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Zach Condon’s Beirut have always been a band in love with travelling – heck, they’re even named after a city that their frontman was desperate to visit. It’s this incurable wanderlust that has seen them find success the world over in such a short space of time, embarking on numerous world tours backed by several albums’ worth of material that have been inspired by their travels. Their Balkan-flavoured debut, Gulag Orkestar, was released in 2006 and the Gallic-tinged Flying Cup Club quickly followed it up in 2007 – both albums being supported by extensive touring.
But aside from sporadic festival appearances and support slots with bigger bands, it’s taken until now for these inveterate travellers to return to English shores. Fortunately, they were more than worth the wait. And they brought enough trumpets for everyone!
They’re an unusual bunch, truth be told – definitely not the kind of people you’d expect to create the kind of songs that can fill one of Manchester’s largest venues to capacity. Zach Condon looks innocent enough, but even now it still seems like a bit of a surprise when he puts down his ukulele and bursts into a trumpet fanfare. The mastermind behind Beirut was ably accompanied by a virtuoso accordionist who looked and danced like Napoleon Dynamite, another trumpet player who chatted with the crowd about the quality of Mancunian curries, and a brass player and percussionist who spent most of the gig wrapped in some sort of mutant tuba that was so monstrously large that it looked like it was playing him.
Of course, whilst their worldly take on folk music (as well as Condon’s stunning voice) is their calling card, Beirut wouldn’t be half the band they are if it weren’t for their ability to write beautiful pop songs. Nowhere is this more apparent than on their most recent album, The Rip Tide, and it was the songs on that album that made up the bulk of the night’s set list. Whilst songs from this album have only been around for a few weeks, they still got a great reception from the crowd, with the entire band on top form throughout (and in the event that they didn’t know the words to the new songs, the crowd sang along to the trumpet lines instead). ‘Santa Fe’, Condon’s tribute to the hometown he abandoned, was a particularly lovely early-set highlight.
Their shift to a tighter, more focussed sound has definitely helped give more recent songs like ‘East Harlem’ and ‘Santa Fe’ their propulsive and immediate feel. However, it also seems to have robbed older crowd favourites like ‘Nantes’ and ‘Postcards From Italy’ of a bit of their powerful, ramshackle charm. Part of what made these earlier songs so endearing was their home made feel (Gulag Orkestar was recorded in a bedroom), something that seems to have been lost slightly in the transition. But I’m probably being too picky, since they still got a mighty cheer from the audience, who let out deafening cheers upon hearing the unmistakeable opening chords of their two biggest ‘hits’.
But, perhaps unexpectedly, it was the material from what seems to be the most overlooked work in Beirut’s discography, the EP March of the Zapotec, that stood out the most. The EP is only 6 tracks long, but manages to pack enough originality into its small running time than most other bands do in a career. Probably owing to the fact that it was recorded in the middle of a desert with a nineteen-piece Mexican funeral band, on record the songs have a sprawling, chaotic quality to them. But it’s a chaos that was somehow captured by the slimmed down live line-up, with the improvised trumpet playing of Kelly Pratt sending the crowd into a frenzy. The crowd’s enjoyment fed back onto the stage too, with Pratt’s playing getting louder and slightly more insane the more the crowd cheered.
Condon himself has said that ‘The Shrew’ (also from March of the Zapotec) is his favourite Beirut song, and he obviously has one hell of a time playing it live; its woozy opening waltz quickly giving way to a beautiful cacophony of horns that had one half of the audience completely enraptured and the other half in a sweaty mess of flailing limbs. It was all enough to make you hope that when your time on Earth comes to an end, that you have nineteen jolly, horn-wielding Mexicans marching behind your coffin.
Condon’s trademark croon was even more effective in a live environment, transporting the audience from a venue that has as much character as an airline hangar to the cobbled back streets of provincial France and tiny Eastern European villages. ‘Goshen’ in particular was a stand-out from a vocal standpoint – just a delicate, stripped back piano line and that voice providing a genuinely spine-tingling three minutes. It was also the perfect way to start an extended encore that was free of the very few small problems that had afflicted the rest of the set. They came back on stage to truly deafening cheers and stormed through five songs that all came from a different point in their career. ‘My Night with the Prostitute from Marseille’ was another encore highlight – on record it is a sparkling, bedroom electro-pop gem, but live it was transformed completely – the bubbling synths replaced by the melancholy drone of an accordion, much to the delight of everyone in the building. It was just a shame that a big sing-a-long track like ‘Nantes’ hadn’t been left for the finale, where it might have sounded even better.
All in all, a stunning live performance from an incredibly talented bunch of musicians. The only real disappointment came when the doors opened, and I found myself expecting to step out into a warm Parisian night, only to be confronted by a bitterly cold rain and the bright, neon lights of a nearby MacDonalds. Ah well, at least I could dream about France on the bus home.