once made a name for itself.
A band that’s still figuring out its identity is opener Twin Sister, who put together a stylistically scattered, but nonetheless impressive opening set. The band dabbled in spacey dream pop and more robust, albeit equally romantic, rock. Some songs drifted by in a weightless haze, others actually had the crowd moving.
Throughout, the focal point of Twin Sister was lead singer Andrea Estella, whose appeal lies in her malleable (and heavily reverbed) vocals, and the fact that she appear to be a little nuts. She graduated cum laude from the Bjork School of Giggling Pixies, nibbling on her necklace, constantly fidgeting, and throwing off a creepy Dakota Fanning vibe.
But it works! And the set gave good reason to believe that September’s In Heaven should live up to the promise of last year’s EPs.