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March 24, 2008 | by  | in Music |
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Beirut, San Francisco Bathhouse, Sunday 16th March

At about 9.20pm on Sunday night I rounded the corner of Vivian and Cuba and heard a beautiful thing – Zach Condon’s strident, unmistakable voice wafting out of the San Fran balcony and down the street. I uttered expletives of various kinds and broke into a run. There were a few concerned stares from passers by.

In Wellington, land of the 10pm headline spot, Beirut’s 9pm start was a little unexpected, but I guess it was a Sunday. Totally missing the opening band (I heard they were pretty good), I wandered in during ‘Mount Wroclai’, one of the sweeter songs from Gulag Orkestar. The San Fran was as packed as I’ve ever seen it.

The sheer energy of Beirut, the 8-piece Balkan folk group led with aplomb by young ‘un Zach Condon, is overwhelming. Condon is magnificent onstage; focused, passionate, and sincere, he channels his love of foreign traditional music and French pop with an ear for melody and form that has made him the talk of the town as of late. His band is fantastic, too. And loud. Featuring upright bass, violin, keys, xylophone, drums, moustache, acoustic guitar, a handful of ukuleles, and a plethora of horns, Beirut have a full, intoxicating sound.

The audience had already reached fever pitch by the time I arrived, and things only escalated with the performance of the single-worthy ‘Elephant Gun’. Just as the band took up their ukuleles, someone yelled out ‘ukes not nukes!’ Needless to say, the band was visibly chuffed. Another top moment of the show was the extended horn passage of ‘Postcards From Italy’, a bittersweet traditional Balkan melody made all the more affecting by the sheer bombast of the band’s performance.

The band left the stage after a rousing performance of ‘Carousels’, and came back for an encore featuring the joyful ‘Scenic World’ and ‘Siki Siki Baba’, an infectious traditional number featuring furious trumpet melodies and a crashing drum breakdown. They then left the stage again, but the crowd wasn’t satisfied. After a few minutes of applause, a bemused Condon emerged back onstage and took up his ukulele – “I don’t really know this song, so you’ll have to help. I was actually just in the bathroom when I was informed that you wanted another one.” He then launched into a heartfelt cover of ‘Hallelujah’, a fitting goodbye gift for the devoted crowd.

Beirut’s show was astounding, and left the crowd visibly glowing. It was the kind of performance where you want to approach complete strangers at the bar afterwards and just congratulate them on being there and witnessing such a wondrous spectacle.

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