Zach Condon is a 21-year-old American from Santa Fe who was turned on to Balkan music by Emir Kusturica films, spent a while bumming around Europe and returned to make an album under the pseudonym Beirut that makes a shotgun wedding between US indie-pop and the Gypsy rhythms of south-eastern Europe.
This odd alliance comes off surprisingly well on his widely praised album The Gulag Orkestar. Trumpets blare, accordions wheeze, ukuleles chirp and Condon croons and ululates in the manner of a Romany Rufus Wainwright or a Serbian Sufjan Stevens. So what if it’s as authentic as hamburger and fries in Bucharest? It tastes alright, and that’s what matters.
The Beirut live experience, however, leaves something to be desired. Here, Condon’s inauthenticity conspired against him. Balkan music is wild, impassioned: it is music to get married or buried to. But fresh-faced Condon resembled a preppy New England college student. His idea of danger was to joke about leaving his shoelace untied until the end of the show – and he even reneged on that three songs later. This take on Balkan pop, one suspected, was not going to trouble the health and safety officers.
Backed by a competent but unexciting band, he began diffidently. His vocals lacked depth or timbre; the songs aspired to a sort of rollicking grandeur, but failed. Condon’s trumpet solos, an occasional brassy blast of freedom, were the only respite from an otherwise plodding tempo.
“Postcards from Italy”, midway through his hour-long set, lifted the mood. A charming blend of ukulele and plangent horns, it was the first song to come alive. It seemed to give the band confidence, and the latter half of the show picked up. But the damage had been done. On record, Beirut’s fantasy of Balkan music is a successful conjuring trick. Live, the illusion disintegrated.
Tour continues at Trabendo, Paris on July 3 and Postbahnhof, Berlin on July 5