Beyond Beirut

The first noticeable difference was the crowd. The cold loft bar had only 30 people scattered about at Beirut's showcase at SXSW 2006. Last night, Emo's was full to capacity: 600 music fiends.

In March of '06, a shy, quiet-looking boy took the stage with a ukulele, backed by a haphazard band of musicians armed with standing organs, cellos and various percussion instruments. As Beirut started to play their Gypsy-Balkan tunes, I looked around to see the reaction of the crowd. There wasn't a crowd, and the few people there weren't playing close attention. I turned to watch Zach Condon, his voice resoundingly vibrant in the dank brick building piled with black sound equipment. I admit the ukuleles were a shock--the whole sound was a shock. But there was something dreamlike about it. Something wonderful ...

When Beirut finished their last song, the small audience applauded appropriately and a few fans came down to greet the band. I went up to chat with Zach and set up a time for an interview, being that Beirut was one of three Albuquerque bands playing a showcase that year. After friendly introductions, we set up an interview and parted ways. I had to know more about his musical desire, what had inspired him, why he played the music he did. The next night we met on the streets of Austin. We sat near a potted plant and talked about his life in New Mexico, why he moved to Brooklyn, why relatively few people knew about him in Albuquerque and his musical passion. It was a great interview, and I lost it into the digital abyss.

Now, a year later, I wish I had that interview on file. I stood among a vast and cheering crowd last night--a crowd chattering and calling for Beirut to take stage. From 30 to 600 in 365 days, and that doesn't count the line of people outside waiting to get into the jammed-to-capacity building. One in, one out--no exceptions.

In March of '07, a shy, quiet-looking man took stage with a ukulele, slurring slightly from celebrating his 21st birthday. "I'm going to play a song for you while we set this up," he said as the crowd erupted with cheers. He began to play and the monstrous flock was silenced. I looked to see the reaction of the crowd--all eyes were transfixed on Zach, every ounce of focus on him. His voice resoundingly vibrant in the vast room packed shoulder to shoulder, back to front with Beirut fans.

The group of musicians who joined him on stage were talented, professional and clearly as passionate about the music as Zach. The whole set felt more like a private garage session and Zach had invited every member of the audience personally. After a 20-minute indie-klezmerfest, Zach asked his friend in the crowd for requests, and they were quick to provide. "Elephant Gun," a guy screamed. "Scenic World," bellowed another. They played them both plus an ad hoc version of "Postcards to Italy" with the ukulele replaced by accordion (a crowd pleaser) then gracefully left the stage--the audience still calling for more. Zach lingered on stage a bit longer, looking around to the stage managers to try to glean a few minutes more, but to no avail. He waved again to the throng of fans and walked off stage.

Beirut has come a long way in one year, and their rise to success had me wondering how they would keep their luster as their Balkan-Gypsy sound loses it's novelty. Zach squashed my speculation with his tremendous stage presence and ability to improvise new twists into beloved songs. He is calm, approachable, humble and worldly talented. I predict the next Beirut album will be almost entirely in French and they'll be playing to a crowd of at least 800 in Austin 2008.