Saturday night saw me take a trip into the heart of darkest Camden. Oh the horror, the horror. That Village Of The Damned where every spindly youth looks like they’re in the Klaxons. Making my own anti-fashion statement, I pulled on a stripey pullover from the Sainsbury’s Tu range and headed into town. There’s always a bit of inertia to overcome making the trip at weekends when you have a daily commute to the centre, but the lure of a Beirut show would have me rising like Lazarus from my deathbed. I’d been left spellbound after a Festival Hall coffee bar freebie in June between their gigs at Glastonbury and Koko – quite literally rubbing shoulders with the band as they meandered through the audience (and in the bogs afterward, but that’s another story). I was keen to see how a more formal show would shape up – though ‘formal’ is not the sort of word you’d ever use to label this bunch of multi-talented ragamuffins. It turned out I could be ideally qualified to act as a personal shopper for Beirut, and was I the only one to recognise Zach’s initial and fleeting skanky parka homage to Feargal Sharkey circa ’79? Only (mainly) violinist Kristin Ferebee would pose a problem. She looks like a bit of a Miss Selfridge girl – looking prim and proper amongst the rabble. But enough of the Trinny and Susannah. Let’s rewind and refocus.
The Twilight Sad were the advertised support, with additional ‘special guests’, so I made a point of being early, and at around 7:30 the Scots mood-meisters took to the stage – leaving me wondering quite who had usurped their spot. They’re quite a hit with the big cheeses at TLOBF, but this was a first listen for me. Remarkably, and probably uniquely in my experience, for a loud indie rock band in a support slot they succeeded in delivering a forceful wall of sound without teetering over into self-defeating distortion. The Twilight Sad have a no-nonsense set-up live, with tortured singer James Graham writhing in front of a small drum kit (major fan – it’s not how big it is, it’s how you whack it) flanked by single guitar and bass. Graham had a smouldering intensity and passing physical resemblance to Ian Curtis on stage, but it was the drummer who was happy to hog the sole spotlight – providing visual as well as aural focus with his pounding rhythms. This lighting did defeat my haphazard (no flash) attempts to capture a decent whole band photo. Both guitarists seemed reluctant to make an emotional connection with the audience – concentrating on the job in hand, but hardly giving any hint of enjoying themselves. A support band should be grabbing their chance to win new fans; opening up a bit to draw the crowd to them. Their album (Fourteen Autumns and Fifteen Winters) has more subtlety and variation in tone, but live The Twilight Sad deliberately go for a more visceral approach. Even through a teenage grounding in Bill Forsyth films I was left grasping to salvage some of the heavily accented lyrics from the cacophony, but there was a thrill in the sound of “And She Would Darken The Memory” and “Talking With Fireworks/Here It Never Snowed”, especially, that got the evening rolling nicely. The overtly angsty quiet/loud genre is not normally my thing, but here was a genuine passion, an immediacy, and a vague wispy Scots pathos for depth. Streets ahead of bands like the lauded Interpol for me (to pluck one name out of the air from what I perceive as that genre). As young Gregory would say, “Bella, bella”.
So, waiting a further 20 minutes with well exercised if not quite bleeding eardrums, the ‘special guests’ were revealed: East London based Tunng. By now the Roundhouse was largely full, and they were visibly delighted to get this chance after a recent support slot “playing to 15 people in Toronto”. A Beirut audience seemed ideal – more than willing to accommodate their acoustic (3 guitars) and eclectic trippy folk electronica. All three male guitarists blended warm vocal harmonies and were joined by Becky Jacobs – who also had a nice sideline in everything from tweeting toy birds to a variety of organic percussive decoration – in addition to a full time percussionist (NOT drummer). And lurking in the background was soundscape/sampling/loop wizard Phil Winter – giving them their particular hybrid style: Pentangle meets Big Audio Dynamite’s Don Letts perhaps. The uplifting, bouncy, somehow old-time gentle knees-up glow of “Bullets” had the hall rippling gently. I was smitten. “Bricks” maintained the atmosphere as a palpable good time vibe resonated and amplified back and forth between band and crowd. The tongue in cheek lyrical wonder that is “Soup” raised a laugh, and “Jenny Again” also hit the sweet spot. The enduring memory is of smiles, delicately intertwined guitars and gorgeous harmonies. What more do you want? If the crowd had got its way there would even have been an encore. I for one might just get along to 93 Feet East in December for a bit of a pre-Christmas party.
And the main course was still to come after these tasty appetisers. Beirut had the adoring masses at Zach Condon’s shy baritone “Hello”. Somehow the walls closed in and the event became even more intimate – think the Paris Olympia theatre ’64 with the vigour of a sweaty rubber-mouthed Jacques Brel replaced with the collective lusty drive of the Beirut crew. What I love about them is the amount of off mic singing, percussion and general involvement – which has totally no impact on the sound but adds incalculably to the performance as the members of the band put their heart and soul into loosing themselves in the moment. Paul Collins especially can rattle a tambourine with the fervour of a Pentecostal snake-handler. Almost every song was greeted with a cheer of recognition, a sway of dancing, and a singing of the swelling chorus line.
There’s a certain amount of recycling of tunes and lyrics with “The Penalty” and “Nantes” from The Flying Club Cup, but such is Beirut’s spontaneity and finely honed sloppiness they could play exactly the same song over and over again for an hour and there would be enough variation to keep me happy. Especially wondrous was “After The Curtain”: considerably beefed-up compared to the album version – with pulsating electric organ and Nick Petree’s manic Duracell drumming. It was a shame that he spent most of the show hidden from me by a cymbal and Condon’s big fat arse. It’s a delight to watch his straight-backed marching band style – simple but effective; and with those taut shoulders he’d be a sure fire winner for the foxtrot on Strictly Come Dancing – just a suggestion Nick in case the main career goes tits up.
Meanwhile up front we were treated to massed mandolin/ukulele or brass assaults in the best line abreast attacks seen since Steely Dan were “Reelin’ In The Years”. That glorious piercing brass has a touch more of the Franco-Pyrenean toreador than the Transylvanian on the tracks from their latest album, but they did include one traditional Balkan shuffling chant, and it seemed that tunes from Gulag Orkestar and the subsequent EPs had predominated in the set list. The haphazard swapping of instruments and all-round on-stage revelry was only interrupted by the traditional charade of the pre-encore departure. Appetites still not slated, the audience begged for a second encore, prepared to risk the fate of Mr. Creosote for a further wafer thin slice of Beirut goodness. But it was not to be – and that’s about the only criticism I can make.
A final note to the Roundhouse staff: if Saturday was any indication of the normal exit procedures; then if there’s ever a fire in the building you’ll be shovelling charred bodies out for a week. The tedious departure led to two final incidents – an overheard conversation from a Kate Moss wannabe whining “They’re not from Eastern Europe. Why do they sing songs from Eastern Europe?” and much more pleasingly, a wobbly version of the chorus from “Elephant Gun” continuing to emanate from the bar area. And if I had met my end in a fiery inferno, at least I would have died happy after a night of being royally entertained by those top troubadours Beirut and a bargain triple bill.