By 8:30, the Mercury Lounge crowd is unusually thick for a Monday night, littered with folks eagerly awaiting a glimpse of 20-year-old New Mexico transplant Zach Condon and his highly touted Beirut project. Blessed with hype most musicians would give both arms and possibly a leg to enjoy, he sets any nervous tension aside, quietly and calmly awaiting the start of only his second NYC gig, worrying only that someone might have the audacity to snatch his prized new ukulele.
No one dares, and soon Beirut— tonight a quartet of multitaskers who handle cello, accordion, violin, keys, mandolin, drums, guitar, and yes, ukulele over the course of the night—casually glide onstage and slide into a new song called “Carousel.” Much like the band’s recently issued debut, Gulag Orkestar (Ba Da Bing), the tune comes from an often rare perspective within the indie estate: a world of nomadic minstrels and itinerant horn ensembles in search of shelter.
Though far less ornate live than on record, Condon and his band still captivate the crowd, simplifying his deft horn charts and sweeping string arrangements, the percussion embellished with tambourines taped to every drum. The frontman alternates between plucking his brand-new Bushman Jenny uke and belting trumpet lines, holding the microphone tight when it comes time to simply sing in his gentle baritone. Word was that Beirut’s live debut at the Knitting Factory a few weeks earlier hadn’t fared so well—too many jitters, too few rehearsals, some unsympathetic acoustics. But here the five players march through the stomp and strum of “Brandenburg,” a violin tracing Condon’s melody as he lyrically circles the German Bundesländer. Because even as Beirut are increasingly beloved by the increasingly powerful world of Internet-powered indie rock, he still feels like the Gypsies he evokes.
“I don’t think there’s that much of an identity when it comes to being a Brooklynite,” Condon admits the next day while sipping coffee in Greenpoint’s McCarren Park. “We’re all transplants here. You come here where you’re just stuck in this mangy, tight little apartment, and you never feel settled.”
It certainly sounds odd on paper: A kid from the great American Southwest releases an album steeped in the brass bands of Eastern Europe and former Soviet bloc iconography, to near universal approval. Condon’s restless spirit probably helps. He fled the rigors of university studies to bum around Europe, and leapt at the chance when Ba Da Bing label head Ben Goldberg suggested he move to Greenpoint. “I was looking for any excuse to drop out of school and leave Albuquerque,” Condon admits. And in a New York landscape dotted with noise jammers and coolly postured post-anything fanaticism, Beirut’s unassuming pop songs meshed surprisingly well.
Musically, too, he’s a wanderer. Condon’s dad weaned him on jazz concerts and forced a guitar on him as a kid, an instrument Zach ditched in favor of the trumpet. He took a stab at imitating Stephin Merritt’s twee synthpop with a secondhand keyboard he bought off electronic-music pioneer Morton Subotnick. He even flirted with Tropicália, conceding that Beirut’s gulag meditations might’ve been favela songs inspired by Caetano Veloso had he started writing just a few months earlier.
Although first exposed to the Balkan brass sound via Sarajevo-born director Emir Kusturica’s ’90s films Underground and Black Cat, White Cat
, Condon didn’t fully steep himself in the sound until he landed in Europe himself. A self-proclaimed terrible student, he still quickly absorbed the sounds of Serbian trumpeter Boban Markovic’s Orkestar and the Romanian group Taraf de Haïdouks, and soon found himself crafting his own version of those stunning ensembles. Lyrically, Condon shied away from raw confessionals. “I was just so fascinated with writing songs that writing lyrics was almost a chore on top of that,” he says. “It was more characters than anything else.”
After months of home recording back in the States, by chance Condon shared an Albuquerque bill with A Hawk and a Hacksaw, the latest incarnation of former Neutral Milk Hotel contributor Jeremy Barnes. Soon thereafter, Barnes both introduced Condon to his future label and supplied percussion and accordion on several Gulag Orkestar tracks.
But despite the intriguing backstory, few could’ve predicted Gulag Orkestar‘s joyous reception, weeks before its official release. First came a trickle of blog shoutouts, with random writers giving nods to the winsome “Postcards From Italy,” a tale of love and death that matches a spare ukulele melody with martial drums and forlorn trumpet lines, all held together by Condon’s resilient croon. As the cavalcade of cheers intensified, different songs were leaked, from the dour, accordion-drenched album centerpiece “Mount Wroclai (Idle Days)” to the gorgeously spare ukulele-and-horn ballad “The Canals of Our City.” The hum of eager discussion soon grew into a monstrous roar, but while still thankful for the praise, Condon views it as a mixed blessing.
“It’s amazing—I don’t think I’d be here right now if it wasn’t for all this random attention,” he admits softly as he drags on a bummed cigarette. “But you don’t build so much as you just explode.” He’s also not particularly keen on the constant mention of his relatively young age; to his credit, he comes across not as a nervy, barely post-teen, but rather a calm and confident old hand whose weary voice reflects years of seeming experience, assured but never cocky.
Back at the Mercury, Condon announces that “Closing Song” will, indeed, be Beirut’s last tune, and the sold-out crowd—which will thin noticeably for the Sunset Rubdown and Frog Eyes sets that follow—cries out with disapproval. As he retires his trumpet for the evening, it’s obvious the crowd could’ve easily stood stock-still and absorbed much more. Almost as if, for a few moments, a group of drifters found a home in Zach Condon’s music as well.
Beirut play Joe’s Pub with the Wiyos Thursday, June 8, at 7, $15, joespub.com.