Experimental octet brings Balkan music to Hollywood

By Daniel Ucko

As the curtains rolled up for the main event last Thursday at
The Avalon in Hollywood, Zach Condon, lead singer and mastermind
behind indie-folk group Beirut, took center stage armed with two
powerful weapons: a ukulele and an astounding voice.

In a guitar-driven world of rock music, the Eastern
European-inspired sounds of Beirut stand high above the rest.

Aside from ukuleles, the eight-piece ensemble alternated among
at least nine other instruments throughout the evening, including
mandolins, horns, an accordion, a glockenspiel, violin, piano,
cello, nylon string guitars and an unconventional drum kit.

The octet set the pace using almost all acoustic instruments for
an evening filled with some of the most beautiful sounds Hollywood
has heard in some time.

Standing alone on stage, Condon opened the set solo, just him
and his black ukulele.

The singer’s deep, melodic bellow floated above the simple,
summery sound of the ukulele as he launched into “The Penalty,” a
new track from Beirut’s Oct. 9 release “The Flying Club Cup,” from
Ba Da Bing Records.

Shortly after Condon started the song, six men and one woman
walked on stage and took control of the various instruments,
turning one man’s sound into that of an entire Balkan
orchestra.

Condon, barely 21 himself, crooned to a crowd filled with
hippies and hipsters, most of whomlooked less than the legal
drinking age, but plenty old to ditch the parents.

A large group of friends in the front right corner of the
two-story venue helped enthuse the rigid audience by singing and
dancing to the music’s swaying rhythms.

The circular gypsy-like dancing grew throughout the evening,
sometimes turning into stomping and clapping loud enough to serve
as another instrument.

For a brief period, no one was too cool; the venue felt like the
days of hippie communes in Golden Gate Park, when music truly
brought people together to let loose and have a good time.

Fans sounded most pleased with ukulele-driven singles “Postcards
from Italy” and “Elephant Gun,” from Beirut’s first album “Gulag
Orkestar” and the 2006 EP “Lon Gsland,” respectively.

Beirut’s story stems from vocalist Condon, an unassuming
presence on stage, who was a straight-A student until he dropped
out of high school at age 16 to travel to Europe.

Partying and cavorting with the locals wherever he went, it was
on one of these drunken nights when he heard Balkan gypsy music

blasting from an apartment above.

Intrigued, Condon went to see what he was hearing and ended up
spending the entire night going through Serbian albums note for
note.

“Gulag Orkestar,” Condon’s first album under the name Beirut, is
said to be a direct result of that night.

Condon recorded the album almost entirely on his own using a
computer in his Albuquerque home, before seeking studio-recorded
drums.

Thursday marked Beirut’s second show in a row at The Avalon and
the last leg of their American tour.

To pull off the sound of an entire Balkan orchestra, Condon
enlists his own personal orchestra.

The current lineup features Nicholas Petree, Perrin Cloutier,
Jason Poranski, Paul Collins, Jon Natcez, Kristin Ferebee, Kelly
Pratt, Tracy Pratt and Heather Trost, who also help to complete
Beirut’s sound in the studio.

The only complaint would be that Beirut tackled their set almost
too flawlessly. There was little room left for the additional solos
and improvisations that can make recorded bands more entertaining
live.

All things considered, the combination of so many unusual
instruments paired with Condon’s sweet croon more than made up for
the lack of experimentation.

Both evening openers Alaska in Winter and Colleen were long
forgotten come 11:30 p.m., when the audience could not stop
cheering after Beirut closed with the four-horned epic title track
from “Gulag Orkestar.”.

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