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August 14, 2020

Beirut play against typical indie sensibilities

By JENNIFER BAIK | April 21, 2016

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Courtesy of Jennifer BAIK Balkan-folk-inspired indie rock band Beirut played a strong set at the Ottobar this past weekend.

Not your typical indie band, Beirut mixes heady blends of lush, brass melodies with electronic and acoustic sensibilities. Drawing from Balkan-inspired folk and postmodern pop, their sound has yet to be replicated by anyone in the indie scene.

It had been three years since the band’s last tour, and Beirut’s cult following seemed to have followed them all the way to Baltimore. While the 1,500-capacity venue did not sell out, the space was completely packed by showtime.

Singer and frontman Zach Condon stood front and center surrounded by a ukulele, flugelhorn and Moog synthesizer within arm’s reach as he skillfully switched between instruments mid-song. After opening with the beloved and upbeat “Scenic World” and transitioning to “Pacheco” (a song off their latest album), the band paused for technical difficulties. Condon spent an agonizingly silent few minutes adjusting his mic before chuckling to himself.

“We lost our uke mic so we’re kicking it old school,” he said.

Alone with only a double mic stand and his ukulele, Condon began the opening of “Elephant Gun,” and the crowd went wild. Aaron Arntz slowly joined in on accordion as Ben Lanz and Kyle Resnick joined in on trombone and trumpet, respectively. Bassist Paul Collins soon followed suit. Drummer Nick Petree came last, bringing the song and the audience to a crescendo.

Despite darker songs such as “The Akara,” “The Rip Tide” and “The Gulag Orkestar,” Beirut’s polka-inspired sound kept everyone on their feet, drawing it along like the tide. The biggest cheers came when Lanz and Resnick’s sweeping brass harmonies joined Condon’s flugelhorn to fill the room with an unforgettable atmospheric quality.

The entire set list was clearly thoughtfully selected. Their latest album, No No No, was released in September 2015. While overall it does not live up to the cinematic world sound of Beirut’s older discography, the new ones included in the set list (“Perth,” “Pacheco,” “No No No” and “So Allowed,” to name a few) merged seamlessly with the rest of the set and balanced out the grand backdrops of songs like “The Shrew.”

Typically a band of few words, the various technical difficulties that plagued the first third of the set led to a series of awkwardly funny jokes. While Condon was fiddling with his mic yet again, Lanz jumped in to comment on the band’s pre-show conversation.

“We had a conversation before going on stage about our first concerts that we weren’t dragged to, you know? Our manager won with Bananarama,” he said.

After crooning lyrics like “In a city where nobody hears / A bird’s call fine fine winter’s here again” and almost wailing the chorus, “He’s the only one who knows the words” to “The Peacock,” a heavier song, Condon immediately lifted the mood.

“That’s an old Mexican drinking song,” he said before he drank a huge swig of water.

“Nantes” was the surprise song of the evening. While already a slower, more contemplative song, it was stripped soothing yet operatic voice to engulf the audience with his words.

“And in a year, a year or so / this will slip into the sea / Well it’s been a long time, long time now / since I’ve seen you smile,” he sang in “Nantes.”

The evening ended with a four-part, powerhouse encore of “Cocek,” “The Gulag Orkestar,” “In the Mausoleum” and “The Flying Club Cup.” An instrumental cover of “Cocek” was a crowd-pleaser and showcased the individual talents of each band member.

With energetic solos from Lanz, Resnick and Arntz, the song completely revitalized the energy in the room, ultimately leaving the crowd cheering for a long time, hoping for another encore.

Beirut, a band that does not rely on slick guitar riffs or acrobatic drummers, managed to captivate the audience with their unique and unmistakable sound. After a three-year hiatus, Beirut has come back stronger than ever. Nine years after the band’s formation, Condon is still armed with his tiny ukelele, charming audiences around the globe.

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