For a time, Zach Condon was Beirut. The 19-year-old, raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, was struck with atypical fondness for the gypsy brass bands of Eastern Europe. He recorded an album, ‘Gulag Orkestar’, with the occasional assistance of a few friends and thanks to some internet admirers was soon being lauded far and wide.

A sizeable crowd showed up on a chilly Thursday evening to see him and a newly acquired band run through the album and a cover or two.

First, their soundman performed. Kevin Micka is also known as Animal Hospital, and uses a variety of pedals, a couple of looping and sampling stations, a guitar and a drum kit to produce some shuddering post rock. He played a pair of songs, and then got around to the task of miking Beirut.
This is a tricky task; thanks to the preponderance of acoustic instruments. Or as Condon put it: “Feedback is a part of our show.”

To kick things off, Condon and co. marched through the audience, banging drums, shaking tambourines and tooting away on brass.

One could think of Beirut as the new wave answer to Gogol Bordello’s punk rock gypsy music. Condon’s vocal similarities to Morrissey are not as marked live as they are on record (perhaps because experience has tempered a tendency to melodrama), but they’re there. Condon has also admitted an admiration for Stephen Merritt. His musicians also vary their instrumentation. Perrin Cloutier switches between cello and accordion; Jon Natchez trades his baritone sax for xylophone or mandolin ; Paul Collins plays organ in addition to trumpet and likewise guitarist Jason Poranski occasionally shakes a tambourine or bangs a drum. Even Kelly Pratt swayed between a series of horns, leaving drummer Nick Petree and violinist Kristin Ferbee to stick with their respective fortes. And then there are the ukuleles.

All this musical firepower lends itself to comparisons with groups like Reverend Glasseye, but, where the Reverend has a sort of carnivalesque bluster, Beirut is more melancholic – a mood to which Condon’s rich vocals are well-suited, as on their cover of Goran Bregovic’s ‘Ederlezi’.

The sad music aside, the show was given an ebullient air by Paul Collins’ bouncy behaviour and onstage banter, and the rest of the group seemed somewhat giddy, due both to the warm reception and liquid refreshment.

Covers of tunes like Ary Barroso’s ‘Aquarela do Brazil’ also propelled the happy mood.

The crowd was extraordinarily enthusiastic; “that’s the only time in recorded history anyone’s cheered for another ukulele song” Collins noted after one particularly outsized response.

The show was capped not with the usual encore ritual - “We’d go to our dressing room, but the way is blocked” – so the band instead sashayed into the audience with drums and brass for a rousing finale of the Kocani Orkestar’s ‘Siki Siki Baba’.

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Commenting On: Zaphod Beeblebrox, Ottawa, 5/10/2006 - Beirut and Animal Hospital

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