It’s been a long time, long time since we’ve seen Beirut. Their last show here was back in October. Since then, they haven’t released any new music. They haven’t popped up on the blogs. They’ve been seemingly silent. With that in mind, the two shows they’re playing in NYC this week at the Music Hall of Williamsburg are unexpected.
With two albums and a handful of EP’s, Beirut has more than enough material to choose from. After such a long hiatus, it’s not surprising that they started with “Elephant Gun,” the band’s first true single. With the spotlight on front man Zach Condon and his ever-present ukulele, the rest of the band stepped in without missing a beat. And it’s a big band: accordion, trumpet, trombone, upright bass, organ and drums. For those who’ve never heard Beirut (and live on Mars), they sound like a fucking orchestra. And Condon, well his vocals are reminiscent of a drunk Russian grandpa singing at a Mexican funeral.
“Mimizan” came next. Condon is very influenced by “Balkan folk” and gypsy music and you can really tell with this song. He has great control of his range with his voice fluctuating between piano and forte, and with the strong brass supporting it imitates the sound of a horse galloping. You can practically see the little kids dancing polka in the Czech countryside. The accordion really adds to that vibe. C’mon, the fucking accordion. It’s not a gimmick. Perrin Cloutier is extremely talented. After his big solo in “The Shrew,” the crowd blew up with applause and cheering.
“We’re not in New Mexico anymore folks,” joked Condon, an Albuquerque native, before jumping straight into the popular single, “Postcards from Italy.” Back on the ukulele after a brief departure to the French horn, Condon stood alone singing so earnestly you could kill him. Impossibly catchy with a hook that will echo in your ears for hours, “Postcards” is a song people love to hate. “The times we had/When the wind would blow with rain and snow/Were not all bad,” suggest a sweet nostalgia for simpler times, that to be honest, none of us know a thing about.
Just as the songs started to bleed together with familiar melodies and brass lines, Condon whipped out “East Harlem.” He introduced it as a “fun new old one,” and it was clear that crowd didn’t know this one well. Up until last year, this song hadn’t appeared anywhere in Beirut’s discography. Condon wrote it when he was 17 and first performed it live in February of 2009. The version he played on Monday was a lot livelier than the other versions out there. Condon was dancing around on stage while singing the upbeat love song. The crowd caught on to the lyrics pretty quickly and by the end everyone knew the simple hook, “Uptown, downtown/A thousand miles between us.”
As the band rearranged and traded instruments, Condon mentioned a new a record in the works, though he didn’t offer any specifics. The next song started with quick-paced drums followed by an energetic horn duet. Vocals aside, “Carousels” sounds like something that might be performed at a bull-fighting match in Spain. The brass section seemed to be speeding up, like a marching band—a very skilled marching band. The audience was finally dancing, which at a Beirut concert means awkward twisting back and forth to the beat. They were also singing, very loudly this time. It’s hard not to, though. The song is loud and fun, “It’s a long way/Down from here/To the sound/Watch the faces/Go ‘round/To the stars/Then the ground.” The melody and all its layers seemed to fill the space perfectly, with Condon’s sweeping vocals arranged within instead of sitting on top.
As for the encore, the band came back out ready to have a good time. . They played “The Penalty,” which is one of their more sentimental songs. They also played “Mount Wroclai. “Gulag Orkestar” was only fitting as their final song of the night. It’s Beirut doing what Beirut does best. They are definitely an instrumental band, but they don’t seem like one. Songs like “Gulag,” with lyrics few and far between (and mostly incomprehensible), still grab the crowd as the band’s energy has them dancing around onstage, waving their instruments in the air.
It’s good to have you back, Beirut.