It’s been six years since Zach Condon released his debut solo LP, Gulag Orkestrar, under the moniker of Beirut and introduced the indie crowd to his nuanced spin on traditional Balkan brass music. In the meantime, Condon has acquired a damned good band to back his lilting vocals and experimented with different influences including Mexican funeral bands, electronic music, and the French pop and chanson he grew to love while living in Paris. Two albums and a smattering of EP’s later, the lively Brooklyn-based band is still touring behind last year’s The Rip Tide. Thursday night found them in Toronto’s much-maligned Sound Academy.
The venue couldn’t be more out of the way, but that night it served as a time machine which transported the audience back to the European golden age that Condon sings so nostalgically about.
A sold-out crowd came to see the show and a good few made it in time to catch the end of the opening band, Little Scream’s, set. It was a fitting prelude to Beirut as the lead vocalist, Laurel Sprengelmeyer’s, lyrics were littered with references to a palpable yearning for the past.
It was a pretty lengthy wait for the main attraction, during which a Josh Tillman lookalike arranged Beirut’s plentiful brass section to their liking. Or maybe it was just due to having to tread carefully over the hundreds of beer cans that littered the floor. The lights were down and it was easy to notice a huddled group to the left of the stage passing around a joint. As they always are, security was quick to remind everyone that they can’t have fun (I am not a proponent of getting high, just indifferent to it). It was easy to pity those short in stature as the crowd was full of tall people, myself included, and assholes obscuring sightlines in order to get a shaky video on their phone.
All of a sudden, Zach Condon had pranced up on stage befitted in a sharp jacket and with his band in tow. They launched right into a blissful serenade of ‘Scenic World’, a surprising choice to open a show with as it is a beautiful, but quiet, album cut. That said, one was able to notice right away that the band wouldn’t be adhering to the confines of a studio-produced sound. Perrin Cloutier provided the shimmering backdrop with his accordion, and the rest of the group’s contributions were beefier versions of what they had sounded like on their numerous albums. Kelly Pratt’s trumpet has never sounded more triumphant. Condon’s own french horn, trumpet, and ukelele sounded like more sonorous versions of themselves. Ben Lanz rounded out the brass section with his trombone and gargantuan tuba. Not lost in the fray, Paul Collins’ bass was authoritative. Lastly, Nick Petree’s drumkit provided some loud percussion which was absent in Condon’s early efforts where he had used a tambourine and little handrums instead.
The mood was carefree. Five strings of lights extended into the crowd giving the show a carnival feel. With his sleeves rolled back, Condon portrayed a confident figure and his voice rose to the occasion reaching the far corners of the room. The similar themes present in the band’s body of work made it easy for them to traverse through their catalogue and seamlessly present the all too eager crowd with their favourites.
As a band reaches the latter portion of their tour, little gaffs can be expected. The most endearing moment of the night came as Condon was belting out the chorus to a noticeably less rueful take on ‘A Sunday Smile’ and stumbled upon the lyrics. The brief slip-up was almost imperceptible as his voice had taken to being drowned out by some poor mixing, but those who heard it shared a smile with the young troubadour. Dancing was encouraged by a robust performance of the delightful ‘My Night With The Prostitute From Marseilles” where Cloutier’s accordion took the place of synths.
Fans didn’t want to see the sextet depart and clamoured furiously for an encore. Condon finally had the opportunity to showcase his vocal expertise with no help from his band when he came out alone to begin the encore with a solo rendition of ‘The Penalty’. The night was brought to a close as Condon pretended to amble off stage, but then welcomed the crowd to “participate in a lullaby” and took to the piano to perform a soul-stirring ‘Goshen’. The question of the group playing one more song had never been doubted as bassist, Paul Collins, had winked to reassure those crying for more that their desire would be sated. Though the set was almost perfect, it would have been nice to hear the band’s much lauded cover of ‘Siki Siki Baba’.
The lights went down and everyone was almost reluctant to leave; partly due to the fun they’d had and partly to the long trek home from Polson Pier that beckoned.
Condon may have sung “nobody raise your voices” on ‘Nantes’, but the crowd had taken that as an invitation to have the time of their lives.
Postcards from Italy
Port of Call
A Sunday Smile
My Night with the Prostitute from Marseille
After the Curtain
The Gulag Orkestar