BYBLOS, Lebanon: Zach Condon wrote and recorded his first album, the unexpectedly successful “Gulag Orkestar,” in his bedroom. He played every part himself.
The lead singer, principal songwriter and driving force behind the U.S. indie-rock band Beirut, Condon began playing concerts in New York in the summer of 2006.
Unfortunately, his first few live performances with a small group of backing musicians coincided with Israel’s 2006 war on Lebanon, raising some uncomfortable questions about why he’d chosen to name his band after the country’s capital.
The statement, in an August 2006 interview with New York Magazine, that he’d chosen the name because Beirut had “seen a lot of conflict” didn’t go down too well.
His clarification that “I haven’t been to Beirut, but I imagine it as this chic urban city surrounded by the ancient Muslim world. The place where things collide,” earned him accusations of being an Orientalist.
Fast-forward eight years and Condon, along with his current roster of talented backing musicians, has finally performed his first gig in Lebanon. Lovers of symmetry might have been disappointed that the concert was staged in Byblos, rather than the band’s namesake city, but that didn’t prevent a decent crowd of Lebanese and foreign fans from making the trip north to see the group.
It may have achieved a measure of global fame, but Beirut remains an indie band and Tuesday’s show, the closing concert of the Byblos International Festival, attracted a smaller – though perhaps more dedicated – audience than those of Massive Attack and Stromae.
From the opening lines of the first number, the reflective “Nantes” from the 2007 album “The Flying Club Cup,” the band succeeded in weaving a hypnotic spell over the audience. Lacking the dramatic visuals and onstage theatricality of Stromae’s concert, Beirut’s quiet presence was less arena rock, more local pub.
Condon’s unique sound – a blend of folk music, American pop, Balkan sounds, French chanson and Mexican marching tunes – treads a bittersweet line between mournful vocals and upbeat instrumentation.
Those who had only been exposed to the band’s music via recordings are likely to have been pleasantly surprised by the sophistication and subtlety of their live sound.
In spite of the broad diversity of musical influences, Beirut’s recorded tracks have a tendency to blur together, thanks to Condon’s downbeat, distinctively nasal vocals. Live, the rich variety of instrumentation and the beauty of the subtle harmonies come to the fore.
Condon, trumpet-player Kyle Resnick and trombone and sousaphone player Ben Lanz were breathtaking when harmonizing, whether instrumentally or vocally. The versatile Perrin Cloutier, on accordion and keyboard, added a depth of sound that brought out the creativity and breadth of Condon’s compositions.
Like Condon himself, the band members are all multi-instrumentalists, allowing for an ever-shifting line-up of instruments to suit every song, from the poppy hit “Scenic World,” to the fast waltz of “Mount Wroclai,” the Balkan beats of “Prenzlauerberg” and the ukulele-driven “Postcards from Italy.”
Dressed in a loose white shirt and black trousers, Condon displayed a tendency to ruffle his shaggy blond hair whenever his hands weren’t clutching a trumpet, giving him a disheveled, slightly flustered look.
Hardly a charismatic stage presence, the late-20-something front man’s quiet persona and restrained mannerisms gave him the slightly self-conscious air of an overgrown schoolboy. Reinforcing this impression was his decision to address the audience not in his native English but in rudimentary French.
A couple of mumbled interjections, peppered with English, were Condon’s only overture to his first Lebanese audience. Much of what he said was lost to the sea breeze.
“What the f--- is he saying?” one audience member was heard to stage-whisper to his neighbor, during a lengthy bout of muttering that may or may not have been an apology for not speaking better French.
A short English speech by Lanz was met with cheers. “Thank you so much, this is amazing” he told the audience between songs. “This is seriously the most beautiful place we’ve ever played.”
Beirut closed its 90-minute set with a lengthy encore, leaving a dreamy crowd in its wake.
Condon’s final attempt to connect with his Lebanese audience was thwarted by technology. A double tap of the singer’s mic revealed that an overzealous techie had already switched it off. A quick shake of the head, a single wave at the audience, and Condon ambled offstage, his Lebanon debut achieved in – slightly awkward – style.