mon 09/12/2019

Beirut, Brixton Academy | reviews, news & interviews

Beirut, Brixton Academy

Beirut, Brixton Academy

Zach Condon's band continue to Balkanise the globe - but where's the exuberance?

Not blowing his own trumpet: Beirut's frontman, Zach Condon

Maybe my memory is playing tricks, but I seem to recall that Beirut had more of a swagger in their step, in their playing, and in their demeanour when I last saw them four years ago. It was at the Roundhouse, it was packed, and Zach Condon and his band were on an upward trajectory following the release of their acclaimed album, The Flying Club Cup; they moved with ease and oozed a sort of blowsy bonhomie.

This time around, at a heaving  Brixton Academy, they were noticeably less thrilling. There was nothing fundamentally wrong with their playing, with the gig, with the sound; it was all just a bit… well, distant. It didn’t help that there was a constant burble from the many hundreds of people in the crowd who just wouldn’t SHUT UP WHILE THE BAND WERE PLAYING. Live music may be a booming business these days, but it seems to have ushered in a new generation of gig-goers who think that a concert is a pub and that talking at full volume throughout the show is perfectly fine. I suspect that I’m in a minority here, but it really does get my goat.

Chiefly, though, I’d say that Beirut seemed daunted. Do they not get to play venues of this size very much? They looked static and diffident, and although choochy-faced frontman Zach Condon (pictured above) may be a fine trumpet player, blowing his own trumpet doesn’t come naturally. Only towards the end did he and his bandmates seem to approach their task with relish, which is a shame because Beirut’s music really has to be played with a certain degree of abandonment – as a woozy hybrid of Balkan brass, Mexican mariachi, French chanson and western pop (while Condon himself hails from New Mexico), it should be carried off with a sort of loose-hipped vulgarity; here, though, it was all a bit stiff.

Still: it was absorbing enough, and occasionally spilled over into something that quickened the pulse. Beirut’s line-up is a fluid thing – last time around they had a female violinist – and for this tour they are a six-piece, with two brass players, a drummer, a bassist and an accordionist, plus Condon on vocals, trumpet, ukulele and piano. What I’ve always admired about Beirut is that they’ve taken the unusual step of making popular music that features almost no guitars (unless you count the electric bass). Now, I love a good guitar as much as the next old headbanger, but sometimes it does you good to listen to something with more texture and timbre. Which, with Beirut, chiefly means brass (though the accordion also adds character to the mix). And some of Beirut’s brass riffs are as memorable as their sung melodies – to the extent that, on “Postcards From Italy”, the crowd (well: those who weren’t talking) were singing along to the brass parts as much as the vocal. Also, this was possibly the first live show I’ve seen that featured a sousaphone solo.

Oh, and I should also mention that they have a new album out, The Rip Tide, songs from which punctuated, but didn't dominate, their set; these tunes were usually recognisable as the ones with stricter rhythms, rather than the triple-time signatures that dominate much of their previous stuff. Of these, the gentle, swaying “Goshen”, sung by Condon at the piano, was the loveliest.

Anyway: it all sort of came together in the end, with the volume cranked up and the band beginning to cut loose and enjoy themselves – perhaps their self-esteem boosted by the rapturous greeting they received when they returned for the encore. And during the last song, when it was just Condon with his ukulele singing “The Penalty”, there was even a proper hush among the crowd.

Beirut’s music should be carried off with a sort of loose-hipped vulgarity; here, though, it was all a bit stiff

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Comments

Most people sat around us in the gods were complaining about overwhelmingly brash sound levels and incoherency. Whomsoever did the soundcheck and mixing should have been fired. The band played with little enthusiasm (last gig of a long tour away from home?) and at times lacked inspiration. Shrill over amplified drums and trumpets made the large sections of the performance painful to sit through.

Watching some Youtube videos it brings it home just how overwhelmed everyone's mike's were when the drums and accordion kicked in. Cranking the PA up 3dB for the encore simply increased the discomfort.

Great band, tired and at a dreadful venue with a chronically bad in-house PA...not a good mix.

 

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