The first of our collaborative pieces with the Wordless Music Series in NYC, guest writer John Melillo covers Beirut’s recent double gig as part of this brilliant series of concerts.
The Wordless Music Series is dedicated to a seemingly obvious but never-acted-upon truth: that the worlds of music we call “indie rock,” “classical,” “improvisational,” “jazz,” “electronic,” “folk,” etc. are not impenetrable, absolute, or self-contained. They do, in fact, intermingle and mix. Each installment of Wordless Music (a slight misnomer since words are allowed) brings this mix to life, and we get the chance to hear some wonderfully strange and amazing combinations without having to feel self-conscious or out-of-touch (or having to pay a ridiculous price). Even in organization, the shows are a blend: some sort of bastard child of Lincoln Center (programs!), your standard small venue, and your friend’s do-it-yourself basement show. There are no frills here: it’s all about the music.
It is perhaps for this reason that the series has attracted some of the most innovative acts out there, from Nels Cline to Andrew Bird to A Hawk and a Hacksaw to Explosions in the Sky to Amiina to Real Quiet to the Books to Do Make Say Think to… The latest band to add its name to this illustrious list is Beirut. Perhaps their friends from A Hawk and Hacksaw, who helped Zach Condon (the original whiz kid behind the band) get his start and who also perform on Beirut’s latest album (The Flying Club Cup, released this week in the U.S.), told them about it and they couldn’t wait, or perhaps they just wanted to play two New York shows before they embarked on an album-supporting world tour. Either way, we got the benefits.
The first show, on Thursday September 20, took place in Fort Greene, Brooklyn at the beautifully worn and majestic Brooklyn Masonic Temple (DIY, right? Who has shows at masonic temples but punk rockers and the neighborhood accordion band?). The elegantly decaying space was the perfect embodiment of the band’s sound: a mélange of melodic plenitude, folk instrumentation (particularly Eastern European folk), and gypsy carnival drums with a dash of amateurish naivete. Old world refinement and folksiness meets new world brashness and exuberance. After all, despite the fact that we want to imagine this band in a village folk festival and despite all those waltzes and acoustic instruments, they rock. Beirut attracts an audience not just through novelty but through good old-fashioned move-to-the-beat dance music.
Thursday night’s crowd—initially full of trepidation—stood up by the second song (with a little nudge from the band and a loud, dancing, drunken guy standing to the left of the stage) and proceeded to swirl and sway with the rolling rhythms of the pan-European popular music before them. In this setting particularly—small and intimate yet somehow spacious and encompassing—their music took on a life of its own: it wrapped around us in a warm, fuzzy embrace that—through the medium of Condon’s voice and melodies—still retained that necessary, beautiful melancholy. By comparison, their show in the much larger, open-air McCarren Park Pool a year ago seemed dispersed and lacking in energy. The band needs a small space for their lackadaisical yet affecting stage presence. They are what one might call a “loose” band—at one point they stopped a song to teach the accordion player the rhythm he forgot, only to stop the song again when the guitarist forgot the chord progression—but their looseness becomes an advantage through the intimacy of their demeanor, understated charisma (not just Zach, ladies), and great songs. This casual demeanor provides an invitation into the band’s world (“Welcome to Beirut rehearsal,” said Zach). After all, it all started as the bedroom musings of a teenager…
The youthful spirit of Beirut paired well with Fifth Veil, a group of students from the Bard Conservatory of Music who proved to be an excellent match. Also young, and perhaps a little surprised at what they had got themselves into, Fifth Veil bravely performed the The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind by Osvaldo Golijov. Conor Brown’s Klezmer style clarinet playing—the core of the piece—was intense and virtuosic, but the seductive harmonics from the string players gave the music its real character and provided a creeping sonic counterpoint to Condon’s vocals later in the evening. One could imagine these “empty” strings as a kind of photographic negative of his voice.
Beirut’s second show for Wordless (Monday, Sept.24), this time in Manhattan at the Society for Ethical Culture, was a bit different. The setting was just as beautiful (sans dilapidation), and the sound was perfect (as expected: this is the room where The Chamber Music Society at Lincoln Center performs while their usual hall is in disrepair). But the audience, bound by fixed pews rather than flimsy fold-up chairs, did not stand up to dance until the encore. Still, the show still had an amazing energy. The songs were clearer, more pristine, and tighter this time around; one could really hear the batch of new influences that are at work in Beirut’s new album. There are the familiar Eastern European traces, but these are now combined with strains of “classic” French popular song, in particular Francois Hardy, Charles Aznavour, and Jacques Brel.
In this more Apollonian setting, the two major strengths of their live show still came through: the band’s zany multi-instrumentalism and Zach Condon’s full voice. Ukuleles, mandolins, violins, acoustic guitars, an acoustic bass, an electric piano, a drastically reduced drum set, an accordion, and a multiplicity of trumpets and horns are variously strewn about the stage, to be picked up at any moment by almost anyone. Each song has a unique flavor of instrumentation, while at the same time retaining a very specific home-spun, do it yourself sound. The comparisons to Neutral Milk Hotel are founded in this sense, but at the same time, Condon’s voice is vastly different than Jeff Mangum’s. While Mangum’s voice was dry and nasal, Condon’s is probably the definition of mellifluous. It seems to contain a multiplicity of little Zachs within it. He’s a chorus all to himself, even when there are those moments—and there are many—when the band jumps into full-voiced sing-a-long mode. In particular, a new song “A Sunday Smile” lends itself to this kind of participatory excitement. The chorus melody invites everyone in, and many people attempted to sing along despite not knowing the songs’ lyrics. I kind of wished for a turn of the century music hall, where lyric sheets were handed out before the shows to encourage sing-a-long sweetness.
The need to sing probably stemmed from a build-up of energy ever since the opening half of the program. The first artist on the bill, Colleen, a French musician who plays the viola da gamba and looped electronics, was brilliant. In a pristine mix of simplicity and complexity, she would play gorgeous, stately lines and then loop them to create a contrapuntal wave of sound. Every now and then, she would add a tinkling set of wind chimes to her electronic loop-created canons. These are truly haunting, wind-swept, alien-baroque pieces.
Katya Mihailova and Colin Jacobsen (pianist and violinist, respectively) performed in a similar if more traditional vein. Katya played some Chopin and Scriabin, and then they combined forces to play the highlight of their part of the program: Arvo Part’s Fratres. If you haven’t heard this piece, find a way to listen to it. Repetitive, emotional, dramatic, spooky: it’s everything a fan of Beirut and rock music could want in new classical music. Really, it’s everything a fan of music in general would want. In the piece, Jacobsen used spine-tickling violin harmonics to great effect while Mihailova sometimes hammered, sometimes caressed the piano as the music moved between violent dissonance and whispering repose. After all this intensity, Beirut was a much-needed relief!
Photos: Brooklyn Masonic Temple courtesy of Diana Wong, Society for Ethical Culture courtesy of Kathryn Yu.