The Greek Theater
October 4, 2011
As we wrote last week, playing a large, open-air amphitheater can be a challenge for any act that doesn't feature an orchestra or power chords. Last night, however, Beirut showed 'em how it's done.
While autumn rain managed to clear up by the time the Brooklyn-by-Santa-Fe outfit took the stage, the biting air still had the crowd bundled in their hippest knitwear and leather jackets.
The scene onstage, however, was more like a backyard on a balmy summer evening. Golden-hued lights and cascading strings of light bulbs lent a casual and vaguely nostalgic feel to the quintet's warm brass tones and rich bass lines. From the moment Beirut opened with “Scenic World,” the audience was shivering, for reasons that had little to do with the weather.
Originally the solo project of wunderkind Zach Condon, Beirut is a band that makes cultural concept albums. Their discography is a sonic lesson in globetrotting, from 2006's loveletter to Balkan brass, Gulag Orkestar, to the electro-mariachi mélange of 2009's March of the Zapotec/Holland EP. This year's The Rip Tide, their third full-length since Condon founded the band five years ago, is in a way the first Beirut album; a digestion of their past stylistic influences resulting in a sound that's distinct rather than an homage.
That new ease and confidence couldn't have been more evident in their live performance. The set list leaned toward Rip Tide, but even their renditions of older, more stylistically distinct songs slid facilely between genres as each moment called for.
And that's perhaps what was most impressive about the show. Beirut proved themselves to be astute live musicians who clearly took the time to rework each song so it would translate to a live venue. Tracks like “Postcards From Italy,” whose hazy recording is essential to its sound — but challenging to duplicate live — were instead stripped down into light, understated melodies. Conversely, the simple electro melody of “My Night With The Prostitute From Marseille” enjoyed a keyboard-free rhythm-and-brass makeover.
It also doesn't hurt that the Greek's acoustics lends itself especially well to bold but simple instrumentation like Beirut's — and that they managed to master the Goldilocks-like challenge of properly micing brass instruments. It was my first show in recent memory where I didn't feel a ringing in my ears or the bass in my teeth.
Condon's voice, a deep, intoxicating croon evocative of Bing Crosby, may have been the only part of the show that didn't require adjustment from record to stage. His face wears only the most subtle expressions while he's singing, but you can't help but gasp a little at the purity of his voice live. Like the rest of Beirut's music, it's rich, understated and leaves you feeling just a little bit in love.
Random notebook dump: Tuba solo! Have you ever heard that off of a football field?
Critical bias: I play the trumpet, and Beirut kinda makes me want to ditch the whole journalism thing and run away to play with them on the road.
The crowd: Lots of couples. Young artsy types dressed in L.A. cold weather chic, which is a scarf and a t-shirt. Lots of swooning music critics.
Overheard in the crowd:“Mariachi madness. That's what it should be called.” Also: “Fuck high school!”
Set list below.
Postcards From Italy
A Sunday Smile
Forks And Knives (La Fete)
Port of Call
After the Curtain
Mount Wroclai (Idle Days)
My Night With The Prostitute in Marseilles
Serbian Cocek (Hawk and a Hacksaw cover)