Photography by Laura Knapp
In the realm of indie music, the ukulele might be the most vilified instrument. How many times have we collectively scoffed as it’s used to churn out twee nonsense better suited as background music for commercials? But making an argument for the instrument is Beirut’s founding member and band leader, Zach Condon, who uses the ukulele as a vital component of his music.
Maybe that’s because Beirut aren’t your typical indie band. Nine years into their lifespan, their heady blend of world music, Balkan-inspired folk, baroque pop, and indie sensibilities has yet to be replicated. They provide a necessary counterpoint to the thousands of guitar-driven bands and make a great entry point into world music for curious indie fans.
Beirut stand on their own with enough of a fanbase in Boston to sell out both the 2,000-capacity House of Blues and the 1,000-cap Paradise Rock Club on back to back nights. Even at sold-out shows, I have rarely seen the House of Blues this packed, with attendees corralled into the balcony’s standing areas.
While Beirut started out as Condon’s bedroom recording project, live, he is joined by musicians that have been with him since the band’s very first tour. A proven multi-instrumentalist, Condon was front and center on stage within arms’ reach of a ukulele, flugelhorn, and Moog synthesizer, switching between them in an impressive feat of multitasking. Drummer Nick Petree and bassist Paul Collins provided the necessary shuffling rhythm that propelled most of the songs, while Aaron Arntz switched between piano, synth, and accordion. Rounding out the horn section on trombone and trumpet, respectively, Ben Lanz and Kyle Resnick joined Condon at the front of the stage and provided some inspired moments of triumphant fanfare.
Despite some of Condon’s darker lyrics, the general mood in the room was upbeat and positive — it’s hard not to be with such a brilliant horn section and those danceable, polka-inspired rhythms. Openers “Scenic World” and “Elephant Gun” immediately set the tone and inspired huge bouts of cheers. The biggest reactions were saved for the moments when Lanz and Resnick joined Condon’s flugelhorn and swept everyone away with exhilarating harmonies.
For the most part, though, Condon stuck to his ukulele. There is a honest appeal in his use of the ukulele as it is such an essential ingredient to Beirut’s sound. As someone who grew up in Hawaii and picked up the ukulele as my first instrument, it’s great to see him do the tiny four-stringer the justice it deserves. After playing huge festival shows and headlining storied venues like Radio City Music Hall, Condon has probably shown the ukulele some of the largest audiences it’s ever seen. One of the best aspects of Beirut’s music is that Zach and co. take instruments that are usually perceived as novelties in indie and bring them to the forefront.
Though the new tunes may not be completely up to par with the rest of Beirut’s discography, they did benefit from an energetic and powerful live push. Lead single “No No No” got an enthusiastic reception and the rest of the newer songs blended in nicely.
While the band weren’t much for talking, an opportune silence allowed someone to yell out, “Zach Condon, you’re the fucking man!” A blushing Condon responded with a bow and a “thanks, let’s continue shall we?” “Postcards From Italy” and “Nantes” followed, garnering huge cheers thanks to some assistance from a slowly rotating disco ball.
An unexpected highlight came in the form of slow burner “The Riptide” pulled from the underrated album of the same name. Solemn keyboards gently rested against shuffling drums while Zach, Lanz, and Resnick provided a soaring three-part vocal harmony. Melodic horns somberly brought the song to its conclusion.
After a killer four-part encore of “Pacheco”, “The Gulag Orkestar”, “In The Mausoleum”, and “The Flying Cup Club”, Condon proclaimed a simple, “We love you! Thanks!” and casually left the stage. Condon and Beirut are not a flashy band and they don’t need to rely on any live gimmicks; their unique sound is captivating enough to leave an audience lusting for more.
No No No
Postcards From Italy
The Rip Tide
My Night with the Prostitute from Marseille
Serbian Cocek (A Hawk and a Hacksaw cover)
After the Curtain
The Gulag Orkestar
In the Mausoleum
The Flying Club Cup